Model examines the interplay between the use of a language and the preference or attitude of the speakers towards it
Bilingual speakers play an important role in language survival, according to the results of a new study published in the New Journal of Physics. The work – performed by researchers from the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Physics and Complex Systems, IFISC (UIB-CSIC), in Spain – considers the competition between two socially equivalent languages, and their probability of survival depending on the number of speakers.
The model, which is based on a network of ‘node’ and ‘link’ states, accounts for both language preference and language use, as well as their coupled evolution. It represents language not just as a means of communication, but also as a property of the speakers themselves – shining a light on attributes such as cultural identity.
“One of the main advantages of this approach is that bilingualism appears as the natural consequence of individuals using different languages in different interactions,” said team member Adrián Carro, now based at the University of Oxford, UK.
The asymptotic configurations from the model can be divided into three categories: frozen extinction of one of the languages; frozen coexistence of both languages; and dynamically trapped coexistence of both languages. Moreover, for a sufficiently large population, coexistence can survive in the form of non-trivial dynamical states.
Where both languages are shown to co-exist, the researchers find a high proportion of bilingual speakers – often arranged in triangular networks, which are considered to represent small groups of friends or strongly interacting individuals.
“These groups exhibit a strong preference for the minority language, and use it for their intra-group interactions, while they switch to the predominant language for communications with the rest of the population,” said Carro.
As the population rises – in terms of the parameters of the model – the probability of language extinction is reduced. “For a population of 8,000 speakers, the probability of extinction has already dropped to around 3 per cent,” Carro said.
Language competition is not the only ‘complex system’ that can be investigated using this approach. The methodology applied by the team – a coevolution of node and link states – could also benefit the study of trust, or ally versus enemy relationships, as well as the coupled dynamics of trade and economic growth.