Linguistic diversity is a good thing, and individuals, institutions and societies can benefit from investing in language learning. This is the conviction from which Gabrielle Hogan-Brun starts and the conclusion she reaches. Evidence for this proposition is not difficult to find, and Linguanomics provides a wealth of examples from aviation safety to Mark Zuckerberg via Marco Polo.
Aviation accidents demonstrate the benefits of language learning ex negativo. When the last recorded words of a Chinese pilot are “What does ‘pull up’ mean?”, one may conclude that a fatal incident could have been avoided if the pilot had had better English. Conversely, Polo did well as a trader and traveller, and his fluency in four languages surely helped; the same with Zuckerberg, who may be hoping that his Chinese language skills will smooth Facebook’s entry into the Chinese market.
Linguanomics is full of anecdotes such as these, and they all go to show that language skills are useful and may even be highly profitable. Hogan-Brun is on a mission to convince her readers that they should be more alert to the market potential of language learning. Given the neglect of languages in much of the English-speaking world, this is a laudable aim, and Linguanomics succeeds as a piece of punditry.
But punditry rarely sits well with scholarship, and Linguanomics is no exception. The book fails to provide a coherent framework that would enable readers to think systematically about the social and economic benefits and challenges of linguistic diversity.
Research into the political economy and sociology of language has long examined the differential costs and benefits of linguistic diversity. While learning a new language is undoubtedly a good thing, it is not the case – as Hogan-Brun suggests – that everyone benefits equally under all circumstances. While Zuckerberg may be applauded for delivering a speech in Chinese, an English speech delivered by a Chinese person is rarely noteworthy, and if it is, the focus will most likely be on its shortcomings.
Not only are languages and speakers accorded unequal value in the real world, but the costs of language learning may be far higher than Hogan-Brun acknowledges here. Her estimate of how long it takes to learn a language – three months – is taken from a popular blog, ignoring decades of linguistic research that has documented the complexity of language learning.
If there is one certainty in applied linguistics, it is that adult language learning is far from uniform in process and outcome. Some people may actually be even faster than the “fluent-in-three-months” blogger; Friedrich Engels famously gave himself 48 hours to learn “the entire grammar” of Persian, and read Hafez in the original within three weeks. At the other end of the spectrum, some adults never manage to learn a new language – because they find themselves in less favourable circumstances than those enjoyed by Facebook’s CEO and lack the privileges of prior education, disposable time, capable teachers, well-designed materials or encouraging interlocutors.
Linguanomics asks worthwhile questions. But to answer them and to understand the social and market potential of language learning, one would need to examine systematically who does and does not benefit from language learning in which contexts and under which circumstances, and consider how can we manage language diversity and break down linguistic barriers for the common good.
Ingrid Piller is professor of applied linguistics, Macquarie University, Australia, and author of Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice: An Introduction to Applied Sociolinguistics (2016).
Linguanomics: What Is the Market Potential of Multilingualism?
By Gabrielle Hogan-Brun
Bloomsbury, 184pp, £45.00 and £12.99
ISBN 9781474238311, 8298 and 8335 (e-book)
Published 9 February 2017