YOUR LANGUAGE OR MINE? Bilingualism brings communities together

Bilingualism helps to break down barriers even when basic communication was never a problem, leading to higher rates of intermarriage between people from different communities. That is the central finding of research by Ramon Caminal and Antonio di Paolo, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society''s annual conference in Brighton in March 2016.

Their study looks at Catalonia, a bilingual society where Castilian Spanish speakers can still communicate without having to learn Catalan. During the 1980s, Spanish schools started teaching Catalan, which meant that more Spaniards became bilingual without more Catalans speaking Spanish. By reducing barriers between the communities, the likelihood of a native Spanish speaker marrying a Catalan speaker rose from 34% to 42%.

These results illustrate the social value of languages beyond their usefulness as a tool for understanding one another. The authors comment:

''Languages are repositories of cultures – and people tend to develop an emotional attachment to the language that best defines their identity. But additional language skills that are redundant from a communication viewpoint can also have large and positive effects on patterns of social interactions.''


This study provides evidence indicating that additional language skills that are redundant from a communication viewpoint can have large and positive effects on patterns of social interactions. The focus is on Catalonia (Spain), a bilingual society where the ability to communicate has never been at stake because of the universal knowledge of Spanish.

In particular, the authors study the consequences of a language-in-education reform, initiated in the 1980s, which did not change the Spanish skills but significantly improved the oral Catalan skills of native Spanish speakers. The results demonstrate that these additional skills have cut down the barriers between speech communities by promoting intermarriage.

In particular, if the average propensity of a native Spanish speaker to marry a Catalan speaker was 34%, for individuals unaffected by the reform, such propensity increases to 42% for those who completed their compulsory schooling after the reform was implemented. Since the fraction of Catalan speakers in the sample is 55%, this result indicates that the reform has significantly reduced endogamy.

On top of identifying potential non-monetary benefits of bilingual education policies, which may be of interest to a broad range of countries and regions, these results clearly suggest that languages are much more than neutral communication devices. As is often argued, languages are also repositories of cultures and people tend to develop an emotional attachment to the language that better defines their identity.

Provided that these other aspects of languages matter, then we need to re-examine some common (at least among economists) normative prescriptions and pay more attention to the social value of linguistic diversity.

The study first presents a theoretical model of a bilingual society where everyone is fully proficient in the strong language (and hence people can communicate perfectly). Society is still fragmented because individuals differ in their preferences about the language of use. Thus, cooperation across speech communities requires solving a conflict of interest.

The research shows how additional language skills can reduce such conflict of interest. More specifically, the model predicts that an increase in the proficiency in the weak language among native speakers of the strong language raises the frequency of mixed partnerships and the use of the weak language.

The study then provides causal estimates of these predictions by exploiting two successive waves of a survey conducted in Catalonia, which contains detailed information on socio-demographic and linguistic characteristics of the respondents, and the linguistic characteristics of their couples.

The main goal is to study the influence of language skills on the frequency of mixed couples and the use of Catalan. In order to achieve identification, the researchers exploit an instrumental variable based on the differential effect by native language of exposure to the reform during compulsory schooling.

The results are in line with the theoretical predictions. In particular, the education reform of the 1980s has improved the Catalan proficiency of native Spanish speakers, which in turn increased their propensity to find Catalan-speaking partners. Results are robust to a battery of sensitivity and falsification tests. Hence, the analysis shows that the acquisition of apparently redundant language skills has expanded cooperation across speech communities.