Human capital, public goods, and institution within language economics

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2024-06-11

Language is a very complex system, interweaving various factors such as psychological, emotional, cognitive, ethnic, economic, political, and social aspects into an open system. Given the uniqueness of this research object, language economics research should entail bold hypotheses while carefully seeking validation.

The main development trajectory of language economics generally consists of three main threads. The first thread is research on the relationship between language and the economy within the theoretical framework of human capital. The second thread is the rhetorical analysis of economic language. The third thread is the application of economic theories and methods to analyze language structure, phenomena, and related issues. Of these, the first thread involves the application of the theory of human capital to the issue of linking language variables with economic variables, i.e., treating language as a skill or capital for analysis and research. The latter two threads can be considered the natural extension of economic theories into the field of language, reflecting the ongoing evolution of the discipline.

Objectives & methods

The research objectives of language economics can be considered from both theoretical and applied perspectives. At the theoretical level, language economics investigates the intersections and integration of economic theories and methodologies with linguistics, using economic theories and methodologies to analyze the generation, development, and changes in language, and explores the mechanisms by which language and verbal behaviors influence economic behaviors. At the applied level, language economics focuses on studying the guidance, practice, and application of language economic theories in socioeconomic activities, and studies the solution to economic or social issues arising from language issues in real life.

Fran?ois Grin, professor of the Faculty of Translation and Interpreting at the University of Geneva, emphasizes that the research methods of language economics align with those of neoclassical economics, including its underlying premises and argumentation processes. Some Chinese scholars have mentioned several research methods, such as empirical research, normative research, cost-benefit analysis, and comparative analysis, which are considered too vague. Language economics can maximize the use or draw inspiration from other economic research methods. These include inductive and deductive reasoning, historical analysis, dynamic-static analysis, institutional analysis, macro-micro analysis, and evolutionary analysis, among others. Specific technical methods like mathematical analysis, case studies, marginal analysis, equilibrium analysis, and psychological analysis can also be applied. Additionally, language economics should consider methodological foundations from a philosophical perspective, namely basic methodology.

Based on comprehensive analyses of existing research in language economics, I have argued that language skills constitute a form of human capital, official language functions as a public good, and social language operates as a form of institution.

Interdisