Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton December 10, 2016

Translation and language policy in the dynamics of multilingualism

  • François Grin EMAIL logo


Many of Fishman’s contributions to understanding language in society stress the importance of dynamics, drawing attention to the complex interplay of micro-, meso- and macro-level factors from which an integrated pattern emerges. Our understanding of language dynamics, therefore, should encompass processes unfolding at various levels and provide accounts that do justice to these interactions, while delivering an analysis broad enough to constitute a sensible basis for successful language policy. Such concerns, illustrated in particular by Fishman’s work on reversing language shift, call for revisiting this issue by focusing on the role of translation. Translation is linked to language dynamics, and it is both a conduit of language policies and a condition for their success, but these interconnections need to be explicitly acknowledged. Whereas translation studies often approach translation itself as a self-contained process, it certainly emerges from multilingual contexts, but is also, at least in part, dependent on language policies. Translation contributes to the maintenance of linguistic diversity and societal multilingualism which are, reciprocally, dependent upon the practice of translation. This examination confirms the ongoing soundness of the fundamentals of Fishman’s approach to “language-in-society” and helps to assess some recent criticism toward core notions of classical sociolinguistics that Fishman helped develop and disseminate, such as multilingualism, which is being called into question by current notions such as “English as a lingua franca” and “languaging”. The very existence of translation as a social, economic and political practice suggests that societal multilingualism cannot satisfactorily be described without resorting to classical sociolinguistic concepts like “named” languages, mother tongue and domain, which are crucial to successful policies and, hence, to the maintenance of the linguistic human rights to which Fishman’s work has made such essential contributions.


Earlier versions of this article have been presented at various workshops, in particular the Translation Forum of the European Commission’s Directorate General for Translation in March 2010. The author wishes to thank Marco Civico for his very dependable research assistance, and Gilles Falquet, Michele Gazzola, Mathieu Guidère, François Vaillancourt, as well as two anonymous referees for insightful suggestions and comments. The usual disclaimer applies.


Abrams, Daniel & Steven Strogatz. 2003. Modelling the dynamics of language death. Nature 424(6951). 900.10.1038/424900aSearch in Google Scholar

Adamic, Lada & Bernardo Huberman. 2002. Zipf’s law and the Internet. Glottometrics 3.143–150.Search in Google Scholar

Aitchison, Jean. 1991. Language change: Progress or decay? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Anderman, Gunilla & Margaret Rogers. 2008. The linguist and the translator. In Gunilla Anderman & Margaret Rogers (eds.), Incorporating corpora: The linguist and the translator, 5–17. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.10.21832/9781853599873-004Search in Google Scholar

Bastardas Boada, Albert. 1987. L’aménagement linguistique en Catalogne au XXe siècle [Language planning in Catalonia in the twentieth century]. In Jacques Maurais (ed.), Politique et aménagement linguistiques [Policy and language planning], 121–158. Paris: Le Robert.Search in Google Scholar

Bauer, Laurie & Peter Trudgill. 1998. Language myths. London: Penguin.Search in Google Scholar

Carr, Jack. 1985. Le bilinguisme au Canada: l’usage consacre-t-il l’anglais monopole naturel? [Does Canadian bilingualism turn English into a natural monopoly?]. In François Villancourt (ed.), Économie et langue [Economy and language], 27–37. Québec: Conseil de la langue française.Search in Google Scholar

Church, Jeffrey & Ian King. 1993. Bilingualism and network externalities. Canadian Journal of Economics 26. 337–345.10.2307/135911Search in Google Scholar

Conti, Virginie & François Grin (eds.). 2008. S’entendre entre langues voisines: vers l’intercompréhension. [Getting along with neighboring languages: Toward intercomprehension]. Geneva: Georg.Search in Google Scholar

de Swaan, Abram. 2001. Words of the world. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.Search in Google Scholar

Eco, Umberto. 1994. La recherche de la langue parfaite [The search for the perfect language]. Paris: Folio.Search in Google Scholar

Edwards, John. 2012. Multilingualism: Understanding linguistic diversity. London: Continuum.Search in Google Scholar

Escudé, Pierre & Pierre Janin. 2010. Le point sur l’intercompréhension, clé du plurilinguisme [Latest update on mutual understanding, the key to multilingualism]. Paris: CLE international.Search in Google Scholar

