An Inter-Disciplinary Workshop on Language Economics


Jeudi 19 Juin 2014, 9h00 - Vendredi 20 Juin 2014, 18h00


The University of Chicago Center in Paris, 6, rue Thomas Mann, 75013 Paris

An Inter-Disciplinary Workshop on Language Economics

Societal multilingualism has interested linguists and economists in two strikingly different ways in recent years, with linguists celebrating the cultural diversity that languages as representational systems embody. Economists, on the other hand, see societal multilingualism as an obstacle to economic development, especially in countries of the developing world, which typically have numerous genetically related and unrelated languages and which have limited financial resources. To linguists, privileging one or a handful of languages for the sake of economic developing augurs “language endangerment,” which entails reduction of linguistic and cultural diversity in the world. For them, this evolution automatically disadvantages those populations that have to give up their heritage languages and must compete for jobs and other roles in their societies in a language that they are less fluent and competitive in, at least in the early stages of language shift. Economists have advocated investing the limited financial resources mostly in economic development and developing an education system that enable children whose ethnolinguistic backgrounds are different from that of the dominant language to learn the latter. Linguists, on the other hand, have argued that such a system disadvantages children that receive education in a language other than their own, as their graduation rate is lower than that of those for whom the dominant language is also their vernacular. Both groups of experts have talked to governments and advised them regarding the economic development or better school systems in their respective countries but seldom have they read each other, let alone spoken to each other, especially regarding their contradictory advice to government officials. The proposed workshop aims at ultimately changing this state of affairs, as explained below.


Linguists have also tied language endangerment, as observed today around the world, to the environmentalists’ concern with endangered species. Advocates of language revitalization have often developed a discourse that is very much inspired by that of environmentalists, worrying very little about whether their advocacy may contribute to further marginalizing economically the populations on whose behalf they write and/or speak. Part of the problem here is that such language advocates have tended to conceive of languages as cultural representational systems, which must be maintained (regardless of whether they are adaptive to the ambient socioeconomic ecologies), whereas economists have privileged the conception of languages as tools that help humans communicate about themselves and about their physical and socioeconomic ecologies in ways that are adaptive to these ecologies. They have hardly paid attention to the social status of languages as markers of social identity and the extent to which the strength of that identity may favor or disfavor the recommended economic development plans. Nonetheless, one cannot deny that language shift has not had only negative effects on the affected populations; it has often helped particular people adapt (better) to socioeconomic ecologies that would otherwise be disadvantageous to them. To be sure, linguists must also learn that part of the problem in situations of language shift that have been disadvantageous to some “indigenous” people has had to do with ecological factors other than language, for instance when carriers of particular phenotypes are stigmatized simply because they look different. Social prejudice is another issue in itself. 


This summary actually captures an important aspect of the history of mankind, marked by layers of migrations/population movements, of colonization, of population contacts, of competition for resources, of the domination of one group by another, and of consequent changes in the linguistic landscape of different parts of the world. This is obvious, for instance, in the Romance countries of Europe, where Latin-based languages have replaced Celtic languages; in the United Kingdom, which has become a predominantly Germanic country linguistically, while one should wonder what is the proportion of its population that is still purely Celtic; in North Africa, where various modern Arabic varieties have displaced Berber/Tuareg-like languages; etc. As concerns grow today over the demise of indigenous languages and cultures of the Americas and Australia in particular, little attention has been paid to the unique nature of the emergent American and Australian identities as distinct from the corresponding dominant European languages and cultures, or to the fact that, for instance, Native American casinos make more money in English than in an indigenous language. More complexity and inter-ecology variation arise when attention is also extended to Africa and parts of Asia, where language competition is not necessarily between indigenous and European languages but often among indigenous languages.


While linguists have been arguing for using heritage languages in education to increase students’ learning success, especially if the heritage language is also the mother tongue, they have said nothing about the kind of socioeconomic ecology that would sustain usage of the relevant languages as vernaculars. Advocates for empowering “indigenous populations” by enabling them to use their heritage languages in the economic system have said nothing about the kind of economic development and the specific economic sectors that would use these languages. Nor have they addressed the issue of the financial investment needed to implement such policies, and whether they are realistic and affordable, especially in polities where national economies have stagnated or deteriorated.

Eventually, linguists and economists alike are confronted with the issue of when languages count as assets or liabilities for the populations associated with them. Is multilingualism as a compromise between the representation-system and the communicative-tool conceptions of languages sustainable in all societies? Or should we treat the representation-system view as an ideal that is not always practical and the communicative-tool alternative as a satisficing practical solution to the competition between languages that arises from particular population structures and from interactional practices? Do policy makers always have the resources and/or the power to accommodate the wishes of linguists? Is it always wise to follow the recommendations of economists? 


 It is evidently high time linguists talked with economists concerned with pulling marginalized populations and most nations of the economic and political “South” from economic poverty or under-development. Linguists should consider seriously the practical wisdom of a satisficing compromise that uses fewer languages in some cases, while economists should look into why linguists are so strong on treating languages as social identity markers and carriers of culture-specific world views. When can one position be better than the other, assuming that there are no two socioeconomic ecologies that are identical? We have definitely come to a juncture where economists and linguists need to “educate” each other and find some common grounds of satisficing solutions, especially as politicians genuinely interested in improving the schooling and the socioeconomic conditions of their citizenry will increasingly be turning to “experts” for technical advice.


Thus, one must address the following questions among others: What is the point of being schooled in one’s heritage language when this is different from that of the lucrative modern economy, at a time when the overall national or regional population is becoming socioeconomically integrated? Why should anybody pretend to develop a country economically when its citizens are not equally competitive within the economic market and language disadvantages some of them? Do languages really have rights to education and economic systems in the same ways that citizens have rights to these institutions? Where are the resources going to come from to satisfy language rights?


 We must also expose another embarrassing aspect of the scholarship on this “wicked problem”: the experts we read are typically people of European descent in the Developed World, though they have done field work and sometimes really lived in the Third World. There should be more scholars from the latter part of the world, especially people who can also speak about “informal economy,” its sustainability, the language(s) in which it operates, and the competitiveness of its practitioners in relation to “formal economy” where the pace is set by the industrialized world.


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