GLOBALISATION’S NEW GIVENS The current slogan of globalisation from an economic point of view, in the words of Suzanne Topping, is no translation, no product [TOPPING 2000 : 111]. This formula may appear expeditious or even brutal to some, but it does reflect the contemporary reality : from one end of the world to the other, it is unthinkable to launch a product without ‘localizing’ [FOLARON 2007] its accompanying advertising campaign in all aspects, up to and including the product’s documentation 2. In this sense, “localization” essentially means : “All processes by which digital content and products developed in one place (in terms of geography, language, culture) are adapted for sale and use in another location. ‘Localization’ therefore includes (a) the translation of verbal content according to the textual and linguistic conventions of the receiving language, and (b) adaptation of nonverbal content – from colours, icons, and bitmap format, to packaging and other formal constraints. It also includes all data and parameters relevant to the consideration of cultural, technical and legal requirements of the target area. In short, localization is less about specific tasks than a process of product adaptation” [DUNNE 2006 : 4]. However, we can expand further on this perspective : it is not only true for digital space, it applies to all economic spaces. In fact, cyberspace is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s not because cyberspace has become massively multilingual that multilingualism is gaining traction globally ; it is because multilingualism is a major economic force in today’s world that it has emerged in cyberspace as a new element of the globalised market economy.
A recent study at Stanford University about the state of California – which, by itself, ranks among the top ten world economies – constitutes a case 1 See in this book : Michal Oustinoff, English Won’t Be the Internet’s Lingua Franca.
2 See in this book : Dwayne Bailey, Software Localisation: Open Source as a Major Tool for Digital Multilingualism.
Michal Oustinoff in point. The overall argument is easily summarised. First, it is urgent to invest in languages because of the current risks of global recession :
“Economic, geographic and social realities in California create a pressing need for investing in foreign language education now. As we face a global recession, California (one of the world’s ten largest economies) has a $billion deficit and a critical need for long-term solutions” [steele 2009 :1].
The economic centre of gravity’s shift to Asia and South America must be taken into account : “In Section I of this report, we will argue that these solutions require reaching out to the rest of the world. California’s geographic location is ideal for capitalizing on growth in Asia-Pacific and Central and South American markets” (ibid.). California must therefore call on its exceptionally diverse multilingual population : “California also has an exceptionally diverse and linguistically skilled population. The millions of people in California who speak foreign languages such as Spanish, Chinese and Korean position our state to excel in international business, trade and diplomacy”. And the conclusion : “Further increasing the value of our workforce by emphasizing foreign language education will use our strategic position and social resources to bolster the economy” (ibid.). The study does not shy away from proposing a short-term “stimulus plan”, in terms that Barack Obama wouldn’t probably disown :
Even in an economic decline, opportunities for California’s financial and job markets can grow. Now is the time to make the most of California’s unique multicultural strengths : a large and diverse population with millions of bilingual and multilingual, cross-culturally fluent people, and an ideal location to reach markets across the Pacific and in North, South and Central America. At a time of financial crisis, a large investment in education for world language and cultural competencies is a necessary component of a successful economic stimulus plan. (ibid. : 3) Nevertheless, we shouldn’t expect things to fall into place themselves, as if by magic. As demand grows, “California’s growing economic stake in international trade and the diversity of California’s trading partners create a demand for Californians who can apply their knowledge of world languages and cultures to business” (ibid. : 4). But an adequate response must be taken : “International markets are tough, and even large, successful companies have floundered without sufficient linguistic and cultural competency” (ibid.).
Michal Oustinoff The disappointment of kfc (Kentucky Fried Chicken) in China is a shining example. Initially, the kfc slogan “finger lickin’ good” was translated literally into Chinese for a message as sinister as it was funny : “Eat your fingers off”. It’s easy to imagine the disastrous results that can ensue whilst trying to establish a foothold in a local market of that size. The financial losses of this blunder in terms of market share and image were assessed in the millions. Today, kfc is the number one fast food chain in China.
But it took some backpedalling and a swift reaction :
The company quickly produced a slogan that made sense in Chinese, replaced coleslaw with familiar local dishes, and rose to become the number one American fast food chain in China. Two million Chinese eat at kfc every day, and the company opened new stores at a rate of 250 per year in the early 2000s – a huge market victory that depended on both linguistic and cultural acumen. (ibid. : 4).
Many other examples could be cited, but the bottom line is that this kind of localised business model was simply unthinkable in the United States only twenty years ago. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the ussr, the world was declared unipolar, with the United States as the sole remaining superpower of the “space age” [DOLLFUSS 1994].
Under the effects of “soft power” [NYE 2004], all languages were arranged equally around the “hypercentral” language [CALVET 2007]. The economy of languages was limited to that of their relationship to Global English, which was by definition an unequal relationship. Wasn’t the economic benefit of a universal lingua franca precisely that it would bypass other languages, which were seen as so many additional costs THE LANGUAGE ECONOMY IN A MULTIPOLAR POST-AMERICAN WORLD The example of California, a state of exceptional multicultural wealth, of which the economic potential hasn’t ever really been exploited, reveals a paradox that Fareed Zakaria has highlighted : “Generations from now, when historians write about these times, they might note that by the turn of the XXIst century, the United States had succeeded in its great, historical mission – globalizing the world. We don’t want them to write that along the way, we forgot to globalize ourselves” [ZAKARIA 2008 :95].
