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Why learning Spanish, not Mandarin, is the best way to globalize your ideas

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Celebrity investor Jim Rogers famously moved to Singapore so his kids would grow up learning Mandarin Chinese. Others argue Russian or Arabic are the ticket to riches.

But if it’s global influence you’re after, maybe it’s time to scrap the Baby Mandarin classes. In a fascinating new study (pdf) mapping the flow of information online, and through book translations, found the languages that reach the most linguistically diverse readership tend to be the ones most connected by multilingual speakers—English, Spanish, French, and German, to name a few (the team’s interactive website lets you delve into each language). This map plots the activity of Wikipedia editors contributing to the site’s various language editions:

ronen et all wikipedia
Line thickness indicates the number of Wikipedia editors using both languages, while the size of the circles represents—in a non-linear way—the number of people who speak the language. ("Links that speak: The global language network and its association with global fame," Ronen et al. 2014)

Their maps also analyzed the direct and indirect flow of information via two other channels: translation of books and bilingual or multilingual Twitter users:

ronen et al twitter
Twitter line thickness indicates likelihood that a user Tweets in both languages. ("Links that speak: The global language network and its association with global fame," Ronen et al. 2014)
ronen et al book translations
Line thickness indicates volume of translations; arrow points to the language into which the work is translated. ("Links that speak: The global language network and its association with global fame," Ronen et al. 2014)

As you can see, some languages are more isolated than others—and speaking a language favored by polyglots connects you with a more diverse range of tongues. This means that the ideas of, say, Portuguese-only writers are much more likely to reach a monolingual Pole than the ideas of a Chinese-only writer, thanks to Portuguese’s relatively stronger connectivity in the global language network.

To check these findings against other measures of a language’s global significance, the scientists used two independent datasets of historical famous people, controlling for the number of speakers and GDP. In some cases, the the global language network predicted the number of famous people born into the language with accuracy levels that are “unheard of” in social sciences, explains César Hidalgo, a computer scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who co-authored the study.

Of course, the study’s authors emphasize that their research omits oral communication, and reflects mainly activity of elite intellectuals.

Another potential quibble with their methodology: The Chinese government bars a billion or so Chinese readers from using Twitter and a good deal of Wikipedia.

Hidalgo says this isn’t exaclty a glitch, though.

“The exclusion of people in mainland China from Wikipedia and Twitter are not a bias, but a reality,” he says, noting that the prevalence of VPNs mean the Great Firewall isn’t “as mighty as it looks.”

Seen this way, the study suggests the Great Firewall might hamstring China’s quest for global influence. For instance, Shahar Ronen, another author also at MIT, tells Science that governments concerned with boosting linguistic soft power should “invest in translating more documents, encouraging more people to tweet in their national language”—which China is clearly not going to do any time soon.

“On the other side, if I want our ideas to spread, we should pick a second language that’s very well-connected,” says Ronen.

Even though English-speakers abound in mainland China, the Great Firewall has sprouted China’s own social networks, encyclopedias, and news networks—platforms so rigidly monolingual they’re unlikely ever to connect global polyglots.

Asked what might happen if the Great Firewall were suddenly lifted, Hidalgo said he expected a gradual Chinese increase in Twitter and Wikipedia participation.

“I am not sure if this would make Chinese a ‘bridge’ language, however,” he says, “since this would require Chinese speakers to speak Chinese and many other languages.”

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