European Commission. 2010. Contribution de la traduction à la société multilingue dans l’Union européenne [The contribution of translation to a multilingual society in the European Union]. Luxembourg: Office des publications de l’Union européenne. English summary available on in Google Scholar

Even-Zohar, Itamar. 1990. Polysystem studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Fishman, Joshua. 1991. Reversing language shift: Theoretical and empirical foundations of assistance to threatened languages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.Search in Google Scholar

Flores Farfán, José Antonio & Fernando Ramallo (eds.). 2010. New perspectives on endangered languages, 93–118. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.10.1075/clu.1Search in Google Scholar

Gazzola, Michele. 2006. La gestione del multilinguismo nell’Unione europea [The management of multilingualism in the European Union]. In Augusto Carli (ed.), Le sfide della politica linguistica di oggi [The challenges of language policy today] (Collana di Educazione bilingue [Series on bilingual education] 26), 15–116. Milan: Franco Angeli.Search in Google Scholar

Gazzola, Michele. 2015. Identifying and mitigating linguistic inequalities in the management of patent information in Europe. World Patent Information 40. 43–50.10.1016/j.wpi.2014.12.001Search in Google Scholar

Gazzola, Michele & François Grin. 2007. Assessing efficiency and fairness in multilingual communication: Towards a general analytical framework. AILA Review 20. 87–105.10.1075/aila.20.08gazSearch in Google Scholar

Gazzola, Michele & François Grin. 2013. Is ELF more efficient and fair than translation? An evaluation of the EU’s multilingual regime. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 23(1). 93–10710.1111/ijal.12014Search in Google Scholar

Gentzler, Edwin. 1993. Contemporary translation theories. London: Routledge.Search in Google Scholar

Giles, Howard, Richard Bourhis & Donald Taylor. 1977. Towards a theory of language in intergroup relations. In Howard Giles (ed.), Language, ethnicity and intergroup relations. London: Academic Press.Search in Google Scholar

Ginsburgh, Victor, Ignacio Ortguño-Ortín & Shlomo Weber. 2007. Learning foreign languages: Theoretical and empirical implications of the Selten and Pool model. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 64. 337–347.10.1016/j.jebo.2006.10.005Search in Google Scholar

Ginsburgh, Victor, Shlomo Weber & Sheila Weyers. 2007. The economics of literary translation. A simple theory and evidence. CEPR Discussion Paper 6432, August 2007.Search in Google Scholar

Grin, François. 1990. A Beckerian approach to language use: Guidelines for minority language policy. Cahiers du Département d‘économique [Papers from the Department of Economics]. Université de Montréal, no. 9007.Search in Google Scholar

Grin, François. 1992. Towards a threshold theory of minority language survival. Kyklos 45. 69–97.10.1111/j.1467-6435.1992.tb02108.xSearch in Google Scholar

Grin, François. 1997. Market forces, language spread and linguistic diversity. In Miklos Kontra, Robert Phillipson, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas & Várady Tibor (eds.), Language: A right and a resource, 169–186. Budapest: Central European University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Grin, François. 2003. Language policy evaluation and the European charter for regional or minority languages. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.10.1057/9780230502666Search in Google Scholar

Grin, François. 2005. L’enseignement des langues étrangères comme politique publique [The teaching of foreign languages as public policy]. Paris: Haut Conseil de l’évaluation de l’école.Search in Google Scholar

Grin, François. 2015. The economics of English in Europe. In Thomas Ricento (ed.), Language policy and political economy: English in a global context, 119–144. Oxford: Oxford University Press.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199363391.003.0006Search in Google Scholar

Grin, François. 2016. Challenges of minority languages. In Victor Ginsburgh & Shlomo Weber (eds.), The Palgrave handbook of economics and language, 616–658. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.10.1007/978-1-137-32505-1_22Search in Google Scholar

Grin, François & François Vaillancourt. 1999. The cost-effectiveness evaluation of minority language policies: Case studies on Wales, Ireland and the Basque Country. Flensburg: European Centre for Minority Issues, Monograph No. 2.Search in Google Scholar

Guidère, Mathieu. 2008. La communication multilingue [Multilingual communication]. Bruxelles: De Boeck.Search in Google Scholar

