Which languages spread information more efficiently?

Determining the influence of a language

Everyone might have noticed that English is the most widely spoken language. That’s why information in English is more likely to spread quicker and reach more people.  Shahar Ronen recently conducted a study and his method which helped to easily identify the most influential languages that can be used to disseminate information around the world.

Shahar Ronen wanted to measure the global influence of a language by using different factors, instead of using the wealth and the population of its speakers as a factor. He focused on “who spoke the language” and what their connections to other people are. That is because the wealth and the population of a certain language’s speakers impact the local influence of the language rather than its global influence, although they are an approximating factor in global rankings.

To prove the superiority of his proposed factors, he used the example of the Latin language in Medieval Europe. Latin was the language of scholars, teachers, literature, science and the Catholic Church, despite the fact that Latin was not  a native language of any of the European countries at the time. Being a language used by elites to exchange ideas and communicate, Latin became a global language in Medieval Europe having gained such influence.

Ronen’s method

To determine the global influence of a language, Ronen identified global languages as languages that connect international elites, by mapping their networks of multilingual co-expressions. Book translations, multilingual edits in Wikipedia and Tweets in multiple languages are multilingual co-expressions used in this study.

Book Translations

A total of 2.2 million book translations were looked, and each translation formed a connection or a link between languages.

Wikipedia edits

The users  who made edits to articles on Wikipedia (experts on that particular field) in more than one language were counted in, and the connections were formed in this way.

Tweets

Similarly, two languages formed a connection when a user was seen posting in those two particular languages.

In his study posted in http://www.pnas.org/, Ronen used this example to explain how languages are connected, and how some languages can act as indirect connections to a specific language, in most cases to English language:

For example, it is easy for an idea conceived by a Spaniard to reach an Englishman through bilingual speakers of English and Spanish. An idea conceived by a Vietnamese speaker, however, might only reach a Mapudungun speaker in south-central Chile through a circuitous path that connects bilingual speakers of Vietnamese and English, English and Spanish, and Spanish and Mapudungun.”

Two languages need an indirect connection, or an intermediary, when the direct connection is not possible due to the lack of speakers of both those two languages. In this case Spanish and Mapudungun are the indirect connections between Vietnamese and English, because of the lack of people who speak both Vietnamese and English.

The higher the number of connections to a language, the more influential the language is. So, higher influential languages in the global language network should affect the visibility of information among the speakers of different languages. Global languages are said to be those with the highest number of connections, consequently those with the most influence in the global language network. Some languages don’t have any connection with some particular languages at all. They are said to be isolated languages. A lot of languages went extinct due to their isolation from other languages, and modern languages took their place.

What does this study tell us?

In this study English resulted as the most influential language in the world, since it had the highest number of connections and had connections with the most number of languages, therefore it took a central position in the map of the global language network. Surprisingly, Spanish language came second, leaving behind the likes of German, Mandarin, Russian, Arabic, Hindu and French. Russian turned out to be quite isolated since it had no connections with many languages. Russian language took a parallel central position in book translations, but the results from Twitter and Wikipedia suggested that Russian is not such a popular language among non-Russian native speakers.

Since English and Spanish turned out to be the most influential languages, a person who speaks both of them, automatically have more access to information. Access to information is key for being successful in life, and it also characterizes most developed societies. One of the main goals of all nations is to have a well informed population, in order to be as competitive as possible with other countries.

The best languages to speak?

Visualization of Ronen’s study result

Since multilingualism seems to be a massive contributor in being able to access more information, never stop learning at least one other language beside your native one. For non-English speakers, the choice of English as second or third language is an obvious one. For English speakers, the study suggests it would be more advantageous to choose Spanish over Mandarin. As an English speaker, the obvious choice for learning a second language should be the likes Spanish, German or French, as most influential languages, instead of Hindu or Mandarin. But obviously, the more languages you speak the better.

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