How Many Languages Do We Really Need? The Economics of Linguistic Diversity

How Many Languages Do We Really Need? The Economics of Linguistic Diversity

How Many Languages Do We Really Need? The Economics of Linguistic Diversity

How Many Languages Do We Really Need? The Economics of Linguistic Diversity


In the global economy, linguistic diversity influences economic and political development as well as public policies in positive and negative ways. It leads to financial costs, communication barriers, divisions in national unity, and, in some extreme cases, conflicts and war--but it also produces benefits related to group and individual identity. What are the specific advantages and disadvantages of linguistic diversity and how does it influence social and economic progress? This book examines linguistic diversity as a global social phenomenon and considers what degree of linguistic variety might result in the greatest economic good.

Victor Ginsburgh and Shlomo Weber look at linguistic proximity between groups and between languages. They describe and use simple economic, linguistic, and statistical tools to measure diversity's impact on growth, development, trade, the quality of institutions, translation issues, voting patterns in multinational competitions, and the likelihood and intensity of civil conflicts. They address the choosing of core languages in a multilingual community, such as the European Union, and argue that although too many official languages might harm cohesiveness, efficiency, and communication, reducing their number brings about alienation and disenfranchisement of groups.

Demonstrating that the value and drawbacks of linguistic diversity are universal, How Many Languages Do We Need? suggests ways for designing appropriate linguistic policies for today's multilingual world.


The title of the book, How Many Languages Do We Need?, reflects a difficult choice that was pervasive in many multilingual societies over the course of human history, and still is today. the problem is very much on the agenda of a large number of countries, regions, and international unions that must address various aspects of multilingualism. the desire to avoid an excess of societal fragmentation in our rapidly globalizing environment narrows the focus to a relatively small number of [core] languages. But such restrictions inevitably disenfranchise speakers of [non-core] languages. in this book, we analyze the trade-off between the quest for efficiency that a small number of languages is thought to foster and a reduction in disenfranchisement, which calls for more languages.

Linguistic policies vary across the globe. the European Union adopts the policy of twenty-three official languages, India has instituted the famous [three-language policy,] a variant of which was also considered in Nigeria. the range is wide, and obviously much depends on the way policies are implemented. the EU's policy has its problems, but has not led to wars. Nor do the 207 languages in Australia, or the 364 languages in the United States. in Sri Lanka, however, two languages were one too many, and thousands of people died as a consequence.

The search for an [optimal] number of languages is implicitly linked to a second question about which languages to choose. Languages differ from each other; some are close, others are distant, but we can easily admit that however we measure distance, Spanish and Italian seem closer than English and Greek. That fact will play an important role in our analysis.

Diversity could be good, but it is not free

Economists are two-handed. One hand immediately recognizes that the diversity of existing cultures and languages, which often cannot be dissociated, is important. Limiting the number of languages creates a

One per country, with the exception of Luxembourg. Some countries—Germany and Austria, for example—share a common language.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.