Heilbron, Johan & Gisèle Sapiro. 2016. Translation: Economic and sociological perspectives. In Victor Ginsburgh & Shlomo Weber (eds.), The Palgrave handbook of economics and language, 373–397. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.10.1007/978-1-137-32505-1_14Search in Google Scholar

Hjorth-Andersen, Christian. 2001. A model of translations. Journal of Cultural Economics 25. 203–217.10.1023/A:1010948515138Search in Google Scholar

House, Juliane & Jochen Rehbein. 2004. What is multilingual communication? In Juliane House & Jochen Rehbein (eds.), Multilingual communication, 1–17. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.10.1075/hsm.3Search in Google Scholar

Inghilleri, Moira (ed.). 2005. Bourdieu and the sociology of translation and interpreting. Theme issue of The Translator 11(2).10.1080/13556509.2005.10799195Search in Google Scholar

Kubota, Ryuoko. 2014. The multi/plural turn, postcolonial theory, and neoliberal multiculturalism: Complicities and implications for Applied Linguistics. Applied Linguistics 2014. 1– 22.10.1093/applin/amu045Search in Google Scholar

Mackenzie, Ian. 2014. English as a lingua franca: Theorizing and teaching English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.10.4324/9781315890081Search in Google Scholar

Martí, Fèlix, Paul Ortega, Itziar Idiazabal, Andoni Barreña, Patxi Juaristi, Carme Junyent, Belen Uranga & Estibaliz Morrotu. 2006. Words and worlds: World languages review. New York & Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.Search in Google Scholar

Mélitz, Jacques. 2007. The impact of English dominance on literature and welfare. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 64.193–215.10.1016/j.jebo.2006.10.003Search in Google Scholar

Meschonnic, Henri. 2007. Éthique et politique du traduire [The ethics and politics of translation]. Paris: Verdier.Search in Google Scholar

Mira, Jorge & Ángel Paredes. 2005. Interlinguistic similarity and language death dynamics. Europhysics Letters 69(6). 1031–1034. in Google Scholar

Munday, Jeremy (ed.). 2007. Translation as intervention. London: Continuum.Search in Google Scholar

Ost, François. 2009. Traduire: Défense et illustration du multilinguisme [Translating: Defense and illustration of multilingualism]. Paris: Fayard.Search in Google Scholar

Page, Scott E. 2008. Diversity and complexity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Pergnier, Maurice. 1993. Les fondements socio-linguistiques de la traduction [The sociolinguistic foundations of translation]. Lille: Presses Universitaires de Lille.Search in Google Scholar

Piron, Claude. 1994. Le défi des langues: Du gâchis au bon sens [The language challenge: From chaos to common sense]. Paris: L’Harmattan.Search in Google Scholar

Pool, Jonathan. 1996. Optimal language regimes for the European Union. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 121. 159–179.10.1515/ijsl.1996.121.159Search in Google Scholar

Pym, Anthony. 2006. Globalization and the politics of translation studies. Meta LI(4). 744–757.10.7202/014339arSearch in Google Scholar

Selten, Reinhard & Jonathan Pool. 1990. The distribution of foreign language skills as a game equilibrium. In Language and society papers, Linguistic decisions series, 9. Seattle: Center for the Humanities, University of Washington.10.1007/978-3-662-07369-8_5Search in Google Scholar

Selten, Reinhard & Jonathan Pool. 1997. Is it worth it to learn Esperanto? Introduction to game theory. In Reinhard Selten (ed.), The costs of European non communication, 114–149. Rome: ERA.Search in Google Scholar

Steiner, George. 1975. After Babel: Aspects of language and translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

ten Thije, Jand & Ludger Zeevaert. 2007. Receptive multilingualism. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.10.1075/hsm.6Search in Google Scholar

