Is linguistic diversity related to development?

Linguistic diversity map of the world. Red indicates the 8 mega-diverse countries that together have more than 50% of the world languages. (Source: Wikipedia)

While discussing language this afternoon I happened to notice that linguistic diversity across the world maps quite well over the development status of countries worldwide. What I see is that the most linguistically diverse countries (or regions) of the world are also the countries which are less developed or developing according to their economic status. On the map, red indicates the 8 mega-diverse countries that together have more than 50% of the world languages. This is comprised of India, countries of middle and south east Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Only Australia among the entire bunch is a developed country.
A question this pattern then poses is – does having a single language (or perhaps lesser linguistic diversity) facilitate development of a country? Language diversity is related to ethnic diversity, as in case of India. A larger ethnic diversity which speaks its own language is not likely to lend itself easily to collective goals and aspiration that a country sets for its people. Also that a good amount of administrative bandwidth is likely to be spent in managing this diversity as seen in India.

The thought is easy to reason when one reads the history of formation of states in independent India on linguistic basis. Today every state has its own unique language and in which the state government conducts its business. While this is necessary, the problem manifests itself when we see India as a federation of several such states with their own languages. Language becomes a distinct identity and begins to symbolize many aspects of an individual’s identity, class and background. In India’s case it also ends up dragging caste. This cocktail of identity and issue appears to have language at the core.

Similar linguistic and ethnicity pattern is reflected in other parts of the world on the linguistic diversity map. Central Africa appears to be as diverse and less developed compared to India. And this is interesting, because the proportion of English speakers in India in urban areas is in a majority. Many earlier have argued that India has able to charge its economic growth because of its proportion of workforce which can speak English. And ability to speak English and development has also been spoken of as a linked pattern.
A more homogenized language profile as in USA and members of the European Union on the other hand ( I am tempted to think) eases up the administrative difficulties of a country in governing its population and also simplify day-to-day affairs of the two way communication between the government and its citizens. I realize that there are many incomplete thoughts in this relationship that I draw between linguistic diversity and development, but it does look like a question worth exploring.

Another view on it is that there may not be any relationship at all. My sociology professor argues that if one goes back to history and looks at the very same map with development status (or prosperity status of regions) in the ancient period, the linguistically diverse regions were prosperous and the developed nations of today didn’t even exist then. The consideration of economic status is very contemporary and strongly set in the modern economic system. Language perhaps didn’t bear upon trade and commerce in ancient period but in the modern economic system it bears a causal relationship with trade. The pre-modern trade was of commodities (or primary goods) and modern form of knowledge industry evolves only with technology. This has altered the relationship of economic growth with language from the ancient to the modern period. And therefore, I do not quite agree with him that there may not be a relationship such as this.

Lastly, the idea of lingua franca evolves from the common language that many across the region or the world begin to use in order to facilitate communication with the people that they mean to interact with. For example, much before English, it was Portuguese which was commonly spoken and widely understood on the coastline across India. The lingua franca now happens to be English as it is no more the ships and the merchants arriving on the Indian coast but that the merchants and traders in the digital era plug in straight into the economies of the world and at the same time also draw trade straight on to their screens on their desks without any change in their geographies.

2 thoughts on “Is linguistic diversity related to development?

  1. This seems like an interesting analysis of the socio-economic processes shaping development. I was particularly drawn by this post of yours (which is away from the usual sociology-jargon filled ones) because i am a bit of a language chauvinist myself and the idea of identity surrounding language. I would like you to consider the following points –
    1. The Idea of Russia – I’m surprised you do not consider Russia in your analysis, considering the fact that it is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, with as many languages and dialects of Russian. What further complicates the case of Russia is it was what the West considered ‘the Second World’ with a completely different idea of development w.r.t. that of the West when it was part of the Soviet Union. Also, there was the case of the tyrannical imposition of the Russian language on its various minorities during the late-tsarist and Soviet periods, which the minorities today don’t make a fuss about (except if they are an Islamic-majority Caucasian republic) and accept Russian as their ‘other mother-tongue’ (probably). I’d like to nudge you to explore that facet.
    2. There is also China and its linguistic/ethnic diversity.
    3. The revival of Hebrew in the mid 19th century from a near-dead status to the language of millions of people today and its sociological impact on Israel.

  2. Srikara,

    Your point on Russia is well made. The language – development relationship examined here is based on 8 mega diverse regions of the world. And therefore, the focus on ‘mega diverse region’. This is not to exclude other regions with varying but lesser degrees of diversity, but to argue that if a possibility of such a causal relationship exist, then it would first hold true in ‘mega’ regions. And so the absence of Russia. It extends to China as well.

    As for Hebrew, while its revival is a significant turn, in absolute numbers only about 5 million people speak the language. And Wolfram’s engine suggests that with 5 million, it would rank 145th in the world in terms of the number of people who speak that language. This too then doesn’t make it to the mega factor. However, I agree that Russia, China and perhaps many other countries would make an interesting study in linguistic diversity, ethnicity and development status.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.