Visualizing the Global Network of Languages

Interactive nodal network diagrams can offer some of the most well-supplied data exploration opportunities in the  world of data graphics. The Macro Connections Group at MIT Media Lab released Global Language Network, an interactive visualization of the relationships among the world’s many languages.

Image from the Global Language Network [1]

This colorful web of information represents an ideal use of the nodal diagram as a means of visual communication. In the Global Language Network [1] each node represents a language and links connect languages that are likely to be co-spoken. In the example above, languages are connected according to the frequency of book translations. Node sizes represent the number of native and non-native speakers of a language and edge thickness represents the number of translations from one language to another. In other words, the position of a language is highly correlated with the number of globally famous people born in the territories associated with that language. Before you even glance down to see the legend or hover over the circles to view the associated data, a primary message emerges effortlessly: English stands at the center among the most popular languages, and shows that it has the most abundant and strongest connections with other languages. Meanwhile, circle colors suggest categories of related tongues, providing some intuitive context for the connection patterns.

In my opinion, the most appealing part of this visualization is the range of data sources involved. The connection lines are based on how frequently texts are translated from one language to another, but users can choose to view data from books, Twitter, or Wikipedia. The visual results are remarkably distinct in each case.


Images showing translation data from Books (left), Twitter (center), and Wikipedia (right).


Intrigued? In addition to exploring the visualization, you can read the associated paper [2], published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014. And for more on world languages and their connections, see Michael Balter’s story [3] on the ancient spread of Proto-Indo-European tongues, from the May 2016 issue of Scientific American.


[1] Global Language Network page.

[2] “Links that speak: The global language network and its association with global fame”, by Shahar Ronen et al. In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol 11, No 52, June 2014. Read the paper here.

[3] Micheal Balter’s story.

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