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Economics of language and the “long tail” effect – part 2

On the Wikinomics blog, Dan Herman responded to my discussion of use of the long tail model for languages. He raised some interesting points that I’ll come to in a moment.

Part of the reason I posted on the long-tail concept is that I believe it will be useful in various ways to analyzing the situation of less widely-spoken languages (LWSLs; previously I’ve used MINELs which says less about the size of the speaking community). I deliberately framed it in the context of the economics of language because I see the long tail as a model useful in the broader context of that field. In any event, we’re just beginning to explore this and it would be of interest to know of other efforts.

A clarification also needs to be made between what I’m seeing as two dynamics in the long tail of languages. Dan writes (referring to a previous Wikinomics posting that I referenced):

As Paul highlights in his post there are several tools and applications that, in theory, faciliate learning, or given Don’s take, not leaving, the long-tail.

It seems to me that these are really two different, although related, things. On the one hand, Paul looked more at how the potential “consumer” of language learning would perceive minority languages. On the other hand, I’m mostly interested in the view from the points of view closer to where the language is spoken, from individuals, households and communities who speak the language, to regional and national entities that serve them – govt., business, NGOs, education. The latter are all a different kind of “consumer” than potential language learners. (Parenthetically, I think this difference reflects one that I’ve noted in events related to the International Year of Languages: some people and organizations are focusing more on language learning and others more on a nexus of issues relating to language rights, endangered languages, etc.)

All of these viewpoints are valid, of course, but when considering language development and indeed survival it is useful to know whether ICT’s effect of lowering barriers for doing various things in/for less widely-spoken languages down the long tail ultimately balances or outweighs other factors that either encourage speakers of less-widely spoken languages to focus uniquely on more widely-spoken languages at the head of the distribution. Which is to say in effect, that the long-tail effect makes production and use of content and products in a language somewhere down the tail – say Soninke (language spoken by about a million people in Mali, Senegal & Mauritania, which has a historical link to the Ghana empire) – easier and cheaper for Soninke speakers than it was previously. But how will this affect use and development of the language?

In his Wikinomics blog article, Dan is skeptical, posing the question this way:

… in a world where the language of economics is conducted in one, perhaps two, and in the future maybe three languages, can a combination of technology, ethno-nationalism and culture trump trade and economics?

I’m not sure we can answer either question but it might help to look at the long tail in different ways to see what’s involved. In his book, The Long Tail, Chris Anderson shows that if you zero in on a section of the long tail, you find … another long tail distribution (see p. 21). One could for instance do the same with languages based on population of speakers, or, to consider the viewpoint from a country and its citizens, look at just the languages in that country. For example, the following graph uses figures from Ethnologue of first language (L1) speakers of Languages of Mali by L1 speakers languages of Mali :

This is another classic long-tail distribution. I’ve used color codes for very closely related tongues that are interintelligible (at least to some degree – this is a question that could be discussed at length another time). For instance, dark blue is used for the Manding tongues like Bambara, Jula, Malinke and Khassonke. The red color is for languages not in one of those groups. Soninke (snk) is one of these, with 700,000 speakers and 1 million or so overall – pretty significant in a particular region and fourth among the language categories Ethnologue lists for Mali.

Of course, in a multilingual societies people generally learn other languages no matter where their mother tongue may be in the distribution. So it makes more sense in terms of usage to plot out first & second (or additional) language speakers. In the following graph I plot out the combined figures for the closely related groups – whether they be called “language,” “macrolanguage,” or language cluster – and add estimated second language (L2) speakers above those: Malian language grous by L1&L2 speakers

There is some uncertainty about L2 speakership – estimates about the percentage of Mali’s 10+ million population that speak Bambara run from 65-80%; and for the official language of French, one probably low estimate is 15%. Fulfulde has historically been a lingua franca in central Mali.

And there are other ways we could graph out long tails of language as well. For instance on more local levels. Or, since there is a lot of trade and movement among countries of the West Africa region of which Mali is a part, and many of the language communities are divided by borders, one could do regional or subregional graphs.

What is the point? First, the dominant “two or three” languages when you narrow the geographical scale are not necessarily – and in fact usually are not – the same as one sees on the international level. English, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish may be the most significant worldwide, but none of them are major in Mali for instance. And languages that are relatively far down the tail in the international distribution may be at the top on a country or regional scale. Some languages specific to a country or region have some significant advantages in this context. And indeed, locally dominant languages do displace weaker languages to some degree. This may be the case with Bambara in Mali, or at least in much of the country, for instance.

Second, a language like Soninke which is pretty far down the tail in the international scale, has a higher profile nationally or subregionally (remembering it is a cross-border language).

