The most influential language on the planet is English, as you could probably guess. But why? Chinese has the most native speakers worldwide. A new interactive graphic from researchers at MIT Media Lab visualizes the major linguistic link between people around the globe and reveals just how influential English really is.
MIT Media Lab’s Global Language Network, a project from the lab's Macro Connections group, attempted to quantify the global influence of languages by looking at book translations, tweets, and Wikipedia edits.
In the visualization, showcased within the paper and on the Global Language Network's site, languages are represented by circles that are sized according to either its number of native speakers, the GDP per capita of that language's speakers, or its Eigenvector Centrality, a measure of influence within networks. The circles are color-coded according to each language family (English is an Indo-European language, for instance, while Arabic is Afro-Asiatic).
Mapping paths of communication between different languages—like through Wikipedia users who edit articles in multiple language editions, or tweet in two different languages—shows that "certain languages are disproportionately influential because they provide direct and indirect paths of translation among most of the world’s other languages," the researchers write.
ENGLISH’S IMPORTANCE AS A GLOBAL LANGUAGE IS MORE ABOUT ITS ABILITY TO CONNECT SPEAKERS OF DIFFERENT LANGUAGES THAN THE NUMBER OF NATIVE SPEAKERS IT HAS.
English’s importance as a global language is more about its ability to connect speakers of different languages than the sheer number of native speakers it has, the researchers found. Far more people speak Chinese around the world than do English, but Chinese serves less often as a bridge translating information from one less-spoken language to another—say, translating an idea from Thai to Swahili.
The web visualization makes this idea far easier to grasp. Looking at book translations, for instance, English is strongly linked with major languages like Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, and Russian. To make a text written in Quechua (a language family spoken in the Andes) accessible to an Estonian, it's likely it would be translated first to Spanish, then to English, then to Estonian.
Hear MIT Media Lab's César Hidalgo explain the research further in this video (and check out some of his previous work here):