Thursday, April 06, 2006

A National Language

One issue that tends to be related to the topic of immigration that I discussed yesterday is the issue of an official national language.

A national language is a good idea.

Language as a Tool

From the moment ancient cavement left their cave to go hunting, language was used as a Language was invented as a tool for communicating ideas. As a tool, language benefits us only when everybody is speaking the same language. Teaching different languages to different people is like intentionally filing down the blades of a saw; it makes the tool far less effective and efficient at doing the types of things for which language is invented.

The Bible itself recognizes this. According to this myth, when God wanted to prevent humans from accomplishing great things -- things that would actually challenge God -- he thwarted our human ambitions by creating different languages. This prevented us from talking to each other, which prevented us from planning and coordinating our activities as well as we could have done with a common language.

I recognize that the Bible is not an authority on truth. However, in this case it is a well-known story that clearly illustrates the point that a common language is an extremely important part of a nation’s infrastructure – that it affords efficiencies that make everybody in a nation better off than they would have otherwise been.

Language as National Infrastructure

In saying that a common language is a part of a nation’s infrastructure, I am saying that it has a great deal in common with national systems such as a highway system, water, sewer, airport, education, police and court system. These are public goods that benefit everybody.

As “public goods” they benefit everybody whether those who benefit pay for these goods or not. As a result, they tend to be under-funded; a phenomena that economists call “The Free Rider Problem.” In order to counter the free-rider problem, it is arguably best to have the government collect funds from the people and make investments in these public goods that otherwise would not be made.

No moral argument to be made for building this national infrastructure by methods that impose misery and suffering on others. There is no moral justification for laws that require putting all signs and documents in the national language and prohibiting the use of other languages on official documents and official proceedings.

This may provide an incentive for using the national language, but it does so by compounding misery on top of misery. Just as it would not be just or fair to build roads and schools by forcing the poor to endure even more poverty, starvation, and disease, the task of building a national language should not require this type of burden either.

Furthermore, policies founded on a cruel lack of concern for others may be self-defeating. While it demands that individuals go to the effort of getting an education in English, it deprives them of the resources that they need to pay for this education. We create a catch-22 whereby people need resources to acquire an education, while at the same time they require an education to get to those resources. No morally concerned individual will put others in that type of trap.

Instead, the proper course would be to take those people for whom language is a barrier to economic advancement, and invest in them learning the national language. Calling English the national language, then, would mean that this is the only language that the government will help people learn in this way -- however, the government will help people learn. It would even be reasonable to make this a requirement for government economic assistance such as unemployment.

The Cultural Preservation Argument

The most common argument I hear in favor of preserving a variety of languages concerns the interest that some people have in preserving their culture. Three objections can be raised against this argument.

Before raising these objections, I do want to recognize that efficiency is not an end in itself. The reason that efficiency is important is because it enables people to better fulfill their needs, so that they have more resources with which to do that which they really value. My writing this blog is made possible by efficiencies that would otherwise force me to spend every waking day working for survival – which is the norm in less efficient economies.

Cultural preservation may well be one of those “other things” that an efficient economy gives us the luxury to pursue.

However, these three responses still remain valid.

First, cultures change with or without changes in language. There is no way to argue that the Spanish-American culture of 2006 is the same as the Spanish-American culture of 1856. Many things change over time. Even though there is some resistance to many types of change, the things that bring efficiency and convenience -- electricity, tools, telecommunications, medicine -- are the things that a wise culture should be the most willing to adopt. Failure to do so results in all forms of hardship from poverty to sickness to death. The efficiency of a common language fits this model.

Second, with most personal goals, there is nothing wrong with an individual striving to realize those goals. Problems arise instead when they try to force others to pay for it. I have no problem with somebody wanting to take a balloon around the world. A problem arises when he tries to draw money out of my savings account to pay for it. As I mentioned above, having a variety of languages is expensive. Those costs are not limited to just those who seek the goal of preserving their culture. They affect the whole economy. Those costs are magnified when those who do not learn the national language are put at an economic advantage and must then draw upon taxpayer-funded (or even donation-funded) relief agencies for food, clothing, and shelter.

Third, we do not tend to lament too much the loss of ancient cultures and traditions. As admirable as certain aspects of ancient Greek or Egyptian culture were, we do not consider it to be worth even a few tens of millions of dollars to restore and preserve these ancient cultures. Yet, the preservation of culture that argues against the establishment of a national language is significantly higher than a few tens of millions of dollars. What makes it worthwhile to preserve these cultures at such huge national expense but not other cultures?


Take two modern human beings who speak two different and drop them on an island. One of the first things they will start to do – that they must do – even while they are finding food and building a shelter, is to learn a common language. They will be immensely better off once they can understand each other.

So will we, as a nation, be immensely better off to the degree that we all learn to speak the same language.


Anonymous said...

You left out one important point: anyone who wants to preserve a minority language is still quite capable of doing so. For centuries, all or almost all Jews have spoken languages of the societies they lived in, but Hebrew and Yiddish still exist. Asian Americans, Hispanics and other minority groups speaking non-English languages are quite capable of being bilingual (and many already are).

Furthermore, groups like Irish Americans, where most don't know their "ancestral" language, still maintain a cultural identity.

A common national language doesn't really threaten ethnic identities or languages at all.

It should probably be pointed out that English is proposed not because of any supposed superiority of the language itself or of people that speak it, but merely because of the *number* of people that speak it: it guarantees that less overall effort is needed to teach English to everyone that doesn't already know it than to do the same for any other language.

Simon said...

I guess theres nothing wrong with speaking more than one language.

Anonymous said...

The US is a very large nation. Would your answer be different for a nation, say, one fiftieth the size? One thousandth? The size of the current world population? My point is that maybe the federal level is the wrong level at which to insist on a single language for everyone.

This may, but need not, imply that the federal level itself is grossly overblown and would work better if the balance of power was shifted back toward state, or even community, sovereignty. I do in fact think so, but that's a question for another time.

I live in Houston, Texas, where the average resident in possession of more than one functioning brain cell picks up bits of many languages besides their own. There are free-to-the-user programs to help non-English speakers learn English. There aren't, so far as I know, free courses for native English speakers to learn Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Arabic, Thai, Japanese, Lebanese, and pick-any-two-of-the-languages-of-the-Indian-subcontinent, but maybe we should start some. In any case what works for Houston is not likely to be the solution for, say, Pittsburgh.