Repercussions of “official” languages

Does the establishment of an official language have an impact on a country’s economic growth?

It is fairly safe to say that language is the most powerful social tool among the human populace. Not only do the languages we speak connect us to one another, but they also allow for the sharing of ideas and promote growth in virtually every sector. To this end, should a country establish a language (or more than one) as “official” in order to conduct that nation’s commerce, governmental affairs, and educational systems? Does the establishment of an official language have an impact on a country’s economic growth?

The answer is somewhat controversial and more than a little complex.

While establishing official languages may seem both convenient and economically sound, there is another side to this coin. The world is becoming increasingly more globalized, and though there still remain several countries that would be considered somewhat ethnically and linguistically homogeneous, there is a growing number of countries that are truly diverse. Establishing an official language (or more than one) might not only risk ostracizing and marginalizing a growing number of residents but might also increase unemployment rates.

The following demonstrates a handful of countries with official languages and compares the number of indigenous languages to the number of languages spoken by the country’s immigrant population:

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In these countries, there are more languages spoken by the immigrant population than there are indigenous languages spoken, and yet, in nearly all of these countries, there is only one official language.

Spotlight on the immigrant experience in Germany

There seems to be a common understanding among foreign-born residents of Germany that knowing how to speak German, even at a basic level, propels them forward from both an economic and social standpoint. And with an aging population, Germany has greatly benefited from its skilled, and well-educated immigrant population who are able to speak German to a greater or lesser extent.

But for the less affluent, less-qualified immigrants who struggle with the language, integrating successfully into the German way of life is an upward battle. “In Dortmund… in the depressed industrial Ruhr region, the immigrant unemployment rate is 27 per cent, nearly double the national rate for immigrants…”

Heated political debates also add to the complexity of the issue. While some contend that immigrants should be encouraged to learn the official language of the land, going as far as to propose that even at home, immigrants should solely speak German, others, such as Yasmin Fahimi of the Social Democrats stand vehemently opposed – “… the state has no role to play in deciding what language people speak within the walls of their own home.”

Nonetheless, these heated political debates can often negatively impact on employment opportunities and social acceptance for immigrants, and in Germany, this seems to be the case.

Want to take a closer look? Grab all tables in Google Sheets!

Spotlight on the immigration experience in France

When applying for French citizenship, France now requires applicants to prove that they have an adequate level of French proficiency to manage their daily lives. Examples of written proof include a certificate or a diploma with a B1 level of French, a diploma from a French-speaking country, or proof of study at a nationally-recognized French school or university. In fact, even more extreme measures have been proposed under the political “civic integration agenda”, including making French language proficiency a prerequisite in order to “… enter, reside, reunite, or naturalize.” 

While there seems to be a strong correlation between the decrease in naturalization applications in recent years and a tightening of these new language proficiency requirements, the immigrant population seems to be increasing annually and now accounts for approximately 9 percent of the total population.

However, even with these new laws in place, the foreign-born population still struggles with unemployment at a rate of 79 percent greater than that of their native-born counterparts.

Want to take a closer look? Grab all tables in Google Sheets!

Are official languages causing the divide?

So, what is really at play here? Arguably, there are a great many factors at work that ostracize immigrants and impede their ability to integrate and succeed. For one, the inability to speak the new country’s official language poses immediate economic obstacles. Applying in confidence to that new job posting isn’t so easy if you struggle with the language. Immigrants with limited language proficiency often settle for jobs that barely pay minimum wage and put them at or below the poverty line. Complicating matters, limited language proficiency can also risk an individual’s health and wellbeing if medical interpreting services are not readily available when required. 

Cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings that complicate one’s ability to form new and lasting friendships. Often compounding these issues, xenophobic and discriminatory behavior hinders an immigrant’s ability to find safe and affordable housing, but further ostracizes them from community involvement and participation.

Food for thought...

Matière à réfléchir...

Denkanstöße erhalten...

Learning to be a diverse society is key to a country’s success, both on a national and international front, but the ever-growing multicultural and multilingual countries of the world still have a long way to go to work out all the kinks. Stay tuned next time as we place a spotlight on countries with no official language and the challenges they face.

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