Language policy as a driver of competitiveness & resiliency




Language is at the heart of culture. Words matter. And how they are expressed (in written and oral forms) matter. But just as language matters to culture, so does culture matter for competitiveness. (Within the economics community there is an interesting literature on the relationship between culture and development. ) Germany is well known for its precision engineering and manufacturing, a natural consequence of its culture to detail and planning. That is, culture is a component of competitiveness. Language additionally can make an economy more resilient to economic shocks. For example, a multilingual society such as Switzerland can more easily interact with French-, German- and Italian-speaking economies, and is therefore insulated against negative shocks if any one of its partners falters, as opposed to a country whose relationships are more narrowly limited by their linguistic capabilities.

Does the language in use convey an advantage in the ability of individuals, groups, regions, or nations to be more productive in the marketplace? Is language like other factors of production that that contribute in varying ways to the efficiency of production? For sure language facilitates production insomuch as it enables collaboration.

If language is a factor of production, what language policies can governments take to enhance the production function of a country? Should the goal of language policy be purely to increase efficiency? Or, as something intrinsically tied to culture, should it be elevated as a unique input into the production function?

Foremost, language has an emotional attachment for its speakers. The French-speaking province of Quebec in Canada and the Catalan-speaking province of Catalan in Spain try to promote and safeguard their languages against the encroachment of the dominant tongues within their spheres.

Prima facie there appears to be a strong case for language being a driver of prosperity. The Anglosphere countries (Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the UK, and the United States) are notably richer than other geographic / cultural groups. Per capita income is 1/3 higher in the Anglophone countries than compared with the next richest group (Europe), and average competitiveness and labour resilience rankings are 5 and 7, respectively. (See Table 1 on page 3.)

Just as civilisations, cultures, and empires have waxed and waned, so too have languages. English is the global lingua franca today. The growing economic power of nations helped to propel the power of their languages. But this also creates a platform for language to be a driver of competitiveness as network effects apply to language usage.

TABLE 1: ANGLOSPHERE ECONOMY IN COMPARISON

REGIONPOP.GDP (PPP)
INTL$ BN
GDP / CAP (PPP)GCI RANK**GLRI RANK**
Anglosphere*466,952,93327,108,28558,05457
East Asia1,627,844,69332,172,63219,7642625
Europe454,793,16719,879,07443,7102724
Latin America & Caribbean634,968,0859,629,88515,1667286
Middle East & North Africa404,172,8748,153,53720,1737771
Post-Soviet269,563,8795,611,28620,8164947
South Asia1,900,129,11412,020,1716,3267857
Southeast Asia Pacific666,863,9168,432,65512,6455063
Sub-Saharan Africa730,276,1863,337,0464,570162165
TOTAL / AVG7,155,564,847126,344,57117,657 

THE POWER LANGUAGE INDEX

A 2016 research note from INSEAD Abu Dhabi entitled the “Power Language Index” ranked the “power” of languages (to a representative human being) on a score ranging from 0 (weakest) to 1 (strongest). The index is comprised of 20 indicators that span five “opportunities” that language enables/facilitates:

  1. Geography (the ability to travel);
  2. Economy (the ability to participate in economic affairs)
  3. Communication (the ability to engage with other speakers)
  4. Knowledge & media (the ability to consume information)
  5. Diplomacy (the ability to engage with international organisations)

Over 100 languages were assessed. The top-10 languages according to the Power Language Index (PLI) are show in Table 2 below. The PLI is a cardinal index so the scores also speak of the magnitude of differences of the languages vis-à-vis one another. The results confirm the well-known reality of the dominance of English. Notably, English is more than twice as powerful as its closest rival (Chinese).

TABLE 2: POWER LANGUAGE INDEX (2016)

RANKLANGUAGEPLI SCORE1ST LANGUAGE (MM)L2 SPEAKERS (MM)GDP / CAP (USD)GFCI TOP100*
1English0.88938051015,65136
2Chinese**0.4119601807,97710
3French0.3378014013,1297
4Spanish0.3294709011,0296
5Arabic†0.2732952507,4575
6Russian0.24415011012,0975
7German0.191931351,3448
8Portuguese0.1332153510,2351
9Hindi0.1193101201,5973
10Japanese0.117125036,2932

Five of the world’s top-10 financial centres are English-speaking cities; within the top-100 more than 1/3 are English-speaking centres. The language of Shakespeare is the medium of communication in business, education, diplomacy, and science. Seventy of the world’s 100 most prestigious global universities are in English-speaking countries. Science is just as much, if not more, English-centric. Over 95 percent of the world’s academic journals are in English.

English proficiency is therefore an important driver of competitiveness. As Figure 1 below shows, fluency in English (x-axis) is a determinant of competitiveness (y-axis). In fact, English capability, per se, explains almost a third of the variation in competitiveness. It is no accident then, that many countries have adopted English as a working language or promote its use (typically alongside the local language) as a means to help improve the competitiveness of their economy and their people. In fact, the most popular language policy in place is the use / promotion of English in a country to elevate its international standing and give its people greater economic opportunities.

FIGURE 1: ENGLISH PROFICIENCY AS A DRIVER OF COMPETITIVENESS

Even as the link between language and competitiveness and language and resiliency is prima facie evident, its role is largely unexplored in the formal arena. Language competitiveness is why New York and London, rather than Shanghai and Tokyo, are the world’s preeminent cities. And why the top-tier global investment banks are American. And why westerners – who are generally more proficient in English than their eastern counterparts – are often appointed CEOs in Asian firms, but not the other way around. And why the global agenda and debates (e.g. Davos) are dominated by English-proficient countries and English-speaking minds.

