The Economic Value of Languages?

by Jacomine · 5 comments

By Jacomine Nortier
Photo Credit: Ahmad Zamri

“In my next article I will discuss the importance of maintaining
the home language and why there is no harm in using
a home language that is different from what
the outside world is speaking.”

These were my last words in July, before I left for a long holiday trip to France. There I felt once more how it is to be in a country where you speak the language but not quite well enough to fully understand and use it with all of the finesse that native speakers do. I was happy to be with my partner with whom I could talk about every thinkable topic without linguistic barriers, despite the fact that our language is considered relatively unimportant in French eyes and is not understood by most.

Economic value of language

Many people who make laws and know a lot about economics talk about languages as if each had a monetary value: On a global scale, the language currently with the highest economic value is English, with Spanish and Chinese gaining.

So why bother investing time and money in learning languages such as Berber, Quechua or Kurdish? Why should people be encouraged to bring up their children in such economically unimportant mother tongues? There are several reasons why all languages are equal candidates – the most important reason is the fundamental right each of us has to maintain our language and cultural identity. But are there not additional values as well?

In this article I want to elaborate on the the view that speaking and using the home language is not just a matter of human rights. It has objectively measurable cognitive advantages that are connected with the function language has within families. Below I will attempt to explain this…

Language is more than a list of words and a set of rules

There is a broad misunderstanding about what language is. When children acquire their native language from their parents, they do a lot more than learn words, grammatical rules, and how to pronounce specific sounds. By learning their language, they also learn to understand and organize the world around them. What does this mean in practice? An example: without language it is impossible to understand what ‘yesterday’ is, or ‘next year’, or ‘one-two-three’. By naming, you learn to understand, abstract and handle.

It is evident that it does not matter in what language this learning process takes place. I am sure many (if not all) of you will agree. A child that has learned to count will, from then on, know the concept of counting, irrespective of the language in which s/he has learned it! And once the trick of counting has been learned, it is peanuts to translate it into another language. Children who never learned to count in their native language will find counting in general  hard to learn at first  in a new language. This would possibly be seen as a language problem, but actually it would be due to a general conceptual problem.

This is why it is so important that parents talk with their children as much as possible about as many subjects as possible! They should offer an intellectually stimulating environment, play word games, read stories, talk, talk talk! Children who are linguistically well developed, in whatever language, have a head start when they enter school when compared with children from poorer linguistic backgrounds, even when their home language is different from the official language at school.

Children feel at ease when parents feel at ease

Parents should be able to use their language(s) as a tool. No only do they teach their children how to speak, but also how to deal with the world around them, where language is their vehicle. For this reason, parents should use a language in which they feel fully comfortable. We all know from experience that talking and playing with very young children requires language skills that we, ourselves, first have to have mastered. In the Netherlands, for example, most people have learned French at school for three, four, sometimes even six years, yet only a few of us are able to do more than order a baguette, or read the headlines of French newspapers.

When parents use a language with their children that they don’t speak very well, but do so because of the language’s high economic status, they give their children a wrong example. The children will learn an incomplete version of the target language and may encounter serious problems in school. Sticking with the home language ends up being the more useful solution.

Home language at the cost of other languages?

Of course, all citizens in a country should speak the official language of that country. If they don’t know that language, or haven’t yet mastered it to a sufficient level, they should be encouraged to take courses or find other ways to improve their level of proficiency. But that does not mean that they should forget their home language in the process! How would that help anything?

For children, a home language does not ‘eat away’ at other languages that need to be learned. The time and energy spent on a home language are not disadvantageous for the acquisition of a second or third language. On the contrary, if children have learned their home language to a high level, they will have a strong basis upon which to build new skills  in a second language. Learning a new language is not a matter of leaving the other language(s) behind. You don’t have to choose! It is not either/or. It is and/and! Languages help out one another!

