The most powerful languages if you want to spread your ideas

How does the language of your message influence how many people will actually read it? Chances are, if you post something in Tamil versus English, your readership will be significantly smaller. Thanks to a new mapping system scientists can now trace how information spreads via the internet around the globe, and the findings are very intriguing. Which language will reach most people worldwide? Which language is therefore most beneficial to learn? A tip: If you think the language with the highest number of speakers will win, you are mistaken.

Microsoft programmer Shahar Ronen tried to find out which languages are used and into which languages they are translated. With the help of his advisor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) he began creating maps which showed how multilingual people transmit information and ideas. Ronen and his colleagues analysed three global language networks based on bilingual tweeters, book translations and Wikipedia edits. For example, a book that was translated from Hebrew into English and German, would be assigned with lines pointing from one node (Hebrew) to nodes of English and German. Overall, Ronen has based his language map on 2.2 million translations of printed books published in more than 1000 languages. The thickness of the lines in the network depend on the number of connections between nodes. 

At first glance, the findings seemed fairly obvious: In all three language networks, English stood out as the language with the highest number of transmissions to and from other languages. However, upon a second look, the results become more interesting. Although some languages such as Arabic, Hindi and Mandarin Chinese have large populations of speakers, they remain relatively isolated in these networks. This means that fewer speakers of these languages reach speakers of other languages. On the other hand, comparatively small languages like Dutch (only 27 million speakers compared to 530 million speakers of Arabic) can have a disproportionately high transmission rate. The reason is that the Dutch are very multilingual and very active online. 

The level of influence or power a language has depends on the number of its speakers who are literate and online, which unfortunately, is still a minority of the world's population and is described by the researchers as 'the elite'. It becomes clear that this 'elite' has the power to shape news pieces as well as the overall perception of events, simply by being dominant online, in a dominant language. 

The researchers conclude their analysis with advice for governments and international organisations: If they want to strengthen their international role, they should invest in translating more documents into their national language and encourage more people to tweet in their mother tongue. Finally, if they want to publicise their views with the highest possible impact, they should choose a second language that is very well connected.

In terms of learning a new language, for non-English speakers the answer is clear, they should pick English. But for native English speakers the study suggests that it would be far more advantageous to learn Spanish over Chinese - at least if they intend to spread their ideas in writing. 

Source: Sciencemag.org, Michael Erard, 17th July 2017, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/12/want-influence-world-map-reveals-best-languages-speak