Gabrielle Hogan-Brun released Linguanomics (Bloomsbury) in February, the most comprehensive book ever published on the relationships between multilingualism and economics. While the book has received international and deserved praise, Gabrielle was kind enough to answer some questions about her field research, Brexit effects, and of course economics, language and sociolinguistics.
Assimil: Let me begin with a ritual question: how many languages do you speak/understand?
Gabriel Hogan-Brun: I grew up in Switzerland, speaking a Swiss-German dialect (Schwyzerdütsch). I’ve kept this up and passed it on to my own family in England, where I have since lived. At school we were taught French and Italian, as well as Latin. I have since added other languages, for practical purposes: I learnt Lithuanian to carry out research on language policy in the Baltic countries. And then, whilst on sabbatical in Copenhagen, I learned Danish. In that case, the practical reason was to help me with rowing in the harbour. I started by learning simple commands you use with fellow oars(wo)men and built up from there to conversation level. I have learnt a bit of sign language, too, and have a fair reading ability of the Romance and Germanic languages. Nowadays, most of professional dealings are carried out in English, as well as my reading and writing. These diverse language trajectories have been an altogether enriching experience and I may well add some more as I go along.
How did you get the idea for this book, written in a very accessible style? What kind of readers you and your publisher had in mind?
G. H.-B.: I’ve been nurturing the idea of this book for some time. My immediate prompt was observing language-related challenges of globalisation and growing cross-border social mobility. These forces mean that we are experiencing a language mix on a massive scale in the West.
The socio-economic effects of today’s multilingualism are complex and are only beginning to be understood. Some academic literature exists on language economics but it is scattered and diffuse. I saw the need for a factual exploration of the market potential of multilingualism, written in a manner that is accessible for anyone who cares about the role of language in the modern world. I was fortunate that Bloomsbury were interested in my proposal. The timing of publication turned out to be fortunate: Linguanomics appeared on the market just as both the newly elected President Trump proclaimed his isolationist rhetoric in the US and the UK government was preparing for Brexit. This meant that the book touched a nerve on both sides of the Atlantic.
Most of the time, people underline the social and intellectual benefits of multilingualism but the economical value seems to be a taboo. Do you agree with this statement?
G. H.-B.: I would only partly agree with this statement. It is indeed the case that languages have, for some time, been learnt for cultural and intellectual reasons. Moreover, the upper echelons of society did in the past encourage multilingual ability as a sign of good breeding, reinforced through strategic marriages. For example, Habsburg’s Empress Maria Theresa (herself a speaker of German) is known to have penned her letters to her numerous children, friends and entourage in French, the vehicular language among elites in those days. Multilingualism was an elite occupation for diplomats and scholars so had social prestige. But soon, increased social mobility and trade meant closer contact between all citizens, and language education was needed more widely. The multilingual profile of today’s mobile, moneyed European elite, includes English, plus some economically salient languages. So, we have in many ways become more pragmatic about learning languages.
Clearly, apart from their range of other benefits, languages are also an economic resource. If deployed wisely, business benefits. If ignored, opportunities will be missed. History shows that languages and trade always go hand in hand, offering opportunities for expansion and development. The rise of ancient civilizations in China, Egypt, Greece, and Rome came down to success in trade across cultures. Early traders already knew that they needed to understand their clients to produce a good economic return across language divides. As markets grew, more communication was needed to attract buyers and to be understood by them. So traders learnt the languages of their clients in order to sell. They understood that the customer is king.
Languages, like goods or individuals, are, from an employment perspective, ruled by the law of supply and demand. Can you illustrate this idea taking an example from your book, and what would be your languages learning recommendations?
G. H.-B.: Indeed, supply and demand does matter when it comes to the value of particular second language skills on the employment market, and this is backed by plenty of research findings. For example, we have evidence from Swiss studies that point to regional preferences for second language skills. Thus, higher wage differentials were noted everywhere in Switzerland for proficiency in English, but more so in the Swiss-German speaking parts than in the French- or Italian-speaking parts. In other words, knowledge of English has greater market value for someone in Zurich. But in Geneva or Lugano, mastery of German is more important. This shows how economic incentives variously drive particular occupational language choices. Other studies, on language-related earnings carried out in the US, suggest that direct benefits of language skills are often language specific. The findings show that proficiency in Mandarin Chinese, German, Italian and Russian brings a higher income boost than proficiency in Spanish. This difference has been linked to the law of supply and demand. There is a sizeable Hispanic population in the US able to offer Spanish, which may explain why someone with Spanish as their second language will find themselves in a market that is already saturated. Conversely, in the relative absence of native speakers of Mandarin, German, Italian and Russian, the demand for people skilled in these languages is greater.
In reply to your second question, I do not tend to make recommendations as to which language(s) to learn (or not). This is because such choices are very much context-specific. Speakers of Basque will naturally benefit materially from learning their country’s majority language (French and/or Spanish), as is the case in any regional language setting. Similarly, migrants require destination language skills to become economically active in their host country, and national language support systems are variously in place nowadays that cater for this need. An approach in language education that has taken root in different parts of the world (and across the EU) is to offer a three-languages curriculum. This aims to promote the learning of two languages (a global and a neighbouring one), in addition to the local language. In France, this would be French with German and English or Spanish. Already in German Saarland, full bilingualism with French is planned to take root within the coming three decades as a bridge to Germany from France and a gateway to France from Germany. This example shows how a local economic rationale can make mutual bilingualism a desirable goal for adjoining monolingual countries or regions.