Advantageous and natural

If I want to explain to people what it is like to have a home language that is different from the official language, irrespective of its economic value, and how it feels to be forced to abandon that home language, I tell them this: Imagine that you and your family move to another country, say, Thailand. You will do your best to learn Thai. You will take courses, prepare for your exams, and you will be very proud when you discover that people understand you. Yet, does this mean that you will stop speaking your first language at home, with your partner and with your children (who also take Thai courses and get high grades)? Will you only sing them lullabies in Thai when they go to sleep? Or will you continue to sing them the songs that you learned from your parents? It would seem so unnatural to stop using your home language simply because you are learning the community language. Plus, it could have additional ramifications as mentioned above.

But you already know from experience the things that I speak of here! You know that children don’t suffer from speaking a home language that is different from an official language in a country. You are already the experts!

So tell me this: Why is it so hard to convince the people who are in charge – the monolingual but powerful minority?

Further reading:

Usually I give some titles here but it does not seem to make sense since this topic touches the very heart of Multilingual Living. Everywhere on this website you will find numerous links to books and articles about the advantages of using home languages.

If you are looking for something interesting: In the Netherlands, Paul Leseman and his group have published about their research which shows that children who have a high vocabulary in their mother tongue have higher scores in second language vocabulary tests when compared to children who have a poor vocabulary, even when their home language is the dominant language used at school.

Here is a paper on this:
Leseman, P.M., & de Jong, P.F. (1998). ‘Home Literacy: Opportunity, Instruction, Cooperation and Social-Emotional Quality Predicting Early Reading Achievement.’ Reading Research Quarterly, 33(3), 294–318.

Are you convinced that continuing to speak a home language has ‘economic value’? Do you think that government officials could be convinced that continuing to speak a home language is actually more advantageous to the country as a whole?

Jacomine Nortier is associate professor in multilingualism and sociolinguistics at the Utrecht Institute of Linguistics, Utrecht University, the Netherlands. She teaches at all university levels. According to European norms she is a monolingual, i.e., she grew up with Dutch as her only language, but like all Dutch children she learned English, German and French at school and she communicates in all three of them. As a university student she learned the Scandinavian languages Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, and later she learned Moroccan Arabic as well. Her PhD thesis (1989) was about code-switching between Dutch and Moroccan Arabic. More recent publications are about code-switching and increasingly about urban youth languages, multi-ethnolects and multilingual internet forums. Over the course of the next few months she will be writing columns for Multilingual Living about how academic knowledge helps us understand our daily multilingual lives.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jeff Winchell October 21, 2011 at 10:40 am

I liked the section “Children feel at ease when parents feel at ease” which raises an idea I hadn’t conciously realized. Though I wonder if you have more examples, particularly since the part “The children will learn an incomplete version of the target language and may encounter serious problems in school.” doesn’t apply in my case since the other parent is a native speaker of the community language.


2 Corey January 3, 2012 at 7:59 pm

Thank you for your comment, Jeff. I believe what Jacomine means in the sentence, “The children will learn an incomplete version of the target language and may encounter serious problems in school” is that when parents feel that they must start using the community language (which does not come naturally) they will be limiting the kinds of conversations and communication that they can have with their children. If we use our native language to communicate with our children, then our children will be able to transfer this knowledge into the community/school language and will be able to understand the meaning of what they are learning (despite the different languages). When our children come home from school and are confused about something, we can help them best by talking about the subject in our native language. Then our children can do the work they need to do in the school language. We help our children the most in school and in life by helping them understand and feel comfortable in the world around themselves. If we use a language that we are just learning ourselves, then our discussions are limited.


3 Anneke Forschein June 20, 2013 at 11:26 am

Dank u wel voor de bemoedigende tekst. Ik ben op 24 jarige leeftijd uit Nederland vertrokken en mijn twee dochtertjes spreken hier in de VS voornamelijk Nederlands want dat is het enige dat ik met ze spreek. De oudste spreekt ook vloeiend Engels (4 jaar) hoewel ze niet hier naar school is. De jongste (2) begrijpt Engels maar spreekt alleen nog maar Nederlands. Ik maak me absoluut geen zorgen om mijn twee meisjes. Ze leren zo snel. Wil zelfs homeschooling gaan doen om ‘t Nederlands goed te houden. Nogmaals dank!


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