English and Russian languages are better at spreading ideas across cultural gaps

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

Along with the proliferation of the internet came the potential for individuals to spread their ideas and thoughts across the globe.

A new study from a team of French and American researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that some languages, like English or Russian, are better at spreading ideas across cultural gaps through bilingual or multilingual speakers.

To determine the prevalence and interconnectedness of both languages and people who speak them, the researchers considered material from Twitter and Wikipedia written by multilingual individuals – as well as 30 years of book translations from 150 countries.

“The network of languages that are being translated is an aggregation of the social network of the planet,” said study author Cesar Hidalgo, an assistant professor of media arts and sciences at MIT. “Not everybody shares a language with everyone else, and therefore the global social network is structured through these circuitous paths in which people in some language groups are by definition way more central than others.”

“That gives them a disproportionate power and responsibility,” he continued. On the one hand, they have a much easier time disseminating the content that they produce. On the other hand, as information flows through people, it gets colored by the ideas and the biases that those people have.”

To illustrate just how languages are connected and which are the most central to modern society, the study team generated an online interactive network that shows large ‘hub’ languages, such as English or Hindi, connected to a multitude of other languages, like the spokes of a bike wheel. The network can be redrawn (Editor’s Note: This link is so cool.) based on one of three data sources: Twitter, Wikipedia or book translation data from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

To generate their network, the researchers included a Twitter user if they had a minimum of three sentence-long posts in a language apart from their principal language, or about 17 million of Twitter’s approximately 280 million users. The team also used similar criterion for Wikipedia users who had edited items in greater than one language, or about 2.2 million Wikipedia users. Finally, the team considered book translations from the 2.2 million books in UNESCO’s Index Translationum published between 1979 and 2011.

The researchers saw, to little surprise, that English was the largest hub language. However, they also saw numerous other mid-sized hubs pop up, including Spanish, Russian and French. The network also illustrates just how isolated languages like Hindi and Arabic currently are, despite being spoken by large numbers of people. In contrast, Dutch isn’t considered a major world language, but it does appear to serve as a large conduit for other languages, according to the study.

The map also reveals how idea and concepts can travel from one language to another. For example, ideas in Finnish could easily be passed to those who speak Portuguese and then onto those who speak Malay. Notably, Finnish and Malay do not have strong connections among multi-lingual speakers.

Study author Shahar Ronen, a graduate researcher at MIT, said the study has implications for those who may not speak a major language like English or Spanish, but still want to communicate with the world.

“If I want my national language to be more prominent, then I should invest in translating more documents, encouraging more people to tweet in their national language,” Ronen told Science Magazine. “On the other side, if I want our ideas to spread, we should pick a second language that’s very well connected.”


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