The global distribution hides these realities. While it is true I think that the long-tail effect of advances in ICT generally lower the barriers and increase the potential for various kinds of work with LWSLs way down the tail (to the point where the main problems encountered are when the languages have few resources) – including for language learners (among whom the particular category of “heritage language learners” deserves special note) – it may be that the long tail distributions on more local levels are more informative for discussions of linguistic situations and language policy.

In other words, the significance of ICT’s effect on the potential to do various work (like publishing) in LWSLs may best be seen in reference to long tail distributions on country and regional levels.

Dan suggests that

As countries migrate through the demographic transition, and subsequently become increasingly urbanized, there’s an inherent move towards common languages in order to faciliate the trade of services and goods.

Whether this means more a “trimming” of the tail or more an evolution of the language portfolios of multilingual speakers and communities is open to discussion. None of us are suggesting that speakers of LWSLs should abandon their languages in favor of languages of wider communication (LWCs), but the question is whether a combination of application of ICTs and good language and education policies can facilitate people keeping and developing their languages, even if their numbers be few.

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Economics of language and the “long tail” effect

“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 was just published last year by Barry R. Chiswick and Paul W. Miller, for instance), so I suspect that economics of language is becoming a little more mainstream. (A good online review of the subject under the title “The Economics of Multilingualism” was written by Grin and François Vaillancourt.)

Long tail graph from Wikimedia CommonsWhat 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 (from the Wikimedia Commons) 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 MINELs) 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, 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 (originally from Ethnologue) and an online utility at Shodor.org.
First 50 languagesIt’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.

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 member 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 prominent 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 last fall, 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.

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What about the “Declaration of Linguistic Rights”?

Logo of UDLRThere are probably not many people who have heard of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (UDLR). The whole concept of linguistic rights is not widely known or discussed outside of some “MINEL” (minority, indigenous, national, endangered, local) language communities and language experts and activists. During this International Year of Languages, and with an upcoming Symposium on Linguistic Rights in the World (Geneva, 24 April), it would seem to be an ideal moment to ask where we are going with the UDLR and the whole concept.

The story behind the UDLR apparently is that it was initiated in September 1994 by the International PEN Club’s Translations and Linguistic Rights Committee and the Escarré International Centre for Ethnic Minorities and Nations, and culminated with its adoption at the World Conference on Linguistic Rights held in Barcelona on 6-9 June 1996. UNESCO was asked for its support, and apparently accorded it. However the UDLR has not been ratified by the UN General Assembly and does not have the status in international law that something like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has.

Speaking of the latter, language is mentioned as a factor not to be used to limit application of the rights enumerated therein:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. … (UDHR, Article 2; my emphasis added)

However, this is not quite the same as – or at least does not have the same emphasis as – “linguistic rights,” which concern individual and community rights to use a language. Hence the motivation to write something like the UDLR.

The point is perhaps clearer in considering the extreme opposite – “linguistic genocide” – which refers to deliberate efforts by a government or power to prevent, limit, and ultimately eliminate the use of a specific language, and may be regarded as a type of cultural genocide.

There is an interesting discussion of the latter and international law in the advanced version of an expert paper on children’s education and human rights prepared for the upcoming 7th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (21 April-2 May in New York). The paper was submitted by Lars Anders-Baer (prepared in cooperation with Ole Henrik-Magga, Robert Dunbar and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas) and entitled “Forms of Education of Indigenous Children as Crimes Against Humanity?” According to the authors, cultural genocide was not explicitly included in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (adopted by the UN in 1948, the same year as the UDHR) for various reasons. However the authors find that there are still ways that this international agreement can be used against cultural genocide, and linguistic genocide.

Nevertheless it seems that while the field of international law and human rights is a complex and evolving one, there are some significant gaps when it come to languages. Specifically there are apparently no explicit protections of linguistic rights such as proposed in the still unofficial UDLR of 1996. But is the ULDR the best way to fill these gaps? One expert suggested that it might need a rewrite before it could hope for international ratification. But there has to my knowledge been no such discussion. It would be a shame if the International Year of Languages were to pass without any serious consideration of picking up this initiative.

A small positive step would be to begin by focusing on the rights of children, as the abovementioned article does. In a different context I’ve also called attention to the punishment of children for speaking their mother tongues in Africa (a practice that has been known in many other parts of the world as well). An earlier example is Tove Skutnabb-Kangas’s “Declaration of Children’s Linguistic Rights” published in 1995 (originally in 1986; thanks to Joan Wink for calling my attention to it):

  1. Every child should have the right to identify with her original mother tongue(s) and have her identification accepted and respected by others.
  2. Every child should have the right to learn the mother tongue(s) fully.
  3. Every child should have the right to choose when she wants to use the mother tongue(s) in all official situations.

