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Many of us can muddle through or get by in another language – some master multiple tongues, such as our own skilled linguists – but it’s only during this learning process that you truly get to appreciate the sheer complexity of the concept. It’s thought that as many as 7,000 languages are spoken around the world today. In the UK, English is naturally the dominant tongue, but make your way to Asia and you could encounter more than 2,000.
Can one of these languages be more important than another? And if so, what determines importance? You could go on age, number of speakers or geographical reach. Either way, deciding on a single most influential language is a little easier said than done.
If you do go on user-base size alone, Mandarin Chinese is a clear winner with around one billion speakers. This far surpasses those speaking the next two most common languages – English and Spanish – combined. However, it’s important to note that the vast majority of these speakers are native, meaning the language is contained largely within China itself; thus its influence elsewhere in the world is nowhere near as strong.
Using age to determine influence is particularly tough, as there’s no definite answer on which has been around for the longest. Many people believe Sanskrit is the oldest language still in use today, while others claim it’s more likely to be Tamil. Both arguments have their strengths, but with the former now the primary language of just 14,000 Indians, and the latter contained largely within Asia (predominantly Sri Lanka and India), it’s hard to rank either of these options.
Last up, we have international reach, which is perhaps the most conclusive way to decide. If we go solely by the number of countries in which a language is spoken, English is number one. It’s the official or traditional language of 54 countries (plus 27 territories). It is followed by French (38 plus 16) and Arabic (27), although these are predominantly confined to France and Africa; and the Middle East and North Africa respectively. The geographic reach of English, and its use as a global language of science and business, means it is taught in schools across the world.
One group of linguistic experts in the US took a different approach to determining the world’s most influential language. The team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), led by Associate Professor César Hildago, recently formed what it calls a Global Language Network, which shows the international prominence of languages based on how widely they’re translated in media.
This study involved looking at masses of data from books, social media and online information sources like Wikipedia. If a book or article was translated from one language to another, both languages were connected on the map. If a Twitter user wrote a post in two different languages, they would be linked. Perhaps unsurprisingly, English came out as the biggest information hub in all three data sets. German, Spanish and Russian all proved to be important too, but none were quite as central as English.
While the research carried out by Hildago’s team is fascinating, questions remain over whether it’s the best way to determine the world’s most influential language. What is clear is that some languages are more connected than others.