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Communications Science

Want To Influence the World? Map Reveals the Best Languages To Speak 150

sciencehabit writes: Speak or write in English, and the world will hear you. Speak or write in Tamil or Portuguese, and you may have a harder time getting your message out. Now, a new method for mapping how information flows around the globe (abstract) identifies the best languages to spread your ideas far and wide. One hint: If you're considering a second language, try Spanish instead of Chinese.
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Want To Influence the World? Map Reveals the Best Languages To Speak

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  • Mandarin or Korean.
    • Mandarin vs. Spanish (Score:3, Informative)

      by fyngyrz ( 762201 )

      I speak (and read and write) both Mandarin and Spanish.

      Spanish is a lot easier for an English-speaker to learn.

      But Mandarin is, at least IMHO, much more interesting. I enjoy the characters, preferring the traditional ones, coping with the simplified ones.

      The most difficult problem I had learning Chinese is that the dominant system of romanization, pinyin, is wholly non-intuitive and conflicting to me as a reader of English. It's frustrating because there are *very* few sounds in Chinese that really couldn't

      • by diakka ( 2281 ) on Monday December 15, 2014 @11:31PM (#48606997)

        If you're having trouble with pinyin, and since you already seem to prefer traditional characters, then just use bopomofo/zhuyin fuhao. Once you learn one pronunciation system well, it's trivial to learn the other because the sounds they represent are the same, all you have to do is link them up in your mind. I personally used pinyin for many years, but using an Anki deck, I learned zhuyin fuhao in a matter of days after I moved to Taipei.

        Learning Chinese is a loooooooooong road. For the casual language learner, I'd say your best ROI on your time is going to be with Spanish. But then again, it all depends on what you're motivated to learn, because motivation is the worst thing to waste. I will say however, that if your motivation is even remotely to raise your value in the eyes of Chinese girls, don't bother, because of the girls that date westerners, given the choice between fluent Chinese and six pack abs, they'll choose the abs about 90% of the time.

        • by fyngyrz ( 762201 )

          Ok, so I grabbed a dictionary app that provides for zhuyin. The task here is to learn an entirely new alphabet with its associated sounds. Not sure that's an improvement, lol. Though I suppose if you have no preconceptions, as come with English-like spellings, It might work out well. I didn't have any trouble at all with hangul (Korean.) I'll give zhuyin a try; I appreciate the tip.

          also... once I understood the alphabet issue, I went looking for zhuyin flashcards (under Android -- I use a Note 3)... nothin

  • Is there a higher resolution image, preferably a PNG, of the map? I cannot make out a single language in the image attached to the article.

  • No me gusta!

  • by Kittenman ( 971447 ) on Monday December 15, 2014 @07:03PM (#48605723)
    It's good that it's mapping translations rather than language speakers - but it's not mapping content. Say 50% of the tweets in English are concerning Kim Kardashian's latest outfit, or Lady Gaga's pop video. An article in Finnish (why not?) is telling everyone how to talk to dogs. Which is more important to humankind?

    Of course, how you automatically judge merit is another matter....
    • by BenJeremy ( 181303 ) on Monday December 15, 2014 @07:38PM (#48605951)

      If the article about communicating with animals at a conversational level is published, the information will be translated into English.

      Seriously, though, why do we still speak hundreds of languages? - I know... because culture! Culture is a lousy, empty, truly vapid reason. A large percentage of the human race's information is in English, a flawed, but serviceable (and malleable) trade language that served the British well for several centuries. As the study pointed out, English is, far and above all others, a global language.

      It's a shame that it will likely be centuries before mankind figures out how to be more informationally efficient and come up with some sort of "basic" language. I'd even go along with Esperanto if the powers that be would just pick something and move the human race to it.

      • So you advocate Monoculture?

        Let's go one step further. 'Murican! Don't need nothin' else!

        • As the other person said, I'm not against cultures, just that it's a bad reason to isolate segments of humanity into ghettos of language.

          Plenty of people commemorate their cultural heritage without demanding exclusive use of the language. They are separate things, but too easily confused by more short-sighted, prideful people (the Quebecois and French are a good example of this). I suspect this is more rooted in our hard-wired tendency toward xenophobia (i.e. fear of things 'unfamiliar').

          As I also stated, t

          • It is not strictly true that language controls thought, as George Orwell posited and untold proponents of Politically Correct speech believe. You can ask no better example of that, than all the permutations of meaning that the word "nice" has had over time - some of them flattering, some insulting.

            However, language does provide viewpoints. English and Spanish are quite different in many ways, but an astounding number of Spanish and English idioms translate back and forth almost word for word.

