Thursday, 1 March 2012

Economics of Language

parlez vous francais?

The ever charming Robert Lane Greene, of The Economist, recommends 'vous ne regrettez rien' for learning French in a series started by Intelligent Life to find the world's best Language to learn.

What if were we to learn another language? In the context of an integrated global economy, the internet, and affordable travel, what's the point of learning another language when English, for its simplicity, crudity and universality, would suffice as much in Imphal as it would in Barrow-in-Furness. If an Englishman wants to speak a foreign language, runs the old joke, he can always go abroad and speak English!

Regardless of the romanticism of burning away the midnight oil with a phrase book and a rusty Rosetta CD case, there is the obvious 'Opportunity Cost' to it all. In economic 'speak' this is certainly not a good thing because you could be doing something more worthwhile, such as acquiring a complex skill, MBA, or a diploma in Physics. Social planners, that is the invisible hand in market economies, do not want their workers and consumers spending time on fruitless activities which are not worth the paper their written on. This prevents the economy from reaching its productive potential and delivering to its maximum. So goes the neoclassical rant.

However, I feel learning a language is both complementary and compatible to discovering the unquantifiable 'Social Value' of a person. This is good for both the economy and society. Sadly, as Mr Greene confirms, in Britain the number of A-levels taken in French and German have fallen by half in less than 20 years. Upon reflection, a monolingual society and culture suffers from decay and stagnation as it festers in its own idleness. So here is to parlant Francais, sprechen Deutsch, speaking 'good' English, falando Portugues, يتحدث اللغة العربية, 日本語を話す ,हिंदी बोल.

And some of the other 6900 languages spoken every day!