Multilingual countries have it tough. GDP per person is roughly correlated with the proportion of a country’s citizens that speak the predominant language. With a few outliers, you’re more likely to be rich if your country lacks what is sometimes known as a “stateness” problem: the Icelands and Japans of the world have a very clear identity and a dominant language. If your country’s citizens feel comfortable in its borders, your country is stable. If it is stable, it is more likely to be a functioning democracy, and if it is a decent democracy, it is more likely to be rich. (via The Economist)
- Regardless of which way the causation arrow runs, and as much as everyone might like to live in a country with only their linguistic fellows, it won’t do these days to let the majority simply trample the minority. The list of countries that have done so and created enduringly resentful minorities is sadly long: Franco’s Spain and Kemalist Turkey, just to name two examples in modern European history. Back to the post-Soviet region, Latvia’s language law has privileged Latvian, but has been criticised for alienating the country’s large Russian-speaking minority.
- The problems happen when this looks zero-sum, and a large minority speaking another language is told, in effect, to get with the programme or get out. Many people cannot or will not move to a friendlier country. And easy partition is rare: there’s a reason most people can name only one “velvet divorce” (Czechosolovakia) in which a multiethnic country peacefully becomes two monoethnic ones. National splits are usually much uglier.
- There are three ways to handle multilingualism besides squashing minority languages or splitting the country. The first is generous national multilingualism. Canadian politicians routinely switch between English and French, and in Brussels absolutely everything is in both Dutch and French. This can be expensive and unwieldy: the visitor to Brussels must know that Rue de la Science is also Wetensscaapsstraat. But without this policy, Wallonia and Flanders would have long since gone separate ways. (They may yet.)
- The second method is linguistic federalism, also seen in Belgium, as well as Switzerland, India, Canada and today’s Spain. Local territories should be allowed latitude to make locally dominant languages official, for teaching, broadcasting, dealing with the local authorities and so forth. There is no sure-fire solution to language conflict: sometimes local authorities (Quebec and Catalonia come to mind) promote the regional language so aggressively that those that speak the national-majority but regional-miniority language (English and Spanish, in these examples) have their own cause for grievance. But done decently, linguistic federalism gives minorities in big and diverse countries a stake in the status quo.