            German, on the

        • So you advocate Monoculture?

          Let's go one step further. 'Murican! Don't need nothin' else!

          Who said anything about 'murican? Though I disagree with him if he advocates trashing other languages. I think some languages are fascinating and/or pleasant to hear: Gaelic, Brythonic, French, German, I even like Old English (Anglo Saxon) and Norse. Finiish and Russian are interesting. For some reason though, I don't like Spanish or Italian much, even though I like old Latin. I know, it makes little sense. But anyway, language is a part of culture, they can't be so readily separated.

      • Re: (Score:1, Troll)

        As the study pointed out, English is, far and above all others, a global language.

        It's a shame that it will likely be centuries before mankind figures out how to be more informationally efficient and come up with some sort of "basic" language.

        It's a universal language - even the aliens on TV speak English. As for a "basic" language [wikipedia.org], it's been available since 1954.

      • by Optic7 ( 688717 )

        If only it were possible for humans to speak more than one language, then they could keep their original language and also communicate in one or more global languages! Alas, it is, sadly, impossible. /sarcasm

        Like it or not, language helps maintain a lot more than just "lousy, empty, vapid" culture. It also helps maintain useful culture, history, unique philosophical concepts, unique observations about the world around us, and I am sure countless other important characteristics, discoveries, and contribution

        • by Kjella ( 173770 )

          Any concepts "lost in translation" could be easily appended as a new word to a common tounge, there's an absurd amount of redundancy in that there are hundreds (thousands?) of ways to express simple concepts like "yes". The English say yes, the French oui, the Germans ja, the Spanish si, the Russians da, the Japanese hai, the Portugese sim, the Polish tak... is there a value to this? Language barriers are sand in the machinery for any kind of human endeavour in science, technology, commerce, travel, communi

          • The English say yes, the French oui, the Germans ja, the Spanish si, the Russians da, the Japanese hai, the Portugese sim, the Polish tak... is there a value to this?

            In fact there is. Because the apparently simple concepts you have listed are not quite the same. Polish "tak" comes, in fact, from the same protoslavic word that means "so (it is)" which exists in every Slavic language in the same or nearly the same form (tak, tako, taka), so a Croat or a Russian or a Czech would understand it as a kind of a co

        • by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

          Language also embeds within it history. And history is important for many reasons (many of which are related to "if you don't study it, you'll repeat it").

          Europe's an interesting study - you have the Barbaric English, the Germanic Germans, the Romantic French/Spanish/Italians, and so forth. All of which reflect the interesting history and empires of Europe. (Romantic - sure we like to think of the French as good at love, and that may be the origins of the word "romantic" in English, yet it refers to the mor

      • by Shakrai ( 717556 )

        It's a shame that it will likely be centuries before mankind figures out how to be more informationally efficient and come up with some sort of "basic" language. I'd even go along with Esperanto if the powers that be would just pick something and move the human race to it.

        What "powers that be" do you suppose there are who have the wherewithal to move the entire human race to a single language? What do you do with the multitude of words that can't neatly be translated? Words that carry a special meaning for the underlying culture? Your desired future sounds oppressive, monolithic, and dull. And I say that as a native English speaker...

      • by JanneM ( 7445 )

        Great idea! Now we all only need to agree on which language to standardize on. I'm sure that worldwide discussion will be calm, focused and productive. Please post the results here in the thread once it's been decided.

        I suggest Swedish. It's just about equally well known by almost everybody in the world, so nobody is starting out with an unfair advantage. I get a lifetime gig teaching Swedish to everybody. And you get umlauts! Win-win.

        Oh, and by "suggest" I of course mean "absolutely demand or I will refuse

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Why would we possibly want a single language? A single human can speak many languages and several billions of us already do. Stop being intellectually lazy.

      • by Sique ( 173459 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2014 @04:57AM (#48607753) Homepage
        "Culture" is just a big cover we put over very different things. A physician and a physicist will have a big problem to read each other's scientific papers -- mostly they won't even know what the paper is about. And imagine someone from Switzerland and from Brasil try to talk to each other about their favorite outdoor activity during January, even if they find a language they both are fluent in!

        Language is much more than just a communications protocol. Language has connotations, language is malleable by its speakers, language contains concepts of the world, language is even a tool to make a difference between insiders and outsiders. We will never be able to speak one common language. No physicist will ever be able to learn about all the terms a physician needs in his daily work, and most Brazilians will never learn anything about skiing in a certain valley of the Alps. Every generation comes up with new words for old facts just because the parents should not understand everything their children are talking about.

