Monday, October 20, 2014

Economics of language and the “long tail” effect (part 1)

In April 2008, I posted on my other blog, "Multidisciplinary Perspectives," two explorations of use of the "long-tail" distribution in understanding language use in multilingual societies. In subsequent years I have used this concept as a counterpoint to the more well known application of a "constellation" model for world languages.1 Without pretense as to its value, but with the thought that it is instructive to have alternative frames2 for understanding multilingual societies such as most of those in Africa, I'm reposting the first of those two efforts below (with minor modificatons and updates), and will follow later with the second.

“The economics of language has been neglected and deserves much greater attention,” wrote economist Donald Lamberton in a book he edited in 2002. That may not have been too much of a revelation at the time - only a few years earlier (1994) another economist, François Grin, wrote that this field was tolerated “as an intriguing fringe interest” by the discipline of economics. I’d like to briefly explore an intriguing idea on the fringe of that fringe: whether there are or could be “long-tail” dynamics that give some advantages to minority languages.

But first, what is “economics of language”? Grin, in the same article mentioned above defined it as covering the study of:
"…the effects of language on income (possibly revealing the presence of language-based discrimination), language learning by immigrants, patterns of language maintenance and spread in multilingual polities or between trading partners, minority language protection and promotion, the selection and design of language policies, language use in the workplace, and market equilibrium for language-specific goods and services."
Actually some of these issues are getting increased attention (another book on the topic by Barry R. Chiswick and Paul W. Miller was published in 2007 and released earlier this year in paperback, for instance), so I suspect that economics of language is becoming a little more mainstream. A good review of the subject under the title “The Economics of Multilingualism: Overview and Analytical Framework” was published by Grin and François Vaillancourt in 2009 (this apparently expands on an online version previously available on the World Bank website).

The "long tail" of languages

What does the “long tail” have to do with any of this? Well to begin with, the distribution of languages by number of speakers, if plotted out on a graph like the figure (modified from image on Wikipedia) to the right, is a long tail distribution. The question is whether this means anything with regard to the economics of languages - and in particular for minority or less-widely spoken languages (the ones I’ve liked to call MINELs3) which are in the long tail.

By way of explanation, the “long tail” refers to a distribution where a few categories have a lot of each (they would be the green-shaded area in the figure), and many categories have progressively fewer (the yellow-shaded part). It was popularized by Chris Anderson in a 2004 article, and then a 2006 book (revised and expanded in 2008), on new marketing strategies facilitated by the internet. As such, it is a kind of economic model.

How do languages fit this pattern? I plotted out a bar graph for the 50 languages with the most mother tongue speakers using figures from Wikipedia (accessed 2008; figures originally from Ethnologue) and an online utility at

It’s “quick and dirty” but gives an idea of how the actual distribution compares to the long tail model. Needless to say, there is a very long and low “tail” to the right in this distribution after the first 50 languages.4

I got the idea of connecting the long tail concept with languages from Laurent Elder of IDRC. When I finally got to read up on the subject it began to make sense. At least partway…


I have been among those suggesting that information and communication technologies make a lot of things possible or less expensive for MINELs that were impossible or too costly before. Desktop publishing or using webpages reduces barriers to producing and sharing text in any language - critical for languages with few resources and examples of a long tail effect. Cheaper communications via VOIP and expanded availability of cellphones facilitate dispersed members of a minority language community being able to speak their languages with each other. Community radio (a new use of an old technology) opens new ways of using the oral language. And so on. To be sure, dominant languages can use the same technologies, but the real advantage I think is for the non-dominant languages.

On the other hand - and here the application of the long-tail concept to language runs into problems perhaps similar to other attempts to apply economic analysis to languages - people don’t move “down the tail” to niche markets with language in the way they might with music or books (two of the examples in Anderson’s writing on the subject). With language, the most prominent fact is that people "live" in the long tail, as it were, and there are some incentives to move up the tail to dominant languages. Part of the issue is how the new technologies facilitate not abandoning the linguistic home in the long tail when dominant languages are learned and used. Most people after all learn more than one language.

In any event, the long tail seems to be a useful concept in looking at the present and future of world languages. When I did a little research on this in fall 2007, I came across an article on the Wikinomics blog that looked at the distribution of languages on the internet and posed questions re language learning. In other words, is there a long tail market for language services (mainly language learning)? This is a different take than mine above but also interesting. There may yet be others and perhaps, as the field of economics of language develops, more ambitious applications of the concept.

1. Per Abram de Swann, as elaborated in his 2001 Words of the World. I first encountered this "constellation" analogy in a 1999 work by Jean-Louis Calvet, Pour une écologie des langues du monde.
2. I take the concept of "(re)framing" from study of organizational development, and in particular a book by Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal entitled Reframing Organizations (in its 5th edition as of 2013). For complex issues, it is often useful to use more than one perspective or model in analysis.
3. "MINEL" is a proposed acronym that never caught on as a way of expressing non-global languages: Minority, Indigenous, National (in the sense used in some African countries), Endangered, Local.  
4. The top five are: Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi, and Arabic. The order when counting second-language speakers would be different, but still in a long tail distribution.

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