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.