Economic Theory

Why it’s a good thing when languages die out: a boorish philistine’s take

According to UNESCO, 230 of the world’s languages have died out over the past sixty years. Many more, UNESCO claims, will die out in the near future.

The reduction in the global number of languages is usually not headline-grabbing, but when it is covered in the media, it is always presented as a self-evidently bad thing. For example, in an article entitled ‘Languages: Why we must save dying tongues’, the BBC quotes a linguist who argues that “we spend huge amounts of money protecting species and biodiversity, so why should it be that the one thing that makes us singularly human shouldn’t be similarly nourished and protected?”.

But for a philistine economist like me, it is not at all obvious why a reduction in the number of languages should be a problem. On the contrary: I strongly suspect that the cost of the ‘marginal language’ greatly exceeds its benefit, and that the current number of languages in the world greatly exceeds the optimum number. Language plurality is a hangover from a time when people rarely strayed far from their settlements, and had no need to communicate with anyone outside of their own small community. In today’s global economy, it is a source of great inefficiency.

From an economic perspective, the cost of overcoming language barriers is a transaction cost like any other, comparable to the cost of overcoming physical or regulatory barriers. And just as e.g. shipping costs or compliance costs are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices, so is the cost of translating documents, hiring interpreters etc.

That cost is not trivial. Translation and interpretation services represent a global industry worth $37bn, roughly equivalent to the GDP of Lithuania. Some see that as a good thing. “We’re seeing a paradigm shift”, says Karl-Johan Lönnroth, the former director general of the European Commission’s translation department. “Languages are seen as boosting economic growth rather than being a cost.”

Unfortunately, this is nonsense. Languages are a cost. We would be better off if we did not have to spend billions on remedying the fact that we don’t understand each other. Lönnroth’s logic is a good illustration of what Bryan Caplan calls the ‘make-work bias’, the tendency to mistake job creation for wealth creation. Taking Lönnroth’s argument a bit further, we would be even better off if we invented additional languages, ideally as complicated as possible, in order to create even more jobs for translators and interpreters. The problem is that unlike, say, restaurant meals or movies, the ‘consumption’ of translation services is not enjoyable in its own right. These services help us to overcome an obstacle, and while this undoubtedly make us better off, we would have been even better off if the obstacle had never been there in the first place.

Either way – when it comes to assessing the economic cost of language barriers, the $37bn figure is only the tip of the iceberg. It does not, for example, include the cost of language training. The UK gets off lightly here, but in non-English speaking countries, companies that operate internationally often have to spend a fortune on ‘Business English’ courses to get their employees up to speed. Nor does the figure include the wage premiums that companies have to pay in order to attract multilingual employees, or the less measurable cost associated with misunderstandings and disruptions.

Even then, those are only the static costs. Language barriers are, in essence, trade barriers, and like all trade barriers, they lead to a less efficient international division of labour. What makes it worse is that they are asymmetric barriers, which means that they do not just reduce trade, but also distort it. We probably trade ‘too much’, relatively speaking, with e.g. Australia and New Zealand, and too little with e.g. Japan and South Korea.

Language barriers also reduce international labour mobility. Were it not for those barriers, it is unlikely that grotesquely high levels of youth unemployment in Spain, Greece and Italy would coincide with sectoral staff shortages in the Netherlands, Germany and Austria for so long. But while language barriers reduce immigration overall, they also make the integration of immigrants harder (without deterring the type of immigrant who prefers to retreat into a self-segregated minority community, rather than integrating into mainstream society).

In short, language barriers make us poorer. “But that’s such a horribly boorish way of looking at it!”, I can hear you say, followed by something about the price of everything and the value of nothing. Foreign languages are not just an obstacle, you say, they are also enriching and rewarding.

But while there may well be substantial non-financial benefits, there are also substantial non-financial costs. If you are a polyglot who enjoys conversing in foreign languages, as well as watching foreign movies and reading foreign books in the original, you may well be a net beneficiary from the current situation. But even then, you will have experienced the frustration that comes with not understanding what people are trying to tell you, and with people not understanding what you are trying to tell them. That frustration is a massive non-financial cost, and I would bet that for the vast majority of people, it greatly outweighs any non-financial benefits (because these are mostly reserved for those who reach a very high level of language proficiency). And even polyglots cannot freely choose where they want to live: language barriers effectively close off large parts of the world to them.