        Each language has a big body of texts encoded in this language, which are unique to this language, and most of it was never translated into any other language (you don't believe it? How much of french TV programming was ever translated into English for instance?). The idea that most of the world's knowledge is available in English is completely misguided. It's just most of the knowledge you have that is available in English. But you are no benchmark of what knowledge is. If we switch to only one single language for everyone, all the text in all the other languages will be lost forever. How minuscule the english knowledge about non-english events is, can be easily demonstrated by asking you, how much you know about the events of the Summer of 1989 in Hungary. Nevertheless this is very important for the understanding of today's world, because the talks between Hungary's minister of Foreign Affairs Gyula Horn and his Austrian counterpart Alois Mock during the Pan-European Picnic lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. There are hundreds of news paper articles and reports available in Hungarian and German, in Czech and in Romanian, there are scientific papers about the events in those languages, but how much are available in English? In the U.S. there is still the opinion prevalent that Ronald Reagan's speech at the Berlin Wall in 1988 had something to do with it. (Fun fact: It hasn't.)

        • Which is why in fact a Holy Bible translated into Mandarin loses even more of its meaning to being nonsensical; arguably more then it already is. In a book where metaphorical and literal are so deeply intertwined, is it any wonder old religious text can withstand the time of multi-generational translation?

        • by Optic7 ( 688717 )

          Thank you for challenging a main point of the OP's post that I wanted to challenge and forgot to in my own reply: that "a large percentage of the human race's information is in English."

          I feel that that's a major mistake in the OP's analysis, and think that it's really the opposite: a small percentage of the human race's information is in English.

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) * <.mojo. .at. .world3.net.> on Tuesday December 16, 2014 @07:49AM (#48608115) Homepage Journal

        Japanese speaker here. English is not an adequate replacement for Japanese I'm afraid, and I'm not sure it can be modified enough to perform that function without becoming unintelligible to other English speakers.

        The way the Japanese look at the world and think about things is fundamentally different to how native English speakers to, and the language is a big part of that. It's hard to explain without teaching you Japanese, but for example they distinguish between animate and inanimate things with many subtle ramifications. If they were to abandon those concepts it would be very difficult for many Japanese speakers to express complex ideas clearly and precisely because as well as using different words they would need to translate the entire concept itself into "western" terms.

        Even if people could be convinced to change, what would happen to Japanese society and culture? So much of it is based on how the languages makes you think about things or relate to other people. For example, Japanese has four levels of politeness and you can say the same thing in four different ways depending on your relationship with the other person. Customers expect to be spoken to very politely, and using very informal and familiar terms is a form of social grooming between friends and lovers.

        I'm not an expert on Chinese but I believe there are similar problems. Chinese doesn't even have a word for "no", to give you an idea of how fundamentally different it is. If there was to be a world language it would have to be something better than English, and I'm not sure any one language could cover every requirement and still be reasonably universal.

        • by Smauler ( 915644 )

          Chinese doesn't even have a word for "no", to give you an idea of how fundamentally different it is.

          The "Do not want" meme was caused by the Chinese lack of the word "no" - See here [winterson.com] or here [winterson.com] for one of my all time favourite things. It makes the new Star Wars films watchable.

        • Excellent point. Various cultures sometimes have unique concepts that another culture's language may not. And some concepts just seem better expressed by a certain language. For example, "je ne sais quoi" sums it up better than saying, "she has a certain something about her", IMO. There are additional intangible elements of expression there.
        • by mjwx ( 966435 )

          Chinese doesn't even have a word for "no", to give you an idea of how fundamentally different it is.

          This is common amongst Asian languages or at least Asian cultures.

          When communicating with contractors and businesses in many Asian nations it's often an exercise to figure out if "yes" means "yes we can" or "yes we cant"

      • Preservation of local languages and introduction of a global one are not exclusive goals. All it takes is the world to agree to teach everyone a second language so that in one or two generations every person in the world had TWO native languages - a local and the global one. But if we could agree on things like that we wouldn't be afraid of wars nor global warming.
    • by Kohath ( 38547 )

      What's the best outfit to wear when talking to dogs?

  • These days, money speaks louder than words, in any language, even C++.

  • by Kohath ( 38547 ) on Monday December 15, 2014 @07:18PM (#48605825)

    You probably shouldn't want to influence the world. People who would say they "want to influence the world" generally lack the humility needed to avoid accidentally or recklessly making things worse for the world as a result of their influence.

    • by cascadingstylesheet ( 140919 ) on Monday December 15, 2014 @08:14PM (#48606151)

      You probably shouldn't want to influence the world. People who would say they "want to influence the world" generally lack the humility needed to avoid accidentally or recklessly making things worse for the world as a result of their influence.