At the very least, perhaps this short formulation and the longer UDLR could be publicized more in order to help raise awareness about linguistic rights issues.

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“Lost Crops of Africa”


Lost Crops of Africa: …

Read this FREE online!Full Book

The third and final volume of the Lost Crops of Africa series was recently published by the National Academies Press. Its topic is Fruits. I just received a copy, as well as a one of the second volume on Vegetables, which was published two years ago. Vol. 1 on Grains was published in 1996.

In that gap of time is a story, but the good news is that this project has finally been brought to a successful conclusion, the result of an incredible effort by Dr. Noel Vietmeyer and Mark Dafforn. The concept is that there are a lot of important cultivated and wild foods native to Africa that are neglected in research and planning, and so in effect “lost” beyond the local areas where they are well known.

Taken together the three volumes profile 11 cultivated and several wild grains, 18 vegetables, and 24 cultivated and wild fruits. I won’t list them here, but hope to take a few moments to highlight individual species and my comments on them in the future.

I had the privilege of contributing briefly to this project in the early stages, mainly as an intern in 1992 with an office of the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council called BOSTID (Board on Science and Technology for Development). At the time the plan was for a six volume series covering grains, cultivated fruits, wild fruits, vegetables, legumes, and roots and tubers. As I was told, the idea grew out of an earlier successful project on Lost Crops of the Incas (1989), but that it very quickly it became apparent that in the case of Africa there were quite a lot of species of interest.

Unfortunately BOSTID, which had done a lot of quality (and interesting) publications since its establishment in 1970, disappeared into another office in a mid 1990s reorganization and the Lost Crops of Africa project was put on hold. Funding was found to publish Vol. 1 in 1996, but then the effort relied on Noel and Mark, and a decision was made to condense the rest of the series into two volumes. Mark led the project to ultimately complete editing and publication (sponsored by the Africa Bureau and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance of USAID). Incredible, but altogether the effort spanned 20 years. Mark and Noel deserve a huge amount of credit for their perseverance on this project.

I haven’t found any reviews of volumes two and three, but from quick perusal these cover the quite a number of species in the same highly readable style of vol. 1 (which was summarized in the New York Times on April 23, 1996; see also a review in ODI’s Natural Resource Perspectives 23 [9/97], and a short critical perspective on H-Africa).

Altogether the contribution of this series is in bringing various edible plant species to broader attention in a world that focuses – at its risk – on a few cultivars of a few main crops. Having this information in book format is of obvious use (such volumes from the BOSTID are still referenced in the field and these post-BOSTID volumes will continue to be as well, no doubt). Much has changed since the first volume was published in terms of the technologies for disseminating information, and I’m given to think that a wiki format to complement the online versions of the books could facilitate updates and ongoing contributions by specialists in the field. That would assure the longer term impact of this important work as a living resource. Who would set it up and maintain it is another issue.

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2008 Linguapax Prize winner: Neville Alexander

The recipient of the Linguapax Prize for 2008 is Dr. Neville Alexander of South Africa. The prize is awarded annually (since 2000) in recognition of contributions to linguistic diversity and multilingual education.

Although the Linguapax site does not at this writing have updated information, the website of the UNESCO Centre of Catalonia (which is connected with Linguapax) has this press release dated 22.02.2008:

The South African linguist Neville Alexander will receive the Linguapax Award today in Barcelona, on the occasion of the Mother Language Day. The ceremony is framed in the Intercultural Week organised by the Ramon Llull University. Alexander, who coordinates the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa has devoted more than twenty years of his professional life to defend and preserve multilingualism in the post-apartheid South Africa and has become one of the major advocates of linguistic diversity.

There is various material online about Dr. Alexander including:

I don’t want to be negative about the Linguapax Institute‘s efforts, but publicity about this really has been lacking. An email request to Linguapax for more information received no reply. I hope to have more information about Linguapax and its important work in a future posting.

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2008 Year of the Frog

Logo of the Year of the FrogAnyone can declare a year of something and several conservation organizations have combined to declare 2008 the Year of the Frog. They’re calling attention to the importance of amphibians (apparently about half the species in the world are threatened or endangered), and to an “Amphibian Conservation Action Plan” of which something called an “Amphbian Ark” is planned “in which select species that would otherwise go extinct will be maintained in captivity until they can be secured in the wild.”

Oh, and this being “leap day,” some have apparently jumped at the chance to call it International Day of the Frog.

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