Arnold Kling  

The Language Barrier

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The Internet has created new opportunities for international trade in information services. In this essay, I argue that this is creating a trade barrier for non-English speakers.


For now, the Internet revolution is boosting the economic prospects of the English speakers of the world. This includes the countries where English is the native language, as well as the people in other countries who happen to be educated in English. People who never learn English may be destined to spend their lives on the wrong side of the language barrier.

For Discussion: In the essay, I suggest that a poor person in India who is learning English might in twenty years be better off than a rich person in France who is learning French. Do you think that this is plausible?


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COMMENTS (1 to date)
David Thomson writes:

“(Nicholas) Negroponte believes that with computer-mediated communication, I can converse in English to someone speaking Japanese. This sounds nice in theory, but in practice the challenges of speech recognition and language translation appear to be too great for the next several years.”

Nicholas Negroponte fails to understand that it is impossible for a computer to adequately translate one language to another. Language is an intrinsically nebulous activity and words constantly change in meaning. At the very best, a highly developed language translation software will provide an approximate understanding of the text.

“Spence said that he felt better about predicting that a Chinese would overtake a Frenchman, because China has better infrastructure than India. (This view is shared by Indians.)”

I’ll put my money on the people of India. Their democratic social milieu gives them a huge leg up on the Chinese damaged by Communism. Culture indeed does matter. Fortunately, India is also overcoming the damage brought about by listening earlier to John Kenneth Galbraith and other socialist economists.

Lastly, we should hope that English dominates the world. The Tower of Babel was a curse, not a “multicultural” blessing! Why English, and not Eskimo, Spanish, or German, the language of my ancestors ? Hey, life’s not always fair. Those &^%# Limeys have won, and its best for the rest of us to get with the program. God help those who hesitate--they will have a very rough time of it. And yes, that is also true for the French.

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