TCS Daily

The Language Barrier

By Arnold Kling - February 10, 2003 12:00 AM

"There's been a lot of bad news out there in the world economy lately. Supposed economic superpowers like Germany and Japan have fallen on hard times; Asian tigers that thought the future belonged to them suddenly find that it belongs instead to Westerners with ready cash; Latin Americans who thought they had put their past behind them are watching with horror as financial crisis strikes once again. And yet there are also some surprisingly happy economic stories out there. What do they have in common?

...Yes, the common denominator of the countries that have done best in this age of dashed expectations is that they are the countries where English is spoken."
-- Paul Krugman, That Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi Of Les Anglophones

Although Krugman's wonderfully-titled essay was written four years ago and referred to the 1990's, the economic importance of English is likely to increase in the next decade. In the future, the digital divide could turn out to be the language barrier.

In The View from 2003, Brad DeLong speculates on the causes and consequences of economic change. An important factor is that the Internet makes possible trade in information-based services, such as software and education. Looking ahead twenty years, DeLong writes, "International trade in white-color jobs is growing as competitive as trade in blue-collar jobs."

If DeLong is correct, then the participants in this new international trade are going to be people who speak English. We already see this with many businesses outsourcing call centers, document transcription services, and data entry to English-speaking workers in India and the Philippines.

The Poor Indian vs. the Rich Frenchman

Recently, I had a serendipitous opportunity to hear Nobel laureate Michael Spence give a talk on the Internet and productivity. He, too, argued that the Internet will promote worldwide trade in white-collar work. During the question-and-answer period, I posed the following question:

Take a 15-year growing up poor in India but learning English. Then consider a relatively wealthy 15-year old growing up in France but learning French. Which one is likely to be better off in 20 years?

My thinking was that over the next twenty years, the Indian who knows English will have an advantage. Spence said that he felt better about predicting that a Chinese would overtake a Frenchman, because China has better infrastructure than India. (This view is shared by Indians.) However, Spence agreed with the thrust of the question.

The Internet is facilitating rapid spread of knowledge and high-speed communication. As Spence pointed out, the global communication network is replacing local mass markets and vertically-integrated firms with international targeted markets and complex, external supply chains. For these purposes, the dominant language, particularly for cross-border Internet activities, is English.

Joel Mokyr, in The Gifts of Athena, points out how important the spread of knowledge was for the Industrial Revolution. He emphasizes the importance of what he calls the Industrial Enlightenment for opening communication between scientists and entrepreneurs.

Nick Schulz, in his TCS essay on Mokyr, pointed out that "entrenched interests" oppose knowledge-driven progress in many ways. Schulz mentioned many conflicts between traditionalism and economic growth, but he may have omitted one of the most important: language. In the era of the English-dominant Internet, to speak another language is to impose a barrier on the fastest-growing component of international trade.

When I was in Israel, I happened to run across Sheizaf Rafaeli, Director of the Center for the Study of the Information Society at the University of Haifa. He pointed out that 50 years ago, there were strong arguments - even fisticuffs - over whether to teach high-level technical courses in English or in Hebrew. The proponents of Hebrew won, perhaps to the benefit of Israeli culture but surely to the detriment of its economy. Today, Israelis who develop web sites can either develop for a small audience in their native language or face the necessity of maintaining their web presence in English.

A Dissent from Negroponte

Nicholas Negroponte, of the MIT Media Lab, vehemently disagrees with the thesis that non-English speakers will find themselves on the wrong end of the digital divide. He says, "The content side will not be dominantly English. It unquestionably ten years from now will be Chinese. But more importantly, between language translation and all sorts of things, we're going to see again, a real rise in multilingual systems and of course multilingual, in my opinion, it's not a 100 percent synonymous, but certainly leads to multicultural."

Negroponte believes that with computer-mediated communication, I can converse in English to someone speaking Japanese. This sounds nice in theory, but in practice the challenges of speech recognition and language translation appear to be too great for the next several years.

For now, the Internet revolution is boosting the economic prospects of the English speakers of the world. This includes the countries where English is the native language, as well as the people in other countries who happen to be educated in English. People who never learn English may be destined to spend their lives on the wrong side of the language barrier.

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