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Everyday Economics: Inequalities In Language And How To Counteract Them

Fluency in a certain language can be a huge privilege. English-speakers are linguistically fortunate, many of us simply by virtue of birthplace. Being the most widely spoken language in the world, English holds many financial and social advantages not possessed by other minority languages and therefore results in an increased importance placed on one’s ability to speak it.

Growing globalism has increased the dominance of certain languages while leaving others to gradually fade into foreign insignificance. Why invest hours of your time in Portuguese when you could be learning a financially beneficial language like Mandarin? Economic well-being is enhanced when all members of a society can communicate with each other; production activities and interactions between buyers and sellers all necessitate a mutual understanding of the undertakings, something only a common language can achieve. It then follows that the more widely spoken a language is, the greater the benefits are to learn it – and that if a single language could unite all citizens of the world, the assumption is that linguistic benefits would be equally distributed between all countries and not remain concentrated in those which are already economically powerful.

To understand the huge inequalities that languages can perpetrate, we should explore the impact of language on immigrants. More often than not, immigrants will not have had much exposure to the dominant language in the particular country into which they are entering. Their native language upon arrival therefore becomes a minority language. Without knowledge of the dominant language, social integration and economic prospects are far less than those who learn the dominant language. The ability to communicate with native speakers of the dominant language will, of course, develop over time – but this is time many cannot afford, and only widens any pre-existing inequalities and prejudices held against immigrants.

Instead of pursuing policies that close borders and attempt to return immigrants to their ‘home’ countries, governments should offer free language courses in order to provide immigrants with the best possible future prospects, while also reducing the inevitable prejudice that festers in the native population towards those who are not able to speak their language. In England, the ESFA (Education and Skills Funding Agency) provides government-funded education in the English language – but only up to GCSE level.

It is near impossible for anyone to claim that with their GCSE Spanish they’d be able to hop on a plane and land a job with Banco Santander. This lack of linguistic education provision only continues to further the dissonance and inequalities between migrants and the native population, and strengthening it is an absolute necessity: education is absolutely vital in increasing social mobility, widening access to the labour market to all those within society.

A further issue that applies to immigrants is that several countries (the US, Australia and Canada included) take into account language proficiency when considering a citizenship application. Mobility, then, is afforded to those who have already had the opportunity to learn the dominant language, and discriminates against those who have not. Whether or not you consider this a justified policy, it allows such countries to remove any responsibility of pervasive linguistic inequalities whilst simultaneously perpetrating them on a wider scale.

In response to linguistic inequalities, the Belgian economist Philippe Philippe van Parijs proposed the implentation of a language tax. Arguing that we should encourage the dissemination of English as a lingua franca, he also believes that the resulting injustices must be countered by a tax on Anglophone countries. These taxes would help compensate expenses in linguistic education for those countries with less widespread languages.

Although this would negatively impact the countries being taxed and would inevitably be met with outcries of injustice – whilst also being difficult to implement on practical terms – perhaps such a tax should be considered for those countries less willing to accept immigrants with lower language skills; or indeed that such a tax is based upon the level of linguistic education provided to immigrants. In this way, both linguistic power and linguistic responsibility could be redistributed.

Of course, if Esperanto – the most successfully constructed attempt at a universal language so far – were to be spoken across the globe, linguistic inequality would be eradicated and none of these investments or taxes would be necessary. Pursuing individual interests in acquiring language skills will most likely not lead to the optimal outcome; a language’s advantages are rooted in the number of people who speak it. If we view language as a communication system, then the most efficient outcome is clearly a single language where all members can communicate. The maximised economic value would result from members of society taking the decision to prioritise a new, universal language over their native language.

Asking people to renounce their native language is, however, not a simple task. Humans are much more than mere calculations of efficiency and financial benefits; we are our history and our culture, our society. Why would Italians ever decide to renounce the language of Dante, Andrea Bocelli and The Leopard? Why would Americans ever decide to renounce the language of Stephanie Meyer, Taylor Swift and The Kissing Booth?

Language is not just a means of communication, but also the expression of an entire nation’s identity. There will always be a trade-off between valuing and preserving a people’s native language, and the return of an investment in human capital that learning a dominant or common language provides. This is the most fundamental reason as to why a universal language is unlikely to prevail; if it did, it would be an utter tragedy for humanity’s diversity of culture and society. Language wholly disproves the Homo Economicus, who pursues the optimal outcome of maximising his utility; to our own financial detriment, we will always remain deeply connected to our cultural, and therefore linguistic, roots. For this reason, it becomes the responsibility of governments across the world to counteract linguistic injustices and redistribute linguistic power. Whether through taxes or education initiatives, a greater recognition of the privileges and disadvantages that each language affords us is becoming increasingly vital.

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Flora is studying French and Italian at Christ Church. She would like someone to believe her when she says the scar on her knee came from a shark and hopes this biography will make it happen.