If you ask Europeans about the metric system, they declare America should get with the program because it is more popular. When it comes to speaking English, however, barely a third of the EU's 500 million citizens speak English yet that is how the business of the EU's 27 member countries is conducted. No one is expected to speak 23 different languages.
The other two-thirds are linguistically disenfranchised, say economists Shlomo Weber of Southern Methodist University and Victor Ginsburgh of Free University of Brussels, and people who are disenfranchised have limited access to EU laws, rules, regulations and debates in the governing body — all of which may violate the basic principles of EU society, they say.
Weber and Ginsburgh base their findings on a methodology they developed to quantitatively evaluate both costs and benefits of government policies to either expand or reduce diversity. The methodology builds on a body of earlier published research by Weber, Ginsburgh and other economists.
"Language is the proxy for engagement. People identify strongly with their language, which is integral to culture and traditions," Weber says. "Language is so explosive; language is so close to how you feel.
"Measuring language diversity's impact is an area of growing interest to scholars of economics and other social sciences. With globalization, people feel like they've been left on the side of the road. If your culture, your rights, your past haven't been respected, how can you feel like a full member of society? It is a delicate balance. People must decide if they want to trade their languages to increase by a few percentage points the rate of economic growth."
And they shouldn't. People on the right feel the same way about cultural globalization as people on the left feel about the economic kind. So you can't just mandate a language any more than punitive government micro-management works anywhere else. It creates 'casual criminals' among the populace. But the opposite problem is linguistic anarchy, in which dozens or even hundreds of languages exist — to the detriment of even basic efficiency. "We knew there was a need for a quantitative methodology to evaluate both criteria for languages: efficiency and enfranchisement, which are indispensable for sustainable globalization in our fractionalized world," Weber says. China, for example, has hundreds of dialects.
Standardization on English happened because EU officials, faced with the political entity's multitude of languages, wondered whether they were being understood. Now, 90 percent of the EU's official documents are drafted in English and later translated to other languages. Weber and Ginsburgh found that of all the languages, English embraces the most EU citizens, followed by German second and French third, butnearly two-thirds of EU citizens — 63 percent — don't speak or understand English, while 75 percent don't readily speak or understand German and 80 percent don't speak or understand French.
That's a lot of missing people, though it is a problem resolving itself. European youths ages 15 to 29 are far less marginalized by English than other groups.
The economists also introduce the concept of "proximity" — the degree to which languages are similar to one another. People who speak similar languages are less disenfranchised from one another, they say. Similarity is a factor of pronunciation, phonetics, syntax, grammar and vocabulary, although the authors caution that even words that seem alike aren't always related, but instead are merely similar by chance or because languages borrow words.
The story of post-colonial Africa, Africa's growth tragedy, offers a painful example of the heavy costs incurred by a multitude of linguistic and ethnic divisions. Language and cultural differences frequently have played a role in war, underdevelopment, brutal changes of power, poor administration, corruption and slacking economic growth. Linguistic divides also impose friction on trade between countries, as well as influence migratory flows, literary translations or votes cast in various contests.
For example, in Sri Lanka two linguistic groups fought a bloody civil war for 25 years, killing tens of thousands of people.
Designate an official EU language?
Can the EU ever mandate an official language that embraces its 500 million citizens? How can Nigeria manage 527 languages spoken by citizens of that country? Or Cameroon, with its 279? How does democracy function in India, where 30 languages thrive among more than 1 billion native speakers?
About one-third of the world's nations have met these challenges by legislating official language provisions in their constitutions, the authors say. The official language typically applies to official documents, communication between institutions and citizens and debates in official bodies. But to scientifically determine an optimal set of core languages, the authors say, nations must weigh the costs of linguistic disenfranchisement against the benefits of standardization.
"Our analysis offers a formal framework by which to address the merits and costs of the vast number of languages spoken in various countries," said Weber. "We formally measure linguistic similarities and subsequently the linguistic distances between groups who speak various languages."
The methodology can also measure the impact of other kinds of diversity, whether animal and plant biodiversity or economic classes of people.
France: An example of past linguistic diversity handled well
Over the course of human history, has any country handled their linguistic diversity well?
"France," Weber says. "Two hundred years ago, France had a lot of dialects and only 3 million of its 28 million people spoke French. That's only 10 percent of the people. In a bloodless transition the government imposed French as the official language but allowed dialects to flourish."
But now they resist English. France mandates that 25% of its radio content must be in French, else it would be almost all in English as well.
Maybe America could trade the Metric system for being able to order a coffee in a French restaurant?
Weber and Ginsburgh reported their findings and the methodology in their book, How Many Languages Do We Need?: The Economics of Linguistic Diversity
EU Citizens "Linguistically Disenfranchised" By Prevalence Of English