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Geography is the matrix of history, its nourishing mother and disciplining home. — Will and Ariel Durant

The Impact of Geography and Economics on Language Learning

Linguistic Distance, Access to Resources, Connectedness, Wealth Effects

A thought experiment: Imagine going to a social event organized for polyglots. There you meet Anna, who is Russian, and Ben, who is German. Anna is fluent in Russian, English, Arabic, and Chinese. Ben, on the other hand, is fluent in German, English, Portuguese, and Spanish. Let’s keep all the other variables the same by assuming that they: 

      • are the same age
      • grew up in the average socioeconomic environment in their respective countries
      • have spent an equal amount of time studying their non-native languages
      • have the same level of fluency for each language
      • have relatively similar language learning “genetics”
      • didn’t learn any language through immersion besides their native tongue

Who is the more accomplished polyglot? Of course, they are both exceptional polyglots. But, the more accomplished polyglot can be determined based on geoeconomics—linguistic distance, access to resources, connectedness, wealth effects. These factors play an underappreciated role in language learning. 

Linguistic Distance

Linguistic distance is the measure of similarity or “relatedness” between languages. Tracing language development is similar to creating a family tree. Trees start with common ancestors, but over time, families change, evolve, and separate into different groups. Sometimes, distant families reunite and merge to create mixed families. Some families are exterminated, and the tree is severed. Languages follow similar transformations. They have common ancestral origins. As groups split into tribes and form new communities, dialects are formed. With time, kingdoms and countries border each other, and new languages appear. Neighboring countries share and borrow linguistic features from one another through osmosis — trade, migration, conquest. In the 15th century, during the Age of Discovery, European countries broke through geographic limitations. The Dutch took the Caribbeans. The Spanish conquered Central and South America. The Portuguese took over Brazil. The British and the French established colonies in several parts of the world. Through colonization, languages were distributed all around the world. 

Language families are subdivided into a large number of languages, sublanguages, and dialects. For instance, in Europe, the three main language families are Romance, Germanic, and Slavic, which are all branches of a larger Indo-European language family. Take Romance languages, the root language is Latin, but its derivations — Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and French — have varying degrees of linguistic distance among them. 

Source: Stephan Steinbach, www.alternativetransport.wordpress.com

A shorter linguistic distance means less difficulty in learning. If your native language is English, it’s relatively easier to pick up other Germanic languages such as Dutch, German, Afrikaans (African Dutch), and Scandinavian languages such as Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian. A higher linguistic distance means that language learners need to spend more time developing fluency. For example, Japanese speakers, on average, learn English with much more effort than Dutch speakers do. 

Access to Resources

Access to resources refers to the availability of people, ideas, and feedback. The cross-pollination between neighboring countries facilitates the exchange of these resources. If you were a Spaniard interested in learning French, you would have an abundance of resources: local libraries, language schools, public school programs, tutors, immigrants, bilingual friends, language exchange partners. France and Spain neighbor each other and are only 500 miles (=804km) apart. If you were born in China and wanted to learn French, those resources would be much more scarce because the distance between China and France is 5,000 miles (=8,047km). There would be much less demand for French in China because of simple geographic reasons. 

Even though geography has broad implications on interest, exposure, and availability of resources, “The influence of geographic factors diminishes as technology grows.” wrote Will and Ariel Durant in The Lessons of History. Thomas L. Friedman echoed the same sentiment in The World is Flat. In the always-on 21st century, broadband connectivity is leveling the playing field. Ideas and resources are not exclusively owned by the elite anymore but dispersed globally to anyone with online access. “When the world is flat, you can innovate without having to emigrate,” writes Friedman. Geographical distance and wealth effects produce far fewer systemic disadvantages than they did a decade ago. Historical and geographical divisions are increasingly less relevant, and information is becoming decentralized. More and more people have unlimited, affordable access to learning resources, language exchange partners, discussion forums, language tutors, and online courses. 

Connectedness

Connectedness measures globalization based on trade, capital, information, and people flows. There is a big difference between stating that the world is flat and that the world is flatter. According to the DHL Global Connectedness Index, the world is “far less globalized than most people believe.” Economic factors have a big impact on the level of connectedness since “the top 10 most connected countries are also the world’s most prosperous countries.” 

Country
Ranking
The Netherlands
1
Singapore
2
Switzerland
3
Belgium
4
UAE
5
Republic of Korea
16
United States
30
Japan
42
Brazil
58
China
61

People living in countries and regions with higher connectivity are more likely to be exposed to new cultures and new languages. As language is a tool for social connection, they have more incentive to learn and improve their language skills. Case in Point: Europe is the world’s most globally connected region (“eight out of the top 10 are located in Europe”), and the home of many polyglots and multilinguals. 

Wealth Effects
Despite a flatter world and more people connected to the Internet, the economic strength of a country still plays an important role in language. Countries with higher standards of living (higher GDP per capita) enjoy more advantages not only in terms of quantity of language resources but also in terms of quality. A strong correlation exists between a country’s gross national income and its English proficiency. The graph below shows the respective GDP per capita for 50 countries in comparison to their English proficiency level. 

Source: United Nations, GNI per capita, EF EPI Ranking, 2018

India and Estonia are outliers, but the reason for their high or low English proficiency can be explained by linguistic distance and particular historical and economic peculiarities of their culture. Prosperous countries have many benefits: higher connectedness, better public-education systems, more financial support, and easier access to resources. In many European countries, schools require students to take foreign language classes. For example, in Portugal, it’s not surprising to meet someone who has an intermediate level of speaking and a high level of reading in French. 

Who is the more accomplished polyglot?

Is it Anna who speaks Russian, English, Arabic, and Chinese? Or Ben, who is fluent in German, English, Portuguese, and Spanish?

      • Linguistic Distance: Anna’s language abilities are very diverse. Each language has different writing systems and phonetics. Ben’s languages have a much shorter linguistic distance: German and English are Germanic languages, and Portuguese and Spanish are Romance languages. 
      • Access to Resources: Anna’s languages are spread out geographically. Even though Russia borders China, most of the population and wealth of the country is concentrated in the East (European Russia). Ben’s languages are European. 
      • Connectedness: Germany is ranked 10th in connectedness, whereas Russia comes in at 54.   
      • Wealth Effects: The standard of living in Russia (GDP: $1.75 trillion) is lower than in Germany (GDP: $4.04 trillion). 

Both polyglots have had less than ideal conditions to learn their respective languages. However, in comparison, Anna didn’t have the advantage in distance, resources, connectedness, nor wealth. She is definitely the more impressive polyglot.

Geography and economics play complementary roles in deciding the distribution and number of language speakers in the modern world. More importantly, these two forces dictate the difficulty level of learning a language. Countries that want to be competitive in the 21st century need an effective education policy that focuses on foreign language acquisition. They need to draw a geographic and cultural map to determine their strengths and weaknesses, then come up with strategies to efficiently allocate their resources to prepare their youth to compete in the global environment. For instance, governments could offer scholarships or funding to language students who study abroad. Furthermore, countries need to improve the connectedness of their economies. 

In the end, history is not necessarily a good indication of the future. Language development can only be understood by connecting the dots backward. Soon, technology will have progressed to the point where language translation is seamless. Devices can translate our speech and text into many different languages without minimal loss in translation. Language, geographical, and economic barriers will soon disappear. 

Further Reading

  • The World is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman (2005)
  • The Lessons of History, Will and Ariel Durant (1968)