forwarding: Economic Value of Language Diversity

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Apr 8 13:23:39 UTC 2002

LINGUIST List 13.954 Sun Apr 7 2002

Message 1: Disc: Economic Value of Lang Diversity

From: Stefanie Herrmann <herrmann at> Subject: Disc:
Economic Value of Lang Diversity

I would like to comment on two details of this discussion: economy and
bio-diversity. First of all from the perspective of a cultural
anthropologist, economy is but one aspect of a culture. Now in our
"western" capitalistic culture, economy presents itself as the most
important part of culture.  And the god of progress considers all other
ways of life as underdeveloped and doomed to fade away (this is not unlike
communism viewed diversity). But this is only the inner discourse of this
particular way of life. Nevertheless even in western-Europe and north
America other parts of culture than economy play an important role. And
who knows how long our way of living will be the powerful one? People may
give up languages for a number of reasons, political pressure (up to the
menace of death for those speaking a language) was mentioned.  But there
are also reasons to cling to a language. Like for example the case of
reviving Welsh, that is doing nowadays much better than Irish, precisely
because it is needed for the Welsh identity. Apart from the economic
utility, bio-diversity was mentioned as a quasi genetic utility: survival
of the species. It is all too true that we have survived because we have
only one specification as a species and this is our adaptability or
NON-SPECIFICATION. Our ability to carve (here I had to look up in a
dictionary) our environment to our needs by means of technology and
ideology. As we can not foresee future requirements, we should not try to
control cultural or genetic diversity. Nowadays there is a tendency to try
and preserve cultures in a kind of living museum or zoo. Trying to
convince the !Kung (South African) to go and live like their ancestors
with all the thirst and hunger. This is arrogant. People will make choices
according to their needs _if_ they are in a position to do so.  And
"utility" is not the only relevant factor at all if it comes to culture,
and to language as a manifestation of culture. Not a single culture is
wholly constructed along the lines of utility aiming at pure survival.
People also need for instance aesthetics or identity. So in every respect
it is short sighted to accept only the economic argument about the
"utility" of languages. P. S. I will have to look up "utilitarism" in the
Brockhaus (German Encyclopedia).

Stefanie Herrmann Universitaet Tuebingen Germany e-mail:
herrmann at

Message 2: Economic Value of Language Diversity

Date: Sat, 06 Apr 2002 13:27:05 +1000
From: Theresa Savage <tsavage at>
Subject: Economic Value of Language Diversity

Miller's article has got to be one of the best things that ever happened
to scholarship in endangered languages as far as I am concerned.  It
highlights the fact that it is not only minority groups and linguists who
have an opinion about the pros and cons of language diversity.
Researchers in the field of business, particularly international business
and, more specifically in an area known as 'Decision Science' (part of
studies in Management and, yes, they do regard it as a 'science'), are
delving into this very issue.  I have been involved in the 'Decision
Sciences' research too since a restructuring at my university put
Languages into the School of Business in 1996.  The longer we are located
in this school, the stronger the pressure to 'refocus' research to be 'in
line' with business.  So, to make a long story short, it is not because I
was so astute to realise that linguists have to address linguistic issues
that apply to international business, but rather a decision on my behalf
to survive in spite of economic rationalism.  In order to ensure that my
old department has a place in the School of Business, I have been doing
some collaborative research with a 'Decision Scientist'.  We have been
investigating ethical ways for multinational corporations to make
decisions about language choice based on the linguistic point of view
using social judgment theory (and a lot of statistical analysis, which is
what seems to make it so 'scientific'). I am not aware of any other
collaborative research of this sort, but it is obvious that there are many
linguists who do/have done research about the economics of
language/bilingualism or the use of language by multinational firms.
Franois Grin, Franois Vaillancourt, Florian Coulmas, Nigel Holden, Jernudd
Bjorn, Albert Breton and Peter Mieszkowski are only a few such people.
In fact it is Florian Coulmas (1992, Language and Economy) who threw down
the challenge, "*the value of language is determined by a number of
factors, all of which contribute to make language not only a medium but
also an element of economic process.  By recapitulating the most important
ones we can now approximate a more detailed specification of what is to be
understood by the term "value of language," although the weighing of the
factors is a difficult problem yet to be resolved.  At the present state
of our knowledge it seems impossible to me to offer a solution, which is
not only well argued but also free of arbitrary decisions. This is due to
a deficit in theoretical and empirical research, which can only be amended
gradually by collecting more information on how economic processes are
affected by linguistic conditions*" (Coulmas 1992:88-89).

In other words, we are trying to develop a framework for the assessment of
the value of a language within the context of a firm's strategic

In the course of my collaboration with a Decision Scientist, it has struck
me that although he is an altruistic person and most of the people I have
met at a Decision Science conference seem to be interested in ethical
practices for businesses (and that does include the language issues too),
there are a lot of people out there who are not that way inclined.
Besides, the person I am collaborating with does not have a linguistics
background, although he is studying it based on readings I suggest to him.
What makes matters worse, the ones making the decisions have the power to
either take the opinion of linguists and minority language groups
seriously or not.  If we do not address these more 'unpleasant' questions
seriously from the point of view that decisions about languages are being
made by multinational business corporations, then we can not be effective
in our fight to help save endangered languages.  The asking of unpleasant
questions is a good thing.  We should not be dependent on people like
Miller to ask these questions.  I am involved in this line of research and
I could use some help from people who share my views.  I have a heavy
teaching commitment and not much time to devote to the research side of
these kinds of issues.  It would be so nice to have more linguists working
in this field or at least understand that if I do ask a heretical question
on this list, you will have some idea of where I am coming from.


Theresa Savage Marketing and Languages The School of Business Swinburne
University of Technology John Street Hawthorn, Victoria Australia 3122

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