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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

versão On-line ISSN 2224-7912
versão impressa ISSN 0041-4751


VAN DER MERWE, Theo. Economics and multilingualism: reconsidering language policies for South Africa. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2014, vol.54, n.2, pp.217-234. ISSN 2224-7912.

Economics of language is a relatively small branch of economics that has been receiving more attention lately. South Africa is a multilingual and multicultural society, but surprisingly, South African economists have not paid much attention to this topic so far. The main reason for this indifference may be that South Africa, as a developing country, faces the typical challenges characteristic of such countries, for example high levels of poverty and unemployment, a skewed distribution of income and high crime levels, which may cause language issues to appear of secondary importance. It is, however, argued in this paper that multilingualism is an important matter and that the development of a viable and affordable language policy for South Africa is important for a progressive and stable South Africa. Multilingualism is defined as the use of more than two languages. The current language policy of 11 official languages as specified by the South African Constitution is not viable or affordable, with the result that English is the main beneficiary. It is important to have a lingua franca for inclusive communication and nation building, but not at the expense of the other South African languages. Monolingualism mainly benefits the elite and contributes to the social exclusion of the poor. Furthermore, it also contradicts the South African Constitution. Contrary to views held by some economists, language is more than just a medium of communication or technology; it has important cultural elements or intrinsical value that must not be ignored. The cost implications of multilingualism are usually overemphasised, while the benefits are ignored or underestimated. In public economics this is known as a positive externality, an example of a market failure, because if left to the market, the optimal amount of the good (multilingualism) will not be produced. It is therefore inter alia, argued that multilingualism is a positive externality. This creates scope for government to intervene by implementing language policies to improve allocation efficiency. If such market failures are not addressed properly, they will be detrimental to the social welfare. If social benefits exceed the costs, the social welfare of society will be improved. It must, however, be kept in mind that government also fails. The fiscal scope for South Africa to increase government expenditure is limited due to the severe demands it is already experiencing, especially those created by functions such as education, health, social assistance, public law and security, to mention only a few important functions. These demands will not change in the foreseeable future, and it is therefore imperative that language policies enhancing multilingualism must be affordable and viable. It is also indicated that despite general beliefs that English is the language of trade and the internet, this position is changing rapidly. Evidence shows that the ability to use the language of trading partners can be beneficial for trade, other languages, and especially Mandarin, are also making inroads on the internet. Notwithstanding the convictions of individuals such as Van Parijs that the use of a lingua franca will enable poor individuals to mobilise themselves and participate in deliberations at the global level, it is unlikely that this argument will hold for developing countries. In developing countries the use of one language only often benefits the elite mainly and could broaden the economic divide between "haves" and "have-nots", because poor individuals often do not know English, French or Portuguese at all, or sufficiently, due to no, little, or poor educational opportunities. In an effort to level the playingfield and to promote equity, government and other institutions will have to promote multilingualism, but obviously, multilingualism on its own will not necessarily create a more equitable society. In order to recommend a more practical, viable and affordable language policy, language demographic data of Census 2011 have been used in this paper as a more objective norm. The number of first-language speakers of the official languages is used to identify languages which should be used at national level. The Nguni and Sotho languages are grouped together in accordance with a proposal by Alexander, which recommends that the difference between languages and dialects (varieties) should be taken into account. It is therefore recommended that Afrikaans, English, the Nguni and Sotho languages be used as the official languages at national level. The same procedure is followed for the provincial level. In this case, however, some provinces will have to use four official languages to inter alia make provision for English as lingua franca. At provincial level the language with the most first language speakers could be used, as long as the standardisation of the written Nguni and Sotho languages is not jeopardised.

Palavras-chave : economics; equity; fiscal scope; language policies; lingua franca; market failure; monolingual; multilingual; positive externality; social welfare; South Africa.

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