Economic approaches to language policy, referred to as the “economics of language” (Sprachenokonomie, economie des langues), first appeared in the second half of the last century (Marschak 1965; for historical overviews, see Coulmas 2005 and Alcouffe 2013), and with greater frequency in its last decade. They represent an interdisciplinary and mainly quantitative view of language policies in the economy or in business. Studies focus either on the macro-level (the economy of an entire state or region, etc.) or on the micro-level (companies and other organisations). This classification should not be confounded with Back’s division of factors in code choice into macro-, meso-, and micro-levels (see Section 3.2). In fact, Back’s meso-level equates to the micro-level in economic terms.
Researchers in the emerging field of the economics of language have adapted and further developed quantitative models stemming from (micro)economics in order to assess different language-policy measures in terms of their internal or external efficiency. Internal efficiency is a question of whether - with the means available - an economic allocation of resources can be attained, whereas external efficiency takes into account superior goals, perhaps cultural or symbolic, and evaluates the coherence of resource allocation in relation to these. The goals themselves - the meta-perspective - are not subject to assessment as they cannot be judged by means of economic analysis (Grin 2005: 9-11).
Studies embedded in the conceptual and methodological framework of the economics-of-language paradigm stress the influence of linguistic variables on economic ones (e.g., of linguistic competences on labour income) or, in rare cases, vice versa, and predominantly investigate the level of the whole economy (Grin 1994, 1996a-b, 2003, 2005). Such analyses often suggest the existence of unidirectional causal relationships between linguistic and economic factors, a finding we regard with suspicion since it greatly simplifies the complex socially- and historically- conditioned relations between interdependent variables. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the constructive contributions of economic approaches to language policy questions. In particular, the terminology and logic developed and applied by economists seem fairly accessible to decision-makers in business and politics. As a result, linguistic concerns enter into the considerations of politicians and practitioners. Generally pressed for time, they welcome, and can readily assimilate, hard data that might justify the perceived costs and benefits of lived multilingualism. Furthermore, models and studies derived from the economics-of-language perspective can help to legitimise language-policy measures, for instance by demonstrating the effects of linguistic diversity at work on (operational) value creation (Grin, Sfreddo, and Vaillan- court 2010: 105-122). Somewhat surprisingly, since greater linguistic diversity always appears to raise costs (translation services, simultaneous interpreting), the same authors even managed to establish an optimal level of linguistic diversity in a given social setting (a country, a region, etc.). Starting from the assumption that such an optimal level exists, they usually argue against language policies that strive only for linguistic homogeneity as the balance of costs and benefits is most favourable, not in a monolingual setting, but when a degree of diversity is permitted and promoted (Grin 2010: 39-41; Gazzola 2014: 67-73). Yet, to reach such a conclusion, the linguist- economist must have recourse to non-market elements in addition to monetary ones. The need for this conceptual trick, which introduces qualitative, soft factors into an intrinsically quantitative model, indicates once more the approach’s limitations, of which its representatives and supporters are usually aware (Grin 1996b: 28, 2010).
Recently, though, scholars of the economics of language have discovered interesting new applications for their models. They have found that the (trilingual) language regime adopted by the European Patent Office disadvantaged applicants who were speakers of non-official languages, and they developed strategies to overcome such imbalances (Gazzola and Volpe 2014; Gazzola 2015). Moreover, they have conceptualised models to evaluate different language regimes in terms of the relative efficiency with which they achieve goals such as effective communication, fairness, or linguistic justice, this last assessed by policies’ distributive consequences (Gazzola 2014: 73-84). Another research strand is trying to shed light on the role of translation in maintaining and developing linguistic diversity in the context of different language policies, and in comparison to other, more frequently investigated factors such as foreign language learning, language rights or the use of a lingua franca. Grin (2010) discusses the impact of socio-economic and socio-cultural factors, as well as the dynamics of multilingualism, on translators’ and interpreters’ training, and on future demand for the services they offer. Burckhardt (2014) has studied the role of translation in fostering linguistic federalism under the Canadian and Swiss language regimes. In the Swiss case, he highlights the (vertically) asymmetric nature of the current public translation policy; whereas German and French translation services are widely available and integrated into all administrative levels, the same is not true of the country’s two other official languages, Italian and Romansh. What is more, the latter has a lower status altogether, being officially recognised only in communicative situations involving Romansh speakers.
Thus we can see the potential and usefulness of the economic approach to language(s) and appreciate the contributions of the research done in the field. Yet applied linguists, of course, must still choose an epistemological and methodological foundation for their work, and this is unlikely always to be in alignment with a truly economic mind-set.