      Quite so.

      Every children's TV show or media outlet prattles on endlessly about "changing the world", but they are remarkably non-specific about "change it into what"?

  • by Optic7 ( 688717 ) on Monday December 15, 2014 @07:33PM (#48605925)

    With interactive graphs, rankings, etc.

    http://language.media.mit.edu/ [mit.edu]

  • Er, yeah. English is the Lingua Franca and has been for a long time.

    So I guess it's not verboten to say so if you use a graphic and stuff ...

  • A map by territory shows places that are pretty empty but have a common language.

    A map by population has problems handling multiple languages in use in one location.

    A map by language density using vertical bars or color shading to imply pop density might work, if dithered properly.

  • 80 years from now it could be something else.
    • by swilly ( 24960 ) on Monday December 15, 2014 @09:50PM (#48606621)

      80 years ago the Lingua Franca for diplomacy was French. In fact, French dominated diplomacy from the 17th century until WW2. English didn't start getting used in non-English diplomatic circles until after WW1 (it was quite significant when the Treaty of Versailles was written in both English and French). French has been eclipsed by English, but it is still popular (it is the second most used language in the UN and the EU).

      For science and technology, Latin used to dominate. Once people stopped publishing in Latin, three dominant languages appeared: English, French, and German. Which was dominant depended on the field being discussed. Before WW1, German may have been the largest of the three, but after WW1, English was noticeably more dominant (and has only continued to grow).

      For business, the general rule is that whenever possible the seller speaks the buyers language. 80 years ago, there were several useful intermediate languages that could be used to facilitate business. The most common would be English, French, and Arabic. I don't know that German was used much outside of Europe and the few German colonies. French was probably the smallest here, since outside of Europe it was most spoken in Africa, where it had to compete with Arabic as a language of trade. There are plenty of other languages which are influential at a regional level, such as Chinese, Russian, Spanish, and Swahili, but these haven't had much of an impact globally. Due to its size and economic might, I expect that Chinese will become more influential in the future, and it will slowly become more significant outside of Asia. I don't see Spanish moving outside of Europe and the Americas, at least not in the short term.

      • Due to its size and economic might, I expect that Chinese will become more influential in the future, and it will slowly become more significant outside of Asia.

        I predict that any slow change in Chinese uptake will also be small, because the language is difficult to learn and the culture is impenetrable.

      • by Smauler ( 915644 )

        Technically, a "Lingua Franca" is a language used by two people whose first language is something else entirely. I, for example, can't use English as a Lingua Franca, since it's my first language. I have, however, spoken to a Spanish person (who could not speak English) in French, therefore was using French as a kind of Lingua Franca.

        The original Lingua Franca [wikipedia.org] was a trading language used around the Mediterranean from about 1000 years ago, and was originally based predominantly on northern Italian dialects

  • by damn_registrars ( 1103043 ) <damn.registrars@gmail.com> on Monday December 15, 2014 @08:31PM (#48606229) Homepage Journal
    Links that speak: The global language network and its association with global fame [pnas.org]. And it's not even paywalled, you can download it from anywhere. You're welcome.
  • Are you out of your mind? Listen to me, Charlie. Get out of L.A. Now. Cause if there's one thing I know, it's that you never mess with Mother Nature, mother-inlaws, or mother-fucking Ukrainians.

    • Many people say that they speak Ukrainian. Most of them speak either an ugly mongrel of Russian vocabulary with Ukrainian grammar and pronunciation or an ugly mongrel of Polish vocabulary with Ukrainian grammar and pronunciation.

      I wish that if they use that kind of a mixed language, they'd use Czech words instead of Polish ones - they are far less ugly and closer in phonetics.

      • by mi ( 197448 )

        Many people say that they speak Ukrainian. Most of them speak either an ugly mongrel

        The same can be said about English and Russian — the two other languages I'm fluent in. From that I'd extrapolate, that all languages have this problem.

        It may (or even may not) be lamentable, but that's not, what I wanted to talk about.

        • No, it cannot be said.
          Certainly not about English, because it would mean that a majority of English speaking population would usually talk mostly using words from a closely related language - that would be what, Frisian? - with English accent and grammar.

          That might maybe happen in Scotland, where English and Scots might intermix in this way, but this kind of speaking is far from majority.

          It certainly is not the way here in Germany, people won't, for example, speak Dutch using German grammar and accent. They

          • by mi ( 197448 )

            Certainly not about English, because it would mean that a majority of English speaking population would usually talk mostly using words from a closely related language - that would be what, Frisian? - with English accent and grammar.

