Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Some Economics of Language

“"The English language has become very much – throughout the world – the language of business. So the constant pressure will be there."
- Jean Charest, Premier of Quebec, quoted on the CBC web site.

English is rapidly becoming the world’s second language. The exact dimensions of its dominance are hard to pin down, but there is no doubt that it is growing. Wikipedia puts it at 380 million native speakers, trailing Chinese and Hindi in that category, while being the most widely studied language in the world. In his 1997 book English as a Global Language David Crystal estimates the number who can meaningfully communicate in English at between 1.2 and 1.5 billion.

Its rise is an interesting example of the economics of language. The world needs a common second language because it enables mutually beneficial exchange – of information in this case. That the world’s leading scientific research is published in English means that all the world’s scientists, and the people who use their research, need only learn one language in addition to their own in order to access and add to that knowledge. This dramatically increases scientific productivity and the value of scientific breakthroughs. A common language for science – and to a lesser extent for business, entertainment and the global media – means that more value can be created for more people. In that sense Premier Charest above is a fool for supposing that commercial interests dictate laws preserving the French language in Quebec. (Among other things, store signs must not display any language other than French unless it is smaller than the French.) The entry of a foreign language does not represent “pressure” but opportunity, the opportunity for Quebecois businessmen and consumers to access useful information and trading opportunities that would otherwise be beyond their reach.

English has become a standard in the same sense that the metric system is. That the widely used standard is English (rather than, as it once was, French or Latin) is partly coincidence, a function of first British and then American military and commercial power, and (not often appreciated) of the explosion of scientific research published in U.S. and British universities in the last century. This gives people an incentive on their own to master English. While people accurately and often scornfully note that Americans and the British tend to be monolingual to a much greater degree than other people, this is entirely predictable. The marginal benefit of learning a second language is smaller for people already fluent in the most globally influential one.

In addition to the economics of standards, the theory of money is also useful in understanding languages and why they spread (or don’t). Money is a medium of exchange for goods, and language is a medium of exchange for information. A common language, like a common currency, promotes a greater zone of exchange (although as the costs of exchanging one currency for another have fallen this analogy has become more strained). Columbia’s Robert Mundell won the Nobel Prize in economics for his idea of “optimal currency areas,” the ideal area over which a particular currency should be used. The greater the region of substantial trade, the larger the ideal area; the greater the variance across the region in economic disturbances, the smaller the ideal area. While the euro is a great idea according to the first criterion, the stark difference in economic conditions in booming Ireland and struggling Germany makes the euro zone a mistake according to the second.

And just as currencies can lose their value to convey economic information in conditions of high inflation, so too can linguistic inflation destroy the communicative value of language. Political correctness is the most obvious example; when the cultural stigma attached to calling things as they are is too high, we lose the informative content of language. Important topics become off-limits, and information is lost when we speak of "undocumented immigrants" (which calls to mind someone whose papers blew over the side of the boat on the way over) or "Happy Holidays."

Languages also succeed when the costs of change to accommodate new ideas are small. In this respect there are also several other aspects of English that make it a strong candidate for the global language even if another language, say Hindi or Chinese, becomes important in its own right as the medium through which a significant amount of commercial or scientific exchange is conducted. First, it is (like Britain, Canada and the U.S. themselves) relatively welcoming to immigrants. Both those native English speakers who study Germanic languages and those who study Romance languages immediately notice some common features with English. That is no coincidence; English is said to be a creation of Germanic tribes who came in after the Romans, and presumably the Roman legacy, along with the arrival of Christianity and the Normans provided Latin influences as well. Greek roots are also easily observed in a lot of English. The result is that English is a marriage of these bigger families. As the British empire grew, and as immigrants poured into English-speaking North America, linguistic trade grew too. We owe our “pajamas” (an Urdu/Persian word) to the British Empires adventures in the Indian subcontinent, our “tsunami” to the inadequacy of the older “tidal wave,” and our “ennui” to the French having described that condition in a way that simply cannot be improved upon. (The welcoming, absorbing nature of English is ironically if not knowingly invoked every time it is referred to as the ”world’s lingua franca,” with “lingua franca” of course being a Latin term.)

Another candidate for the office of global language, Chinese, suffers first of all from its many different dialects (although the Chinese government has for years with mixed success attempted to impose the Mandarin dialect on that vast linguistic sprawl), and also because of the fact that it relies on an essentially fixed character set. The ballpoint pen, thus, must be rendered as yuanzibi, which translates as “atomic pen,” with the first two characters that denote “atom” meaning (as best I can translate) “primary seed” or “primary source.” Cumbersome translations must therefore be used in which information is surely lost. All languages are afflicted by this problem, but a static ideographic system will have it worst. In that sense Japanese is somewhat more flexible because it does not rely strictly on Chinese ideographs but on phonetic characters as well. One of their two alphabets is used for foreign words, and so if the native-language base of Japanese were bigger it would have a better chance than Chinese of triumphing as a regional language. (Japanese is much more grammatically difficult than Chinese, but that is another matter.)

