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What economic value is there in speaking another language?: An interview with Gilles Grenier

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In this week’s Q&A, IZA World of Labor Editor-in-Chief Daniel S. Hamermesh asks Gilles Grenier some pertinent questions about issues in his field of interest. Gilles Grenier is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of Ottawa, Canada. His main research interests include human capital, immigration, language, and demographic changes. 

Hamermesh: You say in your article that language is an economic choice. How can that be: We are all best in the language of our parents, typically the language of where we grew up? So how can it be a choice, much less an economic one? 
Grenier: From an economic point of view, language skills are part of someone’s human capital. The language of the parents (the mother tongue) is the initial endowment of language human capital. For many people, that is sufficient to do what they want in the labor market and in other economic activities, but for some others it is not. For instance, access to some jobs may require another language. This is especially true for immigrants. Those individuals have to decide on how much to invest in order to learn a new language by comparing the costs and the benefits. For them, learning a language is clearly an economic choice.  

Hamermesh: Americans have a perhaps deserved reputation for being unwilling (or unable) to learn a second language beyond a low tourist level. What are the economic gains, if any, to a society/economy from having a workforce and a citizenry that, while not bilingual, is at least able to converse in a major second language? 
Grenier: Americans have the advantage of already speaking the major international language and for most of them there is no need to learn another one. Nearly all of the cultural goods that they consume are also produced in their own country. This is very different from the rest of the world where people are exposed every day to other languages and cultures. To be frank, the monetary gains for Americans to learn other languages are probably small. However, there may be important non-pecuniary advantages in terms of opening up to the rest of the world. The benefits of linguistic diversity are difficult to measure in monetary terms.  

Hamermesh: Over the years in the US, we have seen efforts to keep English as the sole official language. What do you think of such proposals? Obversely, Canada has made substantial efforts to become more bilingual over the past 50 years. How do you feel this has gone, and how much, if anything, has it contributed to the development of the Canadian economy? 
Grenier: Canada and the US are similar in many features including having a majority of English-speakers. However, there are many differences and one of them is the way that they treat languages. In the US, the “English Only” movement has had a strong influence in the education system and in other aspects of the society. In Canada, in contrast, French and English are recognized officially and cultural diversity is promoted. The US has higher per capita income than Canada, but there is less inequality in Canada and the quality of life is generally thought to be better. The explanations for that are complex and have been studied by scholars, but I would argue that tolerance of linguistic and cultural diversity plays some role. People enjoy being able to speak and use their language.  

Hamermesh: A strange final question: To what extent do you think that the dominance of English in worldwide commerce and science advantages native English-speakers in the business and scientific worlds? And do you feel that English will be supplanted by Mandarin in the next half-century? 
Grenier: Yes, native English-speakers have an advantage, and it can be judged unfair. However, the handicap suffered by speakers of other languages can be overcome once they learn English. Of course, there is a cost to do so that may be equivalent to one or two years of schooling. For example, I have some colleagues who are very smart and who received a PhD at a very young age, such as 24 or 25, but they are all native English-speakers. Those who had to surmount a language barrier usually took longer. Whether English will be supplanted by Mandarin in the future appears unlikely at this time. To a large extent, the Chinese have already adopted English to communicate with foreigners and the language is widely taught in Chinese schools. And also, Mandarin is a very difficult language to learn for those who were not raised in a Chinese cultural environment.

© Gilles Grenier

Read Gilles Grenier and Weiguo Zhang’s full IZA World of Labor article, “The value of language skills.”