As English becomes the language of commerce/business, should we ignore others languages…

Larry Summers recently said:

English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile. While there is no gainsaying the insights that come from mastering a language, it will over time become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East.

Victor Ginsburgh of Université Libre de Bruxelles reacts to this comment. He says the world is far more diverse than Summers thinks:

Language is an essential expression of culture (and culture is, according to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, shaped by one’s native language). Read Shakespeare’s Richard II to see what happened to Thomas Mowbray whom King Richard exiled to Venice (“Have I deserved at your Highness’ hands/The language I have learn’d these forty years/For my native English, now I must forego;/And now my tongue’s use is to me no more/… What is thy sentence, then but speechless death,/Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath?”). Check Fernando Pessoa and his “my homeland is my language”, or Ngugi wa Thiongo: “The choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to a people’s definition of themselves in relation to the entire universe” (Thiongo 1986).

Remember Sri Lanka, and the many lives it cost because one language group (out of the two main ones) decided that its language would become “more important” than the other. The reverse is also true, and the European Union is ludicrous in its defence that 24 languages (including Croatian, spoken in the recently admitted 28th member) are official, and that all official documents should be translated into all 23 other languages. This is by the way not the case in practice, but the EU still spends over $1.4 billion every year to interpret and translate from one language into all others. Just walk in the corridors of the many buildings of the European institutions in Brussels, and you will realise that the non-native English that is spoken is hardly understandable by a native English speaker, and that English native speakers lose others when they go into somewhat deeper discussions (Wright 2007). Is this what Professor Summers would like?

He looks at research which analyses whether common language helps in trade. Yes it does:

Worldwide, English is indeed the language that is most often used in international contacts and trade. But it is not the only one, as shown by Jacques Melitz (2008) who uses two measures of linguistic distances between trading partners and tries to estimate their effect. ‘Open-circuit communication’ (OCC) demands that the language be either official or widely spoken (at least 20% of the population knows the language). Spanish, for instance, will be an OCC between Bolivia (where 44% of the population knows Spanish) and Mexico (88%). A ‘direct communication’ (DC) language is any language common (that is, spoken by at least 4% in each country) in a pair of countries.

In short, Melitz suggests distinguishing between two channels through which the trade-enhancing effect may take place: OCCs that depend on translation (which can be produced as long as there are enough people who can provide it in both countries) and DCs (which enable traders to communicate directly). He finds that ‘direct communication’ has the largest positive effect on trades: A 10% increase in the probability that two citizens, one in country A, the other in B, speak the same language increases their trades by 10%. Other European OCCs also contribute, but somewhat less. However, and interestingly enough, Melitz also shows that English as an OCC is no more effective than other European languages in promoting trade.

So despite some evidence showing opposite results, should we go for one language?

One Response to “As English becomes the language of commerce/business, should we ignore others languages…”

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