In France a large study was done on languages and employability in 2014 (see: http://blog.assimil.com/langues-emploi-preuves-etudes). It showed spectacular effects on careers and salaries. For instance, an engineer or a manager speaking two foreign languages with ease will earn €326 (per month) more than a colleague fluent in only one foreign language.
At the other side of the sociological spectrum, the study revealed that the less qualified you are, the more important your linguistic competences are if you want to progress on the social ladder (or move abroad). What do you think of these facts, and do you have found this kind of study elsewhere?
G. H.-B.: This study on ‘langues et emploi’ (that’s linked in with your question above), on possible advantages of multilingual individuals seeking employment, supports some of the findings I mentioned earlier. But we have to treat such data with caution. For one, as already discussed, the law of supply and demand operates in terms of which languages are sought after in particular countries or regions at a given time period. Market forces change, and so do language requirements. Today, Mandarin Chinese has special appeal for some; in the near future it may be the languages of the fast-growing economies of the so-called CIVETS countries (Columbia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, South Africa), among others. The future language dynamics in the global market are likely to be more multifaceted than today’s.
Another consideration is that job seekers able to offer technical expertise, for example in IT, law, finances or sales, combined with relevant language skills will find themselves in greater demand. Also, where multi-language skills are a job requirement, a basic proficiency will rarely be regarded as sufficient. More commonly, this needs to be at a general, advanced or more specific business level. Employers know that an ability to confidently, say, negotiate a wine export deal with a company that’s based in Berlin using German with the correct tone is likely to pay dividends since no amount of translation can be as effective or persuasive as face-to-face communication. This is especially the case before signing a contract, when being able to interact effectively in the language of a trade partner counts. Someone able to offer a combination of multi-language and other skills will likely have greater chances of finding employment wherever on the social ladder they are or moving towards.
You insist a lot on the fact that languages are not enough. Soft skills are much sought after by headhunters and agencies. How can you define these qualities?
G. H.-B.: Indeed, while multilingual skills are important, they are by no means the only requirement in intercultural communication. Anyone engaging with people from various language backgrounds also needs an awareness of how cultural differences can affect social relationships and outcomes. In my book I quote Richard Hardie, Chairman of the investment bank UBS, who said: ‘A deep understanding of foreign languages is often essential to the combination of cajolery and seduction many companies require in their international negotiations.’ He stresses moreover that businesses need graduates with more than conversation skills and a good technical vocabulary. The really valuable negotiators, in his eyes, are those able to produce subtle phrasing to ‘persuade someone from another culture to do something they would not otherwise want to do’. Along these lines headhunters will want to recruit people with the cultural know-how to operate comfortably in a multilingual, multicultural environment.
In this perspective, isn’t a very monolingual country like UK in great danger economically speaking? I mean a British engineer speaking, perhaps, only a bit of German can’t compete, on the international market, with a Brazilian who knows, besides Portuguese, maybe Spanish, French and of course English?
G. H.-B.: This ‘danger’ you are alluding to is very real. Current government statistics show that the UK loses about 3.5% of its GDP every year because of a lack of language skills and cultural awareness in the workforce. Such losses appear to be symptomatic of a chronic condition of under achieving in British business. More than a decade ago, in 2004, the British Chambers of Commerce found that linguistic and cultural barriers led to loss of contracts, turnover and profitability, and also to a reluctance in tackling new markets. This lack of language skills in the workforce suggests that the UK is already over-dependent on Anglophone export markets. But educational approaches to foreign language learning in the UK remain alarmingly deficient. Since 2004, its school system has had no compulsory foreign language requirement. The UK seems to be skirting the need for a wholesale language education policy. Yet history shows that, with current political changes underway, this will lead to an economic downturn.
Do you think Brexit could amplify this phenomenon? Or maybe it could lead to a paradox: leaving EU will lead people to learn foreign language in order to lessen their possible economical and geopolitical isolation?
G. H.-B.: Brexit means that British businesses will have to reach out to countries beyond the remit of the EU. They will be on the lookout for experts able to speak the languages of new trade partners and understand the cultures of overseas contacts to negotiate and seal deals. Clearly, now more than before, the economic fallout caused by existing communication barriers has to be addressed by policy-makers. In responding to this challenge, the UK will need to invest in foreign language skills training to grow its own resources or else post Brexit trade agreements will be more difficult to achieve. The need to promote means for effective multilingual negotiation when establishing links with new markets outside the EU is a powerful argument for more, sustained investment in languages education. At the corporate level, a case could be made for Government-sponsored initiatives, perhaps in the form of tax breaks, to complement organizational support of internal language training. Such funding would likely need to be responsive to changes in the market, but could also help foster greater commercial productivity for overall national economic gain. Paradoxically then, an unexpected effect of Brexit could well be greater interest in foreign language learning.
What comes next? Can you tell us about your current researches or book project?
G. H.-B.: I am currently in the final stages of co-editing the international Handbook on Minority Languages and Communities (Palgrave Macmillan, due in 2018), which is one of my other research activities. Beyond that, and in response to the interest Linguanomics has generated, a sequel is certainly in the pipeline.
Linguanomics. What is the Market Potential of Multilingualism? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017)
Academia website with downloadable publications files
Interview conducted by Nicolas Ragonneau in June 2017. French version