LANGUAGE & POLICY

Even as English confers a definite competitive advantage, adopting the language of Shakespeare is not the sole effective language policy. A famous quip is that “a language is a dialect with an army and navy”. Most policies pertaining to language are either: (i) to promote / protect a local language against the encroachment of more powerful languages (esp. English); or (ii) to promote the use and raise the level of fluency of English.

There PLI offers an alternative path for language policy focused on elevating the status of a language, as the power of a language is also a measure of soft power of a nation. This is a more focused exercise of nation branding and reinforcing national identify. The PLI also suggests a path of deriving competitiveness and resiliency through multilingualism – both as an individual or as a country.

CASE STUDY: THE UAE’S LANGUAGE DIVIDEND

Language is at the heart of competitiveness and can be an asset for economic resiliency. New York and London are the preeminent cities of the world. They are the only two cities classified as “Alpha++” according to the Global and World Cities Research Network (GaWC). They are the capitals of the world in large part because they are English-speaking cities that at the same time have a diverse linguistic base. Dubai – classified as an “Alpha+” city by GaWC – is the Arab World’s first global city and a natural social experiment in the power of language to drive competitiveness and resiliency. The city arose from the middle of the Arabian desert having transformed from a small Bedouin village into a global powerhouse. The real-life SimCity experiment created a city out of the desert. And the language landscape reflects the reality of the power dynamics of language as expressed by the PLI.

Over 200 nationalities reside in the UAE. With such a diverse population also comes a multitude of tongues spoken. Arabic is the official language of the country, but English functions as the lingua franca for much of the cross-cultural and cross-linguistic communication.

Over 100 languages are spoken in the UAE. So not only is the UAE a geographic focal point for the world – connecting east and west, as well as the south with the north – but it is also linguistic hub. This means that individuals and businesses that want to engage and conduct business in the UAE can do so in their given choice of language.

If we suppose that it requires 10,000 speakers of a language within a metropolitan area – and “Abu Dubai” is effectively one metropolis – for a language to be “active” (i.e. the community has a critical mass to provide the services, labour, culture, etc. to support a functional language hub), then the UAE counts 35 working languages. So how capable is Abu-Dubai to serve as a global hub for global businesses using the world’s languages?

The most powerful languages in the PLI are represented in the 35 active languages of Abu-Dubai (which includes 8 of the top 10). The sum of the Power Language Index score of these 35 languages is over 3.4. Moreover, English – which is the world’s lingua franca and is the third most common tongue in the UAE – is widely spoken by the population as a whole. This makes Abu-Dubai (i.e. the UAE) arguably the most linguistically diverse and linguistically powerful place in the world.

The table below is the estimated number of speakers of the 35 active languages in the UAE. Arabic is, by far, the most numerous mother tongue of the people in the country. This is followed by Hindi, English, Tagalog and Urdu. While many other global cities boast a populace that speak a diversity of languages, few have a geographic diversity of tongues – and in globally powerful languages – as does the UAE.

TABLE 3: LANGUAGES OF THE UAE

LANGUAGESPEAKERS (NATIVE)PLI SCORE
Arabic2,332,4050.273
Hindi974,1280.134
English847,7340.889
Tagalog708,7920.019
Urdu667,9740.040
Bengali667,9740.029
Punjabi667,9740.019
Malayalam487,0640.009
Persian268,9700.040
Sinhalese244,3350.012
Dari160,573n/a
Mandarin143,5960.411
Nepali142,7360.006
Pashto112,4010.015
Azerbaijani103,5610.009
Malay69,7930.077
Kurdish66,015n/a
Tamil59,7670.030
Oromo54,5150.004
Amharic47,2570.013
Swahili40,3330.026
Uzbek35,8350.013
Russian26,4140.244
Javanese26,1330.026
Berber25,443n/a
French21,8420.337
Zulu20,6060.028
Spanish19,8050.329
Serbian/Serbo-Croatian*19,1140.028
Dutch/Afrikaans*16,9940.084
Xhosa14,5240.015
German12,3640.191
Sundanese10,5400.011
Thai10,1770.032
Turkish10,1260.047
TOTALn/a3.440

Thus the UAE (effectively Abu-Dubai), has been able to harness this linguistic dividend by offering itself as a business hub for the world, with the ability to provide all the infrastructure needed for conducting business in the world’s most influential languages. Many expatriate communities – and not just those from the above listed linguistic communities – are able to find a fully capable environment to offer the business, cultural and social support they need in their own language. This is why the many free zones in the UAE have attracted companies from so many countries to operate there.

The linguistic dividend of the UAE has played a significant part in the UAE’s successful transformation from desert output to a nation competing with advanced OECD countries. In the 2019 edition of the WEF Global Competitiveness Report the sheikhdom of seven emirates was ranked the 25th most competitive economy. And according to the 2020 Global Labour Resilience Index the UAE was assessed the 21st most labour resilient economy. If English were not the de facto working language, and if the country did not have such a diverse linguistic base, the UAE would be just another oil-rich Arab nation.

Cities with diverse populations and with multilingual capabilities have been shown to be more innovative. With so many ideas from around the world able to mingle and operate in a culturally and linguistically accommodating environment, bright minds can exchange ideas without needing to have their thoughts muffled having to speak in a second tongue.

It is no wonder that Dubai has an area called International City, with clusters hosting English, Russian, Italian, and Chinese communities to name just a few. Indeed, Dubai is one big (and successful) social experiment showing that the world can come together and work together in harmony.

The expansive linguistic base of the UAE has also helped it diversify its economy. First, the national origins of the population tend to support home country linkages and thus creates a wider set of trading partners. The multinational linkages also support a broader set of industries associated with the diverse geographic origins of its population. And the broad origins of the population ensure a diversified portfolio of talent and draws in a wide spectrum of visitors that are resilient to idiosyncratic shocks that might negatively affect a given economic partner.







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