Standardizing Diversity: The Political Economy of Language Regimes

Standardizing Diversity: The Political Economy of Language Regimes

Standardizing Diversity: The Political Economy of Language Regimes

Standardizing Diversity: The Political Economy of Language Regimes


Languages have deep political significance beyond communication: a common language can strengthen cultural bonds and social trust, or it may exacerbate cultural differences and power imbalances. Language regimes that emerge from political bargains can centralize power by favoring the language of one ethnolinguistic group, share power by recognizing multiple mother tongues, or neutralize power through the use of a lingua franca. Cultural egoism, communicative efficiency, or collective equality determines the choice. As Amy H. Liu demonstrates, the conditions surrounding the choice of a language regime also have a number of implications for a nation's economy.

Standardizing Diversity examines the relationship between the distribution of linguistic power and economic growth. Using a newly assembled dataset of all language-in-education policies in Asia from 1945 to 2005 and drawing on fieldwork data from Malaysia and Singapore, Liu shows language regimes that recognize a lingua franca exclusively--or at least above all others--tend to develop social trust, attract foreign investment, and stimulate economic growth. Particularly at high levels of heterogeneity, the recognition of a lingua franca fosters equality and facilitates efficiency. Her findings challenge the prevailing belief that linguistic diversity inhibits economic growth, suggesting instead that governments in even the most ethnically heterogeneous countries have institutional tools to standardize their diversity and to thrive economically.


People, stop please! Look at yourselves. This is wrong.
What are words, after all, but a way to communicate, to bring us

But you, you’re using them as weapons!

—Niles Crane in Frasier, Season 9, Episode 18 (“War of the Words”)

When the Dutch East India Company established Batavia (Jakarta) in 1619, presentday Indonesia was the site of numerous competitive and unstable kingdoms scattered across a broad archipelago. Over the following centuries, the Dutch presence gradually expanded throughout the region. The colonial authorities, however, did little to bring the islands together under one central administrative language, let alone the Dutch language. There was equally little planning about Dutch decolonization. When the Dutch surrendered in 1949 after a four-year nationalist insurrection, the new Indonesian government found itself with an empty treasury, presiding over a territory of more than 13,000 islands populated by speakers of some 712 languages (Bertrand 2003: 265). Given these conditions at its birth, theoretical expectations in political science would have suggested the following. First, the abject poverty prevalent across the islands should have increased the salience of ethnolinguistic cleavages (Lipset 1959). Second, the salience of these cleavages and their sheer number should have caused some sort of “growth tragedy”—poor education, political volatility, weak financial systems, distorted markets, large government debts, and underdeveloped infrastructure (Easterly and Levine 1997).

Indeed, Indonesia experienced horrific developmental pains, including Sukarno’s “Guided Democracy” and Suharto’s “New Order.” The latter was born . . .

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