Thivoyon, Marie-Ambrym. 2016. Le multilinguisme au Vanuatu: Entre perceptions, politiques et pratiques [Multilingualism in Vanuatu: Between perceptions, policies and practices]. Faculty of Translation and Interpreting, University of Geneva MA thesis.Search in Google Scholar

van Parijs, Philippe. 2004a. L’anglais lingua franca de l’Union européenne: impératif de solidarité, injustice distributive, facteur de déclin? [English as a lingua franca of the European Union: Solidarity imperative, source of injustice, cause of decline?]. Économie publique [Public economics] 15(4). 13–32.Search in Google Scholar

van Parijs, Philippe. 2004b. Europe’s linguistic challenge. Archives européennes de sociologie XLV(1). 113–154.10.1017/S0003975604001407Search in Google Scholar

van Parijs, Philippe. 2006. Linguistic Diversity. What is it? And does it matter? Paper presented at the conference “Challenges of Multilingual Societies”, Université Libre de Bruxelles, 9–10 June 2006.Search in Google Scholar

Wickström, Bengt-Arne. 2005. Can Bilingualism be dynamically stable? A simple model of language choice. Rationality and Society 17. 81–115.10.1177/1043463105051776Search in Google Scholar

Wolf, Michaela & Alexandra Fukari (eds.). 2007. Constructing a sociology of translation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.10.1075/btl.74Search in Google Scholar

Appendix: Measuring multilingualism in communication

Proposing a metric for diversity based on the relative share of communication taking place in different languages raises the challenge of operationalizing this notion, at least in principle.

If “utterances” in different languages are used as the basic unit of measurement of multilingualism, the number of utterances needs to be adjusted to take account of the number of recipients (listeners, readers, etc.). As a first approximation, we may assume that if a speaker (or writer) addresses an audience of, say, one thousand, then this instance of communication should count as one thousand in our reckoning, whereas if the speaker had addressed only one listener, this same instance would have counted as one.

Suppose that a total of K utterances is made in language j. Each utterance reaches a specific number of recipients Rj,k, where k=1, 2, …, K. Then the share of language j in total communication is sj=(∑k Rj,k)/R, where R is the total number of receivers of all messages uttered in all languages. Clearly, persons will be counted more than once in R, since they normally receive more than one message during any observation period.

This definition raises one problem, namely, that of knowing the audience size for each utterance. However, this information may be replaced by an approximation. What justifies using one is the fact that it is probably more realistic to assume that in terms of resulting aggregate diversity, the importance of the marginal listener, for each individual utterance, is positive but decreasing. Thus, we would be led to pick an appropriate logarithmic-type transformation of Rj,k for each individual utterance (oral or written) in language j.

One possibility is to call on Zipf’s law, which applies not only, as in its well-known initial formulation, to the relationship between the frequency and rank of words in natural languages (a constant according to Zipf), but to a host of other phenomena, from the rank-size distribution of cities in any given country to access to Internet pages (Adamic and Huberman 2002). This latter result is particularly relevant to communication: for example, if the most frequently consulted Internet page has been accessed t times, the second most frequently read will be accessed t/2 times, the third t/3 times, and so on. Thus, Pj Internet pages in language j give rise to a total number of “messages” Mj=Rj×(1+1/2+1/3+…+1/Pj), where Rj is the number of times the most frequently consulted j-language page has been accessed. Moving to the continuous case, the term Mj can be re-expressed as:


If the Zipf law pattern holds more generally, it can be used as an approximation of the actual number of “effective utterances”, for which we only need to know the (approximate) number of recipients reached by the most successful utterance. A fraction f of the total number of speakers of a language (above, say, the age of 4) can provide a reasonable estimate of Rj (meaning that a share f of the j-speaking population will be reached by the most successful of all the messages uttered in language j, whether this message is a political speech, a news broadcast or a commercial ad). The number of different utterances in language j, Pj, can be approached as a multiple of the total number of speakers, with some speakers emitting a large number of oral and written messages, and others very few. For the purposes of estimating Pj, the definition of a “speaker” need not be restricted to physical persons but can extend to administrations, media channels and firms – whoever, in fact, can emit messages.

Calculating Mj for each of the N languages present in a given context like a neighbourhood, city or country, we can compute M as the sum of all Mj’s for j=1, 2, … N, namely, M=∑j Rj×ln(Pj). The linguistic evenness of the context considered can then be expressed by replacing the term sj appearing in eq. [1] in the text by (Mj/M)2.

Published Online: 2016-12-10
Published in Print: 2017-1-1

©2017 by De Gruyter Mouton

Downloaded on 29.11.2023 from
Scroll to top button