arrow-down arrow-to-left arrow-to-right arrow-up bc-left check delete download facebook google-plus home map menu print search smiling three-lines top-left twitter youtube
April 2015

How do you rate how “important” a language is?

Connection is the key

How do you determine how “important” a language is? Certainly, the first metric that comes to mind is a language’s ubiquity. Another is the economic and political influence of the countries in which it is spoken. But there is yet another determinant as to how influential a language is, according to a 2014 study from the University of California at Berkeley: how much a language is connected with others.

According to the first mentioned measurement, we would assume Mandarin (with over 955 million speakers around the world) or Spanish (405 million speakers) would be the world’s most influential language. More people around the world speak these languages than any other. But does this determine a language’s importance? The researchers of the study say it doesn’t.

The second measurement, the economic and/or political importance of countries that speak a particular language is a better metric than the first; if there is a greater need for people to speak the language to conduct business or international relations, learning that language would be more desirable in the world. This comes a bit closer to what the researchers are attempting to measure.

It’s important to note that, in the study, “importance” is defined not simply by usefulness of a language, but also how likely those speaking the language will rise to prominence. The study measures this through the construction of a "global language network" with three measurements: (1) the number of bilingual editors on Wikipedia, of which the translation between languages constitutes a greater connection between the two; (2) the number of Twitter users who tweet two languages, of which the connection between the two become strengthened in the computation; and (3) the frequency books written in one language are translated into another.

As you might imagine, English is the commonality between many of these connections, making English, according to the study, the most "influential" language; those who can speak the language are most likely to rise to fame. While one might suspect Mandarin or Russian to be important, in terms of being "hub languages", they are peripherals. Instead, French, Spanish, and German are the big connected languages.

The data gathered comes from 1979-2011, so there are a few issues with the sample set. With the former Soviet Union involved, Russian is very much used in book translations, but when it comes to the modern mediums of Wikipedia and Twitter, Russian exists as an outlier. Chinese, as well, does not rank highly, though this has more to do with the censorship practices of the Chinese government. Indeed, China limits its citizens from Twitter, having them use domestic services like Sina Weibo (the Chinese Twitter) and Baidu Baike (the Chinese Wikipedia) instead. It’s no wonder that China does not rank highly in the study.

Issues aside, the study is still an important one, as influence is gauged via mediums people use globally. And though Chinese users aren’t using Twitter, Sina Weibo and Baidu Baike, as services, aren’t widely used worldwide, limiting their global influence as mediums. Put simply, because Chinese users are censored from Twitter, a service with wide reach, Mandarin remains a relatively closed-off language.

How does one interpret these results? Is it better to learn a language deemed influential by this study or one that is more distant from the rest? The latter is most likely the case when it comes to future usefulness, as the most connected languages tend to be those most widely known and more easily learned. Mandarin is difficult to master and even harder to translate, as it is so distinct from English and its related brethren. And though the study doesn’t rank it highly as an influential, connected language, it doesn’t mean Mandarin isn’t worth learning. As we’ve seen with China’s rise as an economic power, the world could use more Mandarin translators.

What are your thoughts on this study? How would you determine the importance of a language? Let us know on Facebook and be sure to “like” TELC English for more articles on languages and culture!