The paper we’re looking at today isn’t about security, but it’s relevant to anyone who’s doing field studies of online culture, which can easily become part of security research. My own research right now, for instance, touches on how the Internet is used for online activism and how that may or may not be safe for the activists; if you don’t have a handle on online culture—and how it varies worldwide—you’re going to have a bad time trying to study that.
What we have here is an analysis of language pairings as found on Twitter, Wikipedia, and a database of book translations. Either the same person uses both languages in a pair, or text has been translated from one to the other. Using these pairs, they identify
hub languages that are very likely to be useful to connect people in distant cultures. These are mostly, but not entirely, the languages with the greatest number of speakers. Relative to their number of speakers, regional second languages like Malay and Russian show increased importance, and languages that are poorly coupled to English (which is unsurprisingly right in the middle of the connectivity graph), like Chinese, Arabic, and the languages of India, show reduced importance.
There is then a bunch of hypothesizing about how the prominence of a language as a translation hub might influence how famous someone is and/or how easy it is for something from a particular region to reach a global audience. That’s probably what the authors of the paper thought was most important, but it’s not what I’m here for. What I’m here for is what the deviation between
translation hub and
widely spoken language tells us about how to do global field studies. It is obviously going to be more difficult to study an online subculture that conducts itself in a language you don’t speak yourself, and the fewer people do speak that language, the harder it will be for you to get some help. But if a language is widely spoken but not a translation hub, it may be difficult for you to get the right kind of help.
For instance, machine translations between the various modern vernaculars of Arabic and English are not very good at present. I could find someone who speaks any given vernacular Arabic without too much difficulty, but I’d probably have to pay them a lot of money to get them to translate 45,000 Arabic documents into English, or even just to tell me which of those documents were in their vernacular. (That number happens to be how many documents in my research database were identified as some kind of Arabic by a machine classifier—and even that doesn’t work as well as it could; for instance, it is quite likely to be confused by various Central Asian languages that can be written with an Arabic-derived script and have a number of Arabic loanwords but are otherwise unrelated.)
What can we (Western researchers, communicating primarily in English) do about it? First is just to be aware that global field studies conducted by Anglophones are going to be weak when it comes to languages poorly coupled to English, even when they are widely spoken. In fact, the very fact of the poor coupling makes me skeptical of the results in this paper when it comes to those languages. They only looked at three datasets, all of which are quite English-centric. Would it not have made sense to supplement that with polylingual resources centered on, say, Mandarin Chinese, Modern Standard Arabic, Hindi, and Swahili? These might be difficult to find, but not being able to find them would tend to confirm the original result, and if you could find them, you could both improve the lower bounds for coupling to English, and get a finer-grained look at the languages that are well-translated within those clusters.
Down the road, it seems to me that whenever you see a language cluster that’s widely spoken but not very much in communication with any other languages, you’ve identified a gap in translation resources and cultural cross-pollination, and possibly an underserved market.