Ultimately purely phonetic languages will probably triumph over ideographic ones, and which phonetic languages succeed is a function of greater marginal benefits for mastering a language given the stock of information already rendered in it. By mastering English one gets access to much more information than by mastering any other language, both through accessing the world’s current English output in the media and science, and by getting access to past stocks of knowledge, much of which has been translated.

What makes this rational response to existing incentives troubling is that for those who have a lot invested in the output of other languages, the triumph of English represents a threat to their competitive position. Bengali, Brazilian and of course French intellectuals have all bemoaned the encroachment of English into their lenguages. But that is garden-variety anti-globalization cultural protectionism. The extent to which English will replace, rather than coexist with, other languages in light of economic theory, and who might have the most reason to be upset about that, are topics for another day.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Frodo said...

A lot of misconceptions here (and I *am* a native English-speaker, for what it's worth).

"While people accurately and often scornfully note that Americans and the British tend to be monolingual to a much greater degree than other people, this is entirely predictable. The marginal benefit of learning a second language is smaller for people already fluent in the most globally influential one."

Are you kidding, or are you just really that clueless? When I went to work down in western Texas initially, I was told that to improve my small business's chances of success, I'd better improve my (very marginal) Spanish. Even more so for places like California, where Spanish has been spoken continuously for about 400 years. The best jobs in these places go to people who also know Spanish, not to English monolinguals. If you're going to Tokyo, forget about advancing too far unless you learn good Japanese. If you're working in Hamburg and Stuttgart, your English will be good for a couple weeks as a tourist-- and then you'd damn well better learn German if you want to actually work there. If you're just going to stay in the eastern United States for 50 years, then sure, you could get by with only English. But if you actually want to establish yourself somewhere else (or even in some parts of the USA), you really do need to know another language.

"the stark difference in economic conditions in booming Ireland and struggling Germany makes the euro zone a mistake according to the second. "

One of the more commonly cited and equally useless analogies to come up in these sorts of discussions. I'm from Ireland originally in fact before coming to the USA, and the comparison is ridiculous. Ireland is booming in large part precisely *because* Germany and other big Euro countries poured so much money into it. And you can't compare the two countries directly like that. Germany after WWII, during the Economic Miracle, was very much like Ireland today, and for a much more sustained period of time. Today, Germany is a more mature, industrialized economy, so of course it can't grow the way Ireland's is. Ireland OTOH has had the luxury of EU subsidies which in turn allow it to provide all kinds of breaks and amenities that attract business there. Ireland's a wonderful place, but there's really a lot less than meets the eye there in the economic boom. This analogy also fails to take into account why, exactly, so many countries are boosting their reserves of euros while reducing their hoard of dollars.

"First, it is (like Britain, Canada and the U.S. themselves) relatively welcoming to immigrants. Both those native English speakers who study Germanic languages and those who study Romance languages immediately notice some common features with English. "

But this is the case with many modern European languages. Do you think that German did not undergo something similar? Germanic roots, but centuries of rule by French-speaking nobility (during the medieval period, it's how the rulers of the various statelets communicated), ancient contact with the Roman Empire, Christianity, heavy trade with the Romance-speaking Mediterranean led to a big influx of Latin into German, about 30%. In Farsi there's not only native Farsi but also Arabic, French, English, Russian roots. Korean has borrowed heavily from a dozen languages. And countries like France, Spain, Germany, even China these days take in millions of foreigners from throughout the world who learn those countries' languages. English and English-speaking countries are hardly the only game in town.

"Another candidate for the office of global language, Chinese, suffers first of all from its many different dialects, and also because of the fact that it relies on an essentially fixed character set."

You really don't have the foggiest idea what you're talking about, do you? Most modern languages (including and especially English) have multiple dialects. Likewise, the "fixed character set" of Chinese is no more fixed than the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet used in English. Chinese speakers constantly innovate new and creative character combinations to express new ideas.

"The ballpoint pen, thus, must be rendered as yuanzibi, which translates as “atomic pen,” with the first two characters that denote “atom” meaning (as best I can translate) “primary seed” or “primary source.” Cumbersome translations must therefore be used in which information is surely lost."

