Networks and Languages

Prominent  languages can be thought of as natural monopolies because of their network effects. The high cost for a second language to become widely used incentivizes language learning really in only one direction. This of course is naturally understood because of the high popularity of english learning as a second language globally.

An article published by the Canadian economics association ( discusses the policy implications that should be drawn from this as a result of the findings derived from a “game-theoretic model” of bilingualism. Since the languages were considered as perfect substitutes, the game easily demonstrated cascading phenomenon since the subsequent players tended solely to choose the majority language.  The economists found 3 different Nash equilibriums to the game, no learning, or the complete learning of one language by the other language speakers. The various equilibria reached depend on the costs of learning. The writers argued for the subsidization of only majority language learning to minority speakers as the most efficient solution.

This of course discounts a lot of non-economic factors of languages as well as some economic ones. In particular, I would be curious as to the effect of wealth behind a language, perhaps as GDP(s) per speakers, has on the incentivizing of learning it. Intuitively I feel there would be a positive connection, but it would be interesting to try and quantify, especially as non-english speaking nations are gaining much more economic sway globally. I imagine there is also a strong proximity effect in place which will probably be the cause of many SE asian individuals taking up Mandarin over English as a second languages as more money flows out of China southward. Lastly there is the question of whether complete learning or one global language is an efficient equilibrium considering the costs that would go into it and potential intrinsic and extrinsic losses from the disappearance of a mode of communication. In an increasingly global and diversified world it will be very interesting to see how we decided to exchange ideas.

2 thoughts on “Networks and Languages”

  1. I wonder how much the internet has changed the network effects of prominent languages. On the one hand, before the internet, an immigrant in a country with a different primary language had to learn the new language to communicate with anyone who wasn’t from his native country. Using only his first language would be very difficult.

    Now that immigrant can go online and read sites in his old language fairly easily. He can also use Google to translate a lot of information that he can’t get in his old language. Using only his old language probably isn’t as hard as it once was.

    The increasing ease of relying on a less widely used language is a way that networks of prominent languages might be reduced by the internet. But there are also ways for the internet to have increased the network effects of languages like English and Mandarin. If new material on the internet is being published in English and Mandarin at a much higher rate than competing languages, then it’s possible that they will come to dominate the smaller languages. Even with Google translating, it’s probably better to read something in its initial language. As more and more content is in prominent languages, the people producing content in other languages might be discouraged and stop.

  2. This is such an interesting topic. Personally, I am acquainted with people who are not native speakers and the access that the internet offers them when it comes to learning a new language is impressive. I also know of native English speakers who use networks to practice their foreign languages. Networks have enabled communication among people from different countries and being able to speak more than one language has also enabled those relations. In business being able to speak more than one language and communicate effectively may increase the returns to the business since people like doing business with people who can understand them as well.

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