            It does not have to be "closely related" — you just need to have a sizable chunk of population fluent in it. Over the years Americans, for example, have borrowed plenty from Yidish ("potz", "schmuck", "boychik"), Russian ("da"), Italian ("capish? [urbandictionary.com]").

            Centuries ago, when the

  • I can tell you that in my field, Chinese is used at least 4x more often than Spanish. Next after Chinese (which is after English) would be Russian, followed likely by German. Whether Spanish is spoken in my field as much as Arabic is debatable.

    In other words, the value of a language comes down to who you want to use it to communicate with.
    • I know, right? I got a pretty good crash course in Spanish after moving to Mexico for a year in 2000, to a city where almost no-one spoke English. So now I'm fairly fluent in English, French and Spanish. Since leaving Quebec almost 30 years ago, I only speak French with anyone once every few years as a bit of a novelty. Spanish? Absolutely never in the main cities in Canada. I work in IT, and I've only ever met one guy who spoke Spanish. The order is, and has been English, Chinese, Russian, and German, with
      • Your experience is very IT specific. If you were in construction or food service you would be using Spanish daily.

        • So basically, if you want to talk to educated people who actually make things work in the world, don't waste your time learning Spanish.

          • by LDAPMAN ( 930041 )

            Not at all. If you do business in Mexico and Latin America, Spanish is very helpful. However, most educated people in those countries are at least conversational in English. My reply was specifically about why a Canadian IT worker would not encounter Spanish on a day to day basis even though Spanish is likely to be the most common secondary language. (Or in the case of Canada, tertiary)

            • Mexico and other Latin American countries are not exactly highly industrialized. If you want to get something made, you either go to Germany or Japan (if it's really high-dollar and needs extreme precision) or you go to China (if it's cheaper and you need huge volumes). Latin America is where you go if you just need some agricultural produce.

              • by LDAPMAN ( 930041 )

                What the hell are you talking about? Have you ever been to Monterrey? Mexico has a large industrial base and the economy there is booming. They are a huge trading partner with the U.S. We do tons of business with them even if you exclude agriculture.

                https://www.census.gov/foreign... [census.gov]

                • by LDAPMAN ( 930041 )

                  Just to put the facts on record, here are the stats for Jan-Oct 2014:

                  (in Millions of dollars)
                  Germany: exports to: 41,672 imports from: 102,542
                  Mexico: exports to: 201,714 imports from: 246,124

                  If you exclude agriculture from both, Mexico is still much higher. Sorry to be obsessive about this but I do a lot of business in Mexico and I'm constantly annoyed by the people who think the whole country is like Cancun, Cabo. They do have their problems, especially in the remote areas, but the middle clas

        • by mjwx ( 966435 )

          Your experience is very IT specific. If you were in construction or food service you would be using Spanish daily.

          Your experience is very US-centric.

          If you lived in Australia you'd find it hard to find anyone who spoke Spanish.

    • I can tell you that in my field, Chinese is used at least 4x more often than Spanish.

      Massage parlor?

  • by Sivaraj ( 34067 ) on Monday December 15, 2014 @11:57PM (#48607097)

    ...and on the content your are writing, and the sort of influence you want to have. I know of several Tamil writers online who have dedicated following. If you want to influence online Tamil community, then I don't see the point of writing in English or Spanish.

    There is probably some purpose for this study, but it is definitely lost in the blurb written above. While it is obvious that most of the internet talks in English, the ability to weild influence online is not just dependent on the language you are writing in. With instant page translations, good amount of the written content is accessible to larger section of audience, regardless of the language it is written in.

  • If you want to communicate via language and language alone, then this type of study shows the connectivity of those linguistic works. However, there are many more influences in life than pure linguistic works, including economic, political, technological, military, cultural, and religious power. Considering these other powers probably leads to very different conclusions concerning the best languages for influencing the world. Sometimes the pen is mightier than the sword, and sometimes the sword has more

  • If you want to ask Donde Esta La Biblioteca? or tell someone to clean your pool, bot USELESS for business (unless you make "us" cars).

  • Looking at their (horribly small) graph it seems that the two best 2nd languages for English speakers are French (if you want to talk to Africa) and Russian (if your want to talk to Putin's near abroad).

    Spanish doesn't win you much that you don't get with English + French.

  • Linky with higher res PDF than website...

    http://www.pnas.org/content/ea... [pnas.org]

  • If you're only going to speak a paltry three languages, English, Spanish, and French make a good trio.

    Thinking about this reminds me of the day a German-born guy from Québec, three Africans from three different countries, and I all came together one day to find common ground in our mutually mangled French. That basically proves the point underlying the graphic and the article right there.

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