Saturday, October 16, 2010

If your first language is Klingon, you probably also speak English.

I've always heard that the best way to learn a new language is by total immersion, so I didn't bother learning too much Portuguese before I moved to Rio de Janeiro about 10 days ago. Aside from having a dissertation to write before I left  (which I figured deserved the bulk of my effort... and sadly stole some  all of my bloggy time from me) I figured that just showing up in Brazil with one Portuguese course under my belt ought to be enough to get me up to speed pretty quickly. I imagined myself arriving in an exotic paradise, armed with a three year old's level of knowledge of the native language (and wit and charm galore), and smoothly transitioning into a carioca without being bailed out by anyone speaking English. Ever. I would of course also have an adorably irresistible accent.

This is only one of many fantasies I had about my life in Brazil that has not come to fruition... one of the other notable ones involves the inverse relationship between my desire to see any given Brazilian guy in his tiny little man-bikini-bottom and the probability that he will actually wear said swimming apparatus. Whenever I try to actually forge ahead with the Portuguese on a task like asking directions, which I can totally handle without help, thank you, the person I'm asking smiles amusedly at me and answers in English. However, when it comes to navigating Brazil's soul-crushingly burdensome bureaucracy or trying to set up an account with the Internet company, no one can help me. (Seriously, can someone help me get Internet in my apartment?)

Anyway, when my mom was here, she was stunned by how few people speak English. She commented that it is not like Holland, where it seems like just about everyone speaks English.  Having spent more than the 24 hour act-like-a-mature-adult-limit with my mom, I of course regressed to 14 year old me. "Duh, mom, of course they don't. _sigh_ Tons of people speak Portuguese, and hardly anyone speaks Dutch. If the Dutch didn't learn English, the only people they would be able to communicate with would be... the Dutch... and what good is that?" She didn't buy it, so I was forced to make some plots.

My point, I guess, revolved around the fact that it is not very practical to only be able to communicate with a very small community. So, if the community of people with whom you can communicate is large already, you'd be less likely to learn another language. (Go with this for a second, and assume that the chosen language would be English.) If you share your first language with relatively few people, you'd be more likely to learn English.

So, I snagged some data from Wikipedia (<3 you, W!), and I compare the the proportion of people in each country who speak English to the total estimated number of people world-wide who speak each country's official language. For reasons of laziness and ignorance about which languages are most used in every country, if more than one language was listed, I took the first. I also removed the countries that had English listed as an official language. The result of forcing several by-country lists  into one table and keeping only those countries that had all of the necessary data available was a table of 23 countries.

So, to be fair, having seen this I actually want to back-peddle a little bit. While there does seem to be a trend*, it looks like a spatial model or just taking continents (or even the wealth of each country) into account might explain some of this-- notice that Europe is mostly above the line and, darn you, Latin America,  is mostly below the line.

Point being, if you want to go on vacation in a place where you won't have many communication barriers, go to Iceland.** :)

*Yes, statisticians friends,  I do realize that fitting a line to data that only goes between 0 and 1 is not the best thing anyone has ever done... I have a super budget version of a logistic  regression fit to this also if this offends your statistical sensibilities too much.

** Not one of the countries in the plot. I'm just guessing.

1 comment:

  1. Sad, your removal of countries with English as a language removed Canada, which would have been an interesting outlier on the graph.