Study: English-language dominance marginalizes most EU citizens

Stock photo of a man's hand writing 'Do you speak English?' on a clear panelThe European Union has 27 member countries and 23 official languages, but its official business is carried out primarily in one language — English. Yet the striking findings of a new study show that barely a third of the EU’s 500 million citizens speak English.

What about the other two-thirds? They are linguistically disenfranchised, say the study’s authors.

For the EU’s non-English speakers, their native languages are of limited use in the EU’s political, legal, communal and business spheres, conclude economists Shlomo Weber of SMU and Victor Ginsburgh of the Free University of Brussels (ULB), the authors who conducted the study. Those who are disenfranchised have limited access to EU laws, rules, regulations and debates in the governing body — all of which may violate the basic principles of EU society, the researchers say.

“Language is the proxy for engagement. People identify strongly with their language, which is integral to culture and traditions,” Weber says. “Language is so explosive; language is so close to how you feel.”

Weber and Ginsburgh base their findings on a new methodology they developed to quantitatively evaluate both costs and benefits of government policies to either expand or reduce diversity. The method unifies previous approaches to measure language diversity’s impact, an area of growing interest to scholars of economics and other social sciences.

“With globalization, people feel like they’ve been left on the side of the road. If your culture, your rights, your past haven’t been respected, how can you feel like a full member of society?” says Weber. “It is a delicate balance. People must decide if they want to trade their languages to increase by a few percentage points the rate of economic growth.”

Beyond the EU, the Weber-Ginsburgh methodology can evaluate linguistic policies in other nations, too, including the United States. It builds on a body of earlier published research by Weber, Ginsburgh and other economists.

They report their findings and present the methodology in their new book, How Many Languages Do We Need? The Economics of Linguistic Diversity (Princeton University Press). The research is noted on the web site of the International Monetary Fund in a review by Henry Hitchings.

Previous researchers found that 90 percent of the EU’s official documents are drafted in English and later translated to other languages, often French and sometimes German. Previous research also has documented frustration among EU officials with the political entity’s multitude of languages, as members wonder whether they are being understood.

Against that backdrop, the Weber-Ginsburgh analysis of the EU used official data from a routinely conducted EU survey of member states carried out in 2005 and later. The data came from answers to questions that included: What is your mother tongue? Which languages are you conversant in? How do you rate your fluency on a scale of very good, good or basic?

Weber and Ginsburgh found that of all the languages, English embraces the most EU citizens, followed by German second and French third. Yet those languages fall far short of including all people. Nearly two-thirds of EU citizens — 63 percent — don’t speak or understand English, while 75 percent don’t readily speak or understand German, and 80 percent don’t speak or understand French.

“English is spoken almost everywhere around the world,” the authors write, “but it is still far from being spoken by almost everyone.” At the same time, many non-native speakers of English feel the onslaught of that language’s global domination, a phenomenon that wasn’t generally foreseen and that evolved only within the past 60 years.

Weber and Ginsburgh discovered one EU age group that is less marginalized by English than other groups: youth ages 15 to 29. Fewer than half the young people – 43 percent – are disenfranchised, the researchers found.

Written by Margaret Allen

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Research Spotlight: Mathematical model predicts nations’ stability

Stock photo of flags of many nations from a low angleThanks to a new model created by an international research group, it is now possible to predict which European countries are more likely to become united or which are more likely to break up. It does so by not only considering demographic and economic criteria but, most ingeniously of all, culture and genetics.

SMU economist Shlomo Weber was a member of the team and co-author of the study that was published in the Journal of Economic Growth.

The scientists said their method quantitatively analyzes the stability and disintegration of European nations. It also estimates the implicit benefits of a larger European Union or, in other words, what would happen if the EU were one country. They also give empirical support for the use of genetics as an indicator of cultural heterogeneity amongst nations.

Besides Weber, other researchers included scientists from the Carlos III University of Madrid, the Toulouse School of Economics in France and the New Moscow School of Economics in Russia.

It has always been common knowledge that the more nations that join together in unity, the greater the profits, said Ignacio Ortuño Ortín, a researcher at the University of Madrid. This is because the market gets bigger and costs are shared. On the other hand, when many regions or countries are brought together there is a difference in populations, both economically and culturally. This, in turn, implies a high cost. There was a need for methodology that quantitatively analyzes these two aspects using specific cases.

The model the researchers put forward includes factors such as a country’s wealth alongside size and cultural differences in terms of population genetics. According to the experts, the most difficult aspect to quantify when making predictions is the “measurement” of countries from a cultural point of view.

“We take population genetics data and then use it to support the fact that such genetic distance between regions can be used as a good tool when approaching cultural distance,” Ortuño said.

According to the scientists, this does not suggest that genetics explains culture but that there is a correlation between the two. This means that populations that have intermixed more will also display greater cultural similarity. “We are not saying that genes explain the way a person thinks,” clarifies Ortuño.

In order to put consistency of their model to the test, a real-life case was chosen: the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The authors of the study found that the economic differences between its republics determined the order of disintegration – a fact that coincided with their model. Likewise, cultural differences, although small, played a key role in triggering instability.

Courtesy of the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology

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