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About those immigrating languages that ‘nobody speaks’

It’s been understood for some time that there is no limit on the fearmongering Donald Trump will deploy when it comes to the U.S.-Mexico border. His 2015 speech announcing his presidential candidacy came out of the gates with claims about criminals and rapists crossing into the United States; it only got more demagogic from there.

Even with that baseline, though, one of Trump’s recent warnings was remarkable.

“Everybody I speak to says how horrible it is,” he said during an event at the border on Thursday. “Nobody [can] explain to me how allowing millions of people from places unknown, from countries unknown, who don’t speak languages — we have languages coming into our country, we have nobody that even speaks those languages. They are truly foreign languages. Nobody speaks them.”

Sigh. Okay.

Before we get into this, let’s stipulate that this assertion falls into that blurry area where so much of Trump’s rhetoric sits. He and his supporters laugh at this sort of thing as just being hyperbole. Trump’s being Trump! He pushes boundaries! So on and so forth! But some people won’t understand any overstatement that’s intended. Some people will hear, “The foreigners who are coming are really foreign.”

Trump, as always, is hoping to appeal to both of those groups.

We should also stipulate that this doesn’t make any sense from a logical standpoint: It cannot be the case both that someone speaks a language and that no one speaks that language. And we’ll stipulate that applying the sobering effects of reality to Trump’s hopped-up rhetoric is also part of his point, to make the media look like joyless cretins who overanalyze things. Again: stipulated.

But, as is also often the case, there is an interesting lesson to be derived from Trump’s lackadaisical consideration of the world. In this case: What particularly unusual languages might be arriving in the United States by way of new immigrants?

The CIA, for all of its controversial and dubious elements, maintains various databases of information about foreign countries. One of those is an overview of the spoken languages in more than 220 places around the globe.

We learn that in Canada, for example, most people speak English, one of the country’s two official languages. About 3 in 10 speak French, the other official language — meaning that at least 16 percent of the country speaks both. But there are other common languages, too: Chinese (4 percent), Spanish (3 percent), Punjabi (3 percent), Arabic (2 percent), Tagalog (2 percent) and Italian (2 percent).

Canada has a higher percentage of English speakers than the United States has of people who speak only the language, according to the CIA. The CIA was unable to break out the less-common languages spoken in the United States, simply offering that about 7 percent of the population speaks something other than English or Spanish. This is undoubtedly because the CIA is prohibited from spying on Americans. (This is a joke, and not a joke-that’s-actually-trying-to-make-a-political-statement in the Trumpian manner.)

This breakdown of languages by country means that a lot of obscure languages are identified. I did not know that about 2 percent of residents of Tokelau spoke Kiribati or that 1.4 percent of people in Timor-Leste spoke Naueti. Perhaps you did.

It is certainly possible that speakers of one of these less common languages might have come to the border with Mexico to seek entry to the United States. Mexico’s language mix is identified by the CIA as including “various Mayan, Nahuatl, and other regional languages.” But it is also true that fewer people speak less frequently spoken languages. Therefore, those people are less likely to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border.

If they did so, though, there seem to be good odds that someone within the federal government (much less the broader population) would be able to understand what they’re saying.

The State Department has a division of translators who, “assisted by a corps of vetted contractors, offer their services in some 140 language combinations.” You can email them for help translating! Perhaps the Border Patrol is already familiar with this service.

The CIA, meanwhile, has an incentive program to encourage people who speak particular languages to work with them. If you speak Baluchi (spoken in Oman) or Ewe (Togo and Ghana) or Lingala (both Democratic Republic of Congo and Republic of Congo), ping your local CIA recruiter. There’s cash in it for you.

Speaking of Congo, Trump has recently more than once suggested that Congolese migrants have been encountered at the border.

“They interviewed some people last night,” he told Fox News host Laura Ingraham in an interview last month. “‘Where are you from?’ ‘Congo.’ ‘Where did you live?’ ‘Prison.’”

He’d told the same anecdote a few days prior in Michigan, so the “last night” part of that is obviously wrong. There’s also been no such interview that’s aired on cable news in recent weeks, it seems, just Trump telling this story — this story that very conveniently comports with Trump’s past rhetoric about criminality and people coming to the United States from Africa.

But perhaps it’s true. Maybe some Congolese immigrants came to the border and maybe they only spoke Lingala.

If that’s the case, though, good news: Someone was able to translate their admissions about their point of origin. Perhaps, given that he’s the only person who seems to be familiar with their story, this expert in the language is none other than Trump himself.

There we go treating the presidential candidate’s rhetoric seriously again.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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