I normally try to spell out the policy implications of an economic argument, and include at least one tangible policy recommendation in every blog piece. There aren’t any, in this case. We are where we are, and we’re stuck with it. And that’s bad enough. But we should at least stop kidding ourselves that obstacles are a blessing. If we could flip a switch, and reset the world to a single common language, we should do it without a moment’s hesitation.


Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

5 thoughts on “Why it’s a good thing when languages die out: a boorish philistine’s take”

  1. Posted 13/01/2017 at 11:48 | Permalink

    Moron who cant speak his own language no doubt. Lets make all flavours vanilla while were at it. Cheaper easier and UNINVERSAL. What an asshole.

  2. Posted 13/01/2017 at 14:36 | Permalink

    “But even then, you will have experienced the frustration that comes with not understanding what people are trying to tell you, and with people not understanding what you are trying to tell them. ”

    “If we could flip a switch, and reset the world to a single common language, we should do it without a moment’s hesitation.”

    Kris – this is surely an argument for a common language, not a single language.

    I think there are some advantages in a diversity of languages just as there are advantages in a common language. We could have both (and arguably, English is already becoming the global common language). We don’t have to abolish the former to gain the latter.

    I would provide an example from the field of currency, by way of illustration. The EU could have adopted a common currency (i.e. in addition to national currencies) instead of a single currency (replacing single currencies). How much better the former would have been!

  3. Posted 13/01/2017 at 17:15 | Permalink

    HJ – yes, I have no problems with regional languages, as long as everybody in that region is perfectly bilingual. (Catalan would be a good example.) That might well be the best of both worlds: you get the identity-forming, social-capital-generating effects of an in-group language, without increases in transaction costs.

  4. Posted 14/01/2017 at 02:16 | Permalink

    Whereas some elites think it ideal if peoples get to retain their “native” language so it doesn’t die out, the actual people involved have a rather different take on the matter. They also want to speak the language that the elites already have, and take for granted, so they too have access to the world’s wealth. So they are dropping their local languages and learning more useful ones.

    Why not advocate that some cultures shouldn’t cure local diseases as well as languages? After all malaria is a part of Haitian culture, so it would be a shame to lose it. And will Sudanese culture not be altered irrevocably by the loss of Sleeping Sickness? And think of all the wealth creation that having to have doctors and nurses and hospitals brings!

    Yes, that’s an extreme analogy, but to argue that other people should have to bear an extra burden because you like the variety is selfishness incarnate.

    If you think the world needs to have lots of extra languages then you go ahead and learn some obscure Bantu dialect. Let the rest of us choose the language that gets us further ahead for the least effort.

  5. Posted 16/01/2017 at 00:15 | Permalink

    There are many language spoken only by a few people, and they are the ones to die out for good. They have little cultural “consumption” value. For example, Nigeria has over 521, but the great writers like Wole Soyinka writes English with some pidgin. Also cultural goods have markets and obey the laws of demand and supply. That is, literature accessible to a greater audience is more likely to gain recognition.
    So, we should teach English as first language in all schools and adopt it as a global common economic language. Maybe this is the switch Prof Niemietz speaks about, and it will take a generation to turn it over, but not much longer. Although on a local level, many universities and firms already switched to English. This is a market driven change already happening. Publish or perish in academia means publish in English or perish.
    For pure nationalist reasons to please the right-wing populists many governments work against the market forces by forcing their local language on immigrants and international students even if the latter is of no relevance. Notable examples of countries I know from personal working experience are Malaysia and Germany. Malaysia enforces Bahasa courses on my students, a language outside Malaysia as valuable as Klingon (which at least is widely spoken at Star Trek conventions). Germany required foreign spouses to be fluent in German before issuing a visa, a regulation revoked by a EU court.

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