Michal Oustinoff And one might add… Europe ! Certainly, the European Union is founded on the protection of linguistic plurality, the eu-27 counting 23 official languages, and intends to promote multilingualism in the eu, as former European Commissioner for Multilingualism, Leonard Orban, has underscored : “Employees should master, for the benefit of their employers, at least three languages : that of their country of origin, English of course, and a third from among the most widely spoken in the eu – German, French, Spanish or Italian. Without neglecting Russian, Arabic or Chinese” [RICARD 2007]. Nevertheless, the effect of such policy is slow to be felt in companies where the shortfall in foreign language mastery, starting with Britain, costs 100 billion euros a year :
Orban cites a study undertaken in late 2006 by the uk’s governmentallyapproved language expertise organization. According to the study, 11 % of 2000 small and medium enterprises (smes) surveyed in the European Union (eu) have already lost a contract for export due to insufficient language skills. The resultant loss is estimated at 100 billion euros per year. “The idea that English is the universal language is sinful in its simplicity”, the study observes. Preferred by multinationals, the language of Shakespeare could certainly be used primarily to negotiate twenty markets.
But German would facilitate exportation to fifteen markets, including Germany and Austria. As for French, it is used in eight markets, including France, Belgium and Luxembourg. [RICARD IBID.] Despite the obvious differences between the cases of California and Britain (the effects of globalisation in the first case ; trade within the European Union in the other), one key similarity is just as readily evident : both involve market deregulation between nation-states that have been “more or less protected until now” [DAVEL 2008 :6], whether on a local, global or “glocal” scale. But this explanation is insufficient : what is spectacular is the abandonment of the “English” standard (as we saw the abandonment of the gold standard), or, more precisely, the use of other standards. In the past, neither Great Britain (hyperpower of the nineteenth century until the us took over beginning with World War II), nor the United States, have cared to reciprocate with language, and English has imposed itself as the lingua franca of reference.
Today, the situation is radically different, for three basic reasons. First, the failure of English-only policy, which was supposed to allow us to “communicate” on a global scale through a single language. General Michal Oustinoff linguistic mastery has clearly proceeded much more slowly than market deregulation. Second, and this relates directly to the previous reason, is the realisation that it is in the language of the Other that selling must take place, not in a foreign language, even English. The third reason is relatively new and probably more important in the longer term : we live in an increasingly multipolar world where the us will eventually cease to be the sole master of the game. Whether the us is in decline [TODD 2002] or simply facing what Fareed Zakaria calls “the rise of the others” (including the brics : Brazil, Russia, India and China), these “emerging” powers cannot help but be aware of the importance of the soft power – of any power at all – that their respective languages represent. The current enthusiasm for Chinese, despite its reputation for being extremely complicated, cannot be explained differently : as the language of the second world power, it hopes for economic gain, even if other motives (particularly cultural) cannot be excluded.
THE EMERGENCE OF A NEW FIELD OF ECONOMIC ANALYSIS : LANGUAGES AS VALUE In light of the above, it is unsurprising how little economists have paid attention to languages until recently. In fact, the earliest studies date back to the 1960s. Three sets of reasons, it seems, can explain the disinterest.
The first set links the Western world to the Greco-Roman tradition, inherited from antiquity : the Greeks had only one language, their own.
The Greek world was fundamentally monolingual. They transmitted this model to the Romans, who in turn transmitted it [CASSIN 2004] ; foreign languages had at best a secondary, purely instrumental role with respect to the highest mental processes and human activities. It would not be until the late nineteenth century that language would become a subject of scientific study, specifically, linguistics.
The second set of reasons is mentioned above : only recently did market deregulation, globalisation, the emergence of a multipolar world, not to mention the ict, which are undergoing a real revolution in their field, appear.
For both theoretical and empirical reasons, languages could not previously be considered objects of real reflection for economists. Moreover, to combine these first two sets of explanations, languages were essentially perceived as a cost (as an obstacle to direct access to “concepts” or acting in the world).
Michal Oustinoff But there is a third perspective to consider that is more strictly methodological, to understand why “the economics of language remains a relatively marginal area of specialisation, on the edge of the economy” [GRIN 2002 :14].
Two factors should be taken into account : “1. the economics of language is necessarily an interdisciplinary endeavour and […] as a discipline, the ‘orthodox’ economy is notoriously closed to interdisciplinarity ; 2. economic modelling, and the set of theoretical concepts on which it rests, require the use of quantitative variables, or at least variables that lend themselves to interpretation in terms of “more” and “less”. Yet the study of linguistic questions routinely requires taking into account variables that hardly lend themselves to quantitative interpretation, rendering the modelling as well less relevant.
Given the popularity of modelisation in economics departments at universities, any area of specialisation that does not lend itself to the use of algebraic tools is likely to be neglected” [GRIN IBID. :14-15].
Be that as it may, we note a major distinction in the definition of a language’s “value”. It can be assigned, first of all, a true definite value : “The market values are reflected in the prices or in another indicator of this type.
Suppose, for example, that to speak language X facilitates the sale of goods to the language X-speaking public, and thus allows for higher profits ; or an language X-speaking employee earns more, all else being equal, because s/he knows language X, in which case, language X has a market value” [grin IBID. :21].
The second fundamental facet of value is non-market value : “For example, knowing language X gives access to the culture in language X, facilitates social contact with members of the community speaking the language X, etc. This value is generally not reflected in market prices […]” [GRIN IBID. :21].
Moreover, the value should be considered on two levels : the individual, or “private”, level ; and the collective, or “social”, level. Therefore, we are left with a table of four entries.