[lg policy] book review: How Many Languages Do We Need? The Economics of Linguistic Diversity

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jun 3 14:55:08 UTC 2011

How Many Languages Do We Need? The book title alone is geared to
startle. Who are Victor Ginsburgh and Shlomo Weber to ask? And is
"need" even a word that should apply to languages? In truth, How Many
Languages Do We Need? The Economics of Linguistic Diversity (Princeton
University Press) asks a far narrower question than its title implies.
The study does note a current estimate of the world's extant
languages, 6,909, according to the 2009 edition of Ethnologue. But
their survival or demise is not the topic for the book's two economist
authors, Ginsburgh, at the Free University of Brussels, and Weber, at
Southern Methodist University and the New Economic School in Moscow.
Instead, they are interested in multilingualism and the policy choices
societies make that may disenfranchise speakers of non-core languages.
"Economists are two-handed," they write. "While one hand supports the
virtues of linguistic diversity, the other hand would discreetly point
out that they do not come for free."

One caution. Having a Romance language or two, or a smattering of
German or Chinese, does not help to speak the lingua of economics. The
text has a generous portion of equations and tables, but the former
are usually somehow translated and the latter usually clear. The
authors also outline a "piecemeal reading" that skims the technical

With an eye toward linguistic, genetic, and cultural "distances," the
authors focus on how language figures in such realms as trade,
migration, and literary translation. They even explore vote trading by
linguistic blocs (Cypriots and Greeks, for example) in that cheesefest
known as the Eurovision Song Contest. Their various models culminate
in a case study of "Babylon in Brussels" or the European Union's
language problem. When the E.U. was just 15 members, the authors
write, it was already spending the equivalent of 686 million euros
annually on translation and interpretation. Now with 27 members and 23
official languages, that figure has risen significantly, with some
estimates as high as 1.8 billion, even with a lot of informal ways
officials minimize translation. Moving to an English-only approach
would incur multilingual hurt feelings and disenfranchisement of 62.6
percent of E.U. citizens, they say, at least until Europe's more
English-savvy youth are the majority of bureaucrats. Besides, today
native and other English speakers can already "free ride" in the

Analyzing population counts, sensitivities, and other factors, the
authors describe how they arrive at English, French, German, Italian,
Spanish, and Polish, in that order, as their choice for new "core
languages," which they say will account for 75.7 percent of the E.U.
public. Translating into other languages would be the responsibility
of their given countries, with perhaps some compensation from
Brussels. No aid to taste for Eurovision singers perhaps, but a help
for E.U. expenditures.


[Note:  this is the second half of a double book review in the
Chronicle of Higher
Education; the first half has nothing to do with language, so has been
deleted. (HS)]


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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