Nunavut stop sign in English and Inuktitut. CREDIT: <a href="">Patrick Smillie</a> (<a href="">CC</a>).
Nunavut stop sign in English and Inuktitut. CREDIT: Patrick Smillie (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: Speaking Fairly

Jun 16, 2008

Writing in Policy Innovations in October 2006, Nikolas Gvosdev examined the way in which globalization is "reversing Babel," as he provocatively put it, by consolidating the global grip of the English language. The rise of English as a global lingua franca in areas from research to diplomacy to commerce is one of the most striking developments of the last few decades. Writing in the early 1970s, the late French president Georges Pompidou urged his countrymen: "We must not let the idea take hold that English is the only possible instrument for industrial, economic and scientific communication." By then, however, his warning was probably too late. The dynamics that have propelled English to its current dominance were already well established.

But what are those dynamics? In my recently published book, Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization, I argue that that we should think about many prominent aspects of globalization (including linguistic developments) as involving the rise to dominance of shared standards underlying newly global networks. Users of standards—such as languages, systems of measurement, frames of reference, and so on—are linked together in networks that are often global, spanning countries and bringing together otherwise distant participants.

The social coordination that standards provide often comes, however, at the expense of rival standards that mediate the same activity. One of the reasons that globalization is so contentious is precisely that the rise of a dominant standard may often have the effect of edging out less powerful—but highly valued—alternatives.

Consider again the rise of English. It is conceivable that any one of a number of languages could serve as a global second language and the convention of choice in important areas of global cooperation. It could have been French—as Pompidou knew only too keenly. There is nothing intrinsic about English that gave it its current reach. Instead, what mattered was the network—and as the network of English-speakers grew by a combination of coercion and contingency—it offered the most powerful pool of native- and second-language speakers. As a matter of coordination, the English language now possesses enormous "network power." It provides perhaps the most vivid example of the rise of a standard underlying a global network, but contemporary globalization offers many other examples of coordinating standards rising to newly global dominance.

It is often argued that a networked world in which we share universal standards presents many advantages. The common use of global standards enables people to engage in activities with others that they would otherwise be unable to do. But such a global convergence is not without its problems. Two classes of concerns have emerged about the rise of a universal standard that edges out rivals: concerns about distributive justice and concerns about identity.

Where one standard overtakes another, we may want to ask questions about the distributive justice of such a situation—that is, about who gains and who loses, and whether the costs are distributed fairly. The Belgian philosopher Philippe Van Parijs has recently examined the question of "linguistic justice" under circumstances of what he calls "asymmetric bilingualism."1 Consider a linguistically divided country like predominantly Anglophone Canada with its Francophone minority in Quebec. There are three different arrangements that could enable all Canadians to communicate with one another: total monolingualism (all Canadians speak either English or French but not both), total bilingualism (all Canadians speak both English and French), or asymmetric bilingualism (the members of one language-group speak both languages but the other language-group does not reciprocate).

What tends to happen in linguistically divided countries that don't simply slide toward monolingualism is that members of minority language groups make the effort to learn the majority language—so, for example, French Canadians learn English disproportionately. At one level, this might be considered an "efficient" solution, if we are concerned to minimize the total amount of second-language learning required while preserving both languages. But is it a fair arrangement? If being born into a French-speaking community rather than an English-speaking one is what philosophers call "morally arbitrary"—that is, you did nothing one way or the other to deserve such a fate—then it seems unclear why the Quebecois should bear the disproportionate costs of making all Canadians mutually intelligible. Would justice require some form of cost-sharing, such as a small tax on English speakers to subsidize English as a second language instruction for non-native speakers?

This worry about linguistic justice might very well be extended to other arenas of globalization where one standard is winning out over others—but where there is no deliberate attempt to allocate costs fairly.

There is a second class of concerns that we ought to distinguish. These are concerns about the survival of local standards that are linked to identity. Language again is perhaps the paradigmatic case, for we are not only concerned about the distributive justice of situations in which languages are at risk but also about the cultural identities that are bound up with language and other more local forms of social coordination. The German philosopher Axel Honneth has suggested that a "struggle for recognition" provides the "moral grammar" of social conflict.2 On this view, we can understand various social struggles as attempts to gain intersubjective recognition by undoing social relations that are humiliating or degrading. Drawing on this account, one reason to be concerned about the loss of cultural diversity in circumstances of run-away globalization is that it undermines important community contexts in which individuals receive recognition of one kind or another.

When the rise of a dominant global standard seems to threaten either distributive injustice or the denial of recognition through the undermining of valued identities, what exactly can be done? There may be no general answer here, given how context-specific many instances of network power will be. But at least part of our thinking about how best to remedy network power should involve examining whether a particular standard proves compatible with alternatives—that is whether, as with a language, one can adopt and use several different standards. If so, then there are grounds for attempting to construct forms of translation between local and global standards and to coalesce around a deliberately chosen global convention (such as a global second language) in such a way as to leave local conventions as little harmed as possible.

Deliberately settling on English, say, as a global second language might produce on a worldwide scale what linguists call a diglossic relationship—in which one language is used at home and locally while another is used in public life. But this sort of global convention might keep much of our existing linguistic diversity intact as compared with an unplanned linguistic convergence due to network power.

But where a globalizing standard proves incompatible with alternatives, there may be no institutional redesign that can mitigate the homogenizing effects of a universal convergence. Sometimes, this convergence may strike us as innocuous, or even beneficial. But in other cases, we must ask whether the rise of a global standard brings with it distributive injustices (which might be remedied through transfer payments of one kind or another) or whether it undermines valued forms of identity drastically enough for us to consider a partial withdrawal from too tight an embrace of some particular aspect of globalization.

For a networked world is simply an interconnected world—and not necessarily a just or fair one. And with the network power of dominant standards drawing us ever more closely together, it may be worth pausing to ask whether these particular conventions are the ones on which we wish to depend in conducting our newly global social life.


1 Philippe Van Parijs, "Linguistic Justice," Politics, Philosophy & Economics, Vol. 1, No. 1, 59–74 (2002).

2 Axel Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts (trans. Joel Anderson). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996.

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