Many of most-spoken languages in the world — like Mandarin, Hindi, and Arabic — are far from being the most influential.
As new MIT-led research suggests, those languages live in relative isolation, while a few tiny tongues are hugely influential.
“A language like Dutch — spoken by 27 million people — can be a disproportionately large conduit, compared with a language like Arabic, which has a whopping 530 million native and second-language speakers,” Science reports. “This is because the Dutch are very multilingual and very online.”
To find out which languages are the most influential around the world, MIT researcher Shahar Ronen and his team tracked book translations, multiple language editions of Wikipedia, and multilingual Twitter users to see how languages interact with one another. The below graphs show the connections different languages have with one another through these online platforms, forming what the authors call “Global Language Networks.”
Here are the charts:
Of course, this is an elite sample — most people don’t have internet access — but these charts are a measure of influence, not population.
As you can see from the below graphics, some languages — namely, English — act as a hub for the world. And others like French, German, and Spanish serve as the hubs of other language families.
There are a few takeaways here. If you want your kids to be able to interact with large swathes of the world, teach them Spanish. But if you want them to be able to correspond with a more secluded group, go for Chinese.
This analysis sheds light on political dynamics as well.
As the authors argue in their conclusion:
Although languages such as Chinese, Arabic, and Hindi are immensely popular, we document an important sense in which these languages are more peripheral to the world’s network of linguistic influence.
For example, the low volume of translations into Arabic, which had been identified as an obstacle to the dissemination of outside knowledge into the Arab world, is indicated by our book translation [global language network] and matched by the peripheral position of Arabic in the Twitter and Wikipedia [global language networks].