That's called a "claque" or a "loan translation" and it's used in every language including English. Thousands upon thousands of scientific terms were imported into European languages from Latin as claques of this sort. It's how new words are coined, and the speakers of Chinese have no problem understanding the notion of a "ballpoint pen" or noting how it's used. In fact, since most scientific terms in Chinese are built out of simpler character radicals (rather than Greek and Latin as in English), if anything scientific jargon is intuitively much easier to grasp in Chinese than in English.

"All languages are afflicted by this problem, but a static ideographic system will have it worst."

Again, it's not static in any way, and in at least one sense Chinese in fact has a major advantage over English: The characters can be used to indicate meaning w/o being connected to any particular phonetic system, which in fact makes it much easier for people from, for example, Japan and Korea to communicate with Chinese people even if they don't speak each other's languages. Moreover, remember that Chinese can also be represented as the phonetic "pinyin" for even official purposes, a flexibility that you don't see with most other languages.

"so if the native-language base of Japanese were bigger it would have a better chance than Chinese of triumphing as a regional language. (Japanese is much more grammatically difficult than Chinese, but that is another matter.)"

Again, Chinese *can* be represented in the pinyin which it often is for non-natives such as Thais and Indonesians. That flexibility is if anything a big advantage, and it's a central development, the significance of which you entirely fail to comprehend.

"By mastering English one gets access to much more information than by mastering any other language, both through accessing the world’s current English output in the media and science, and by getting access to past stocks of knowledge, much of which has been translated."

But they don't necessarily get more access to *relevant* information. Languages are cultural and national vehicles after all, and for people in India, the bulk of relevant information may come in languages like Hindi and Tamil. Similarly, someone in Japan may find more value in Japanese or Chinese. Furthermore, the advantage of English as an information-bearer is reduced as concepts are translated into the other languages. English-speakers don't have to read Aristotle in Greek, Cervantes in Spanish, or Kant in German because they can read these great minds in translation. Likewise, useful literature in English can be translated into the other languages as needed.

"
What makes this rational response to existing incentives troubling is that for those who have a lot invested in the output of other languages, the triumph of English represents a threat to their competitive position. Bengali, Brazilian and of course French intellectuals have all bemoaned the encroachment of English into their lenguages."

This underscores how much you miss the point. People are extremely resistant to forsaking or demeaning their native languages since, whatever the gains to be had from a widespread global language like English, they are far outweighed by the costs of essentially disconnecting from a native tongue that is so rich in the literary, cultural and (often) even scientific concepts developing over centuries in a particular region or nation. You have the attitude of a very immature Johnny-come-lately who's never understood the accumulated wealth of a culture stretching over many generations, worth far more to a people than the meager and generally superficial appeal of a consumerist language that is so popular at the moment (and may not remain that way for much longer).

Already, schoolchildren in many countries in Europe are being required to take courses in Chinese (written and spoken) in anticipation of this language's growth in importance, while French and German are *increasing* in popularity in many regions of Eastern Europe as the Euro and EU increase their prestige and as universities in these countries become focal points. Outsourcing companies in India used to encourage their employees to learn almost exclusively English to win business. Now, a higher proportion are requiring many of their employees to learn other languages like German, Spanish and Japanese to attract business from other outsourcing countries. The global language picture is an evolving one, and it's evolving in ways that you apparently do not appreciate and probably may not like to hear, but it's happening whether you like it or not. It's a multilingual world and monolingualism really is a disadvantage.

7:20 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

Are you kidding, or are you just really that clueless?

Americans generally learn foreign languages than people of most other OECD countries. That is a fact. Your counter-example is actually the exception that proves the rule.


People are extremely resistant to forsaking or demeaning their native languages since, whatever the gains to be had from a widespread global language like English, they are far outweighed by the costs of essentially disconnecting from a native tongue that is so rich in the literary, cultural and (often) even scientific concepts developing over centuries in a particular region or nation.

"People" differ a lot. Some of them care about such things, some don't. (Thinking collectively in this way, about "people" as an undifferentiated mass, is IMHO part of what leads you astray.) "People" heavily invested in a culture will resist linguistic intrusion into it, and "people" eager to access the material of other cultures will not.

Languages are cultural and national vehicles after all, and for people in India, the bulk of relevant information may come in languages like Hindi and Tamil.

It may, but I doubt it, especially for Tamil. For the foreseeable future most Tamil speakers will benefit much more from learning English than English speakers (outside India) will from learning Tamil. If a vast scientific literature begins to be generated in Tamil, that will of course change.

As to which languages will dominate in the future, it is all highly speculative. We shall see.

12:16 PM  

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