Rick says that the spread of English as a, well, lingua franca might not benefit native English speakers. I agree, in the context he's writing. But in a wider sense, the spread is surely to our advantage.
What I mean is: why do non-US investors hold $5.7 trillion of low-returning US Treasuries? From a narrow economic perspective, the answer's not obvious. The country runs consistent external deficits (though there might be a good reason for this) and the CBO reckons public debt is on an "unsustainable" trajectory. This makes the country seem a poor safe haven.
However, the US has a massive advantage over other nations.The dominance of the American language is accompanied by a cultural hegemony; US TV shows, films and popular music are vastly more popular globally than their French or German counterparts. As a result, foreigners see the US as being more familiar than other countries. This in turn means that whilst US assets carry risk, they are seen as carrying less uncertainty or ambiguity. And because investors really do hate uncertainty, this relative lack of ambiguity means the US can borrow more cheaply than its economic fundamentals would warrant.The US owes some of its "exorbitant privilege" to the popularity of Baywatch.
But there's more. Deirdre McCloskey has estimated that around a quarter (pdf) of US GDP is talk: think of lawyers, salesmen, journalists and managers among others. The proportion is so large because communication facilitates trade, entrepreneurship and the division of labour. It's difficult to buy and sell without talking - at least if the products are complicated. The division of labour requires coordination between individuals, which requires communication. And you learn about profitable opportunities through listening and reading.
You might object that we don't need a common language to achieve these, because we can use translators. Not so. Three things suggest a lingua franca helps:
- Countries with linguistic heterogeneity, other things equal, tend to have less successful football teams. This suggests that a common language can promote learning and productivity; the "language of football" is not enough.
In these senses a common language is probably a great economic benefit. Whether it is a cultural boon is, however, another matter. If language shapes thought, then the loss of languages might mean the loss of useful ways of thinking. And then there's the matter of whether you side with Douglas Adams' view that the Babel fish caused bloody wars, or with Stephen Pinker's that cosmopolitanism has contributed (pdf) to declining violence.