Renowned non-fiction author Henry Hitchings covers SMU economist Shlomo Weber‘s new book “How Many Languages Do We Need? The Economics of Linguistic Diversity” (Princeton University Press).
Writing for the International Monetary Fund, Hitchings’ review “Speaking in Tongues” notes that Weber and his co-author, Victor Ginsburgh, have scrupulously researched the costs and benefits of the many languages across the globe. Hitchings, the author of “The Language Wars” and “The Secret Life of Words” among other books, notes that the books most thought-provoking section is the case study of linguistic policy in the European Union.
Hitchings, whose focus is language and cultural history, summarizes the message of the book: “Reform of the European Union’s linguistic workings calls for collaboration, which touches on a fundamental issue of the book: the vexed question of what the ‘we’ in the book’s title really means. It is a pronoun that implies togetherness. It is an appeal for community. But it evokes widely differing solidarities, bonds, and priorities. In any debate about language (or politics), ‘we’ is hard to come by, as this book makes very clear.”
Weber is the Robert H. and Nancy Dedman Trustee Professor of Economics at SMU and director of the Richard Johnson Center for Economic Studies at SMU. He is also a PINE Foundation professor of economics at the New Economic School, Moscow.
Weber’s main area of research is game theory and its applications to public finance, political economy and international trade. Weber has consulted on numerous projects for private businesses, international organizations and governments in Asia, North America, Western and Eastern Europe.
Speaking in Tongues
By Henry Hitchings
In this scrupulously researched study, Belgian economist Victor Ginsburgh, whose native language is Swahili, and game theorist Shlomo Weber, a Canadian citizen who is a native Russian speaker, assess the costs and benefits of the vast number of languages currently in use across the globe.
It is commonly assumed that a reduction in the number of languages improves efficiency. Although no one knows the exact number of living languages, the figure is astonishingly large—a sensible estimate would be 6,000–7,000. But half the world’s population has one out of a mere eleven of these as a first language.
Most developed economies are in countries where a single language predominates; in countries where there is great linguistic diversity there tends also to be much bureaucracy and wastefulness. The nonprofit SIL International, which maintains a database of the world’s languages, reports that 278 are currently used in Cameroon; the figures for Chad, Nigeria, and Papua New Guinea are, respectively, 131, 514, and 830. It is easy to see how this kind of linguistic multiplicity might impede economic development—for instance, by hampering geographical and social mobility and by obstructing many citizens’ access to key legal services.
Utopian thinkers have long imagined that technology and political planning will one day end civilization’s linguistic tension and confusion. Today there is support for the idea of establishing English as the global lingua franca. Indeed, many believe it already is. Yet the dominance of one language leads to the erosion of others—potentially a catastrophe for the world’s linguistic and cultural ecosystem. Ginsburgh and Weber quote the playwright Ariel Dorfman, born in Chile but now a U.S. citizen: “The ascendancy of English, like so many phenomena associated with globalization, leaves too many invisible losers, too many people silenced.”
Ginsburgh and Weber often write in a highly technical fashion, scrutinizing such matters as cladistic distance, ethnolinguistic fractionalization, and dichotomous disenfranchisement indices. Yet this analysis is presented crisply, and there are plenty of well-chosen snippets from commentators including Mario Vargas Llosa and Amartya Sen. The discussion embraces not only the costs of translation and Joseph Greenberg’s classic attempts to quantify diversity, but also the quirks of Finnish private investors and the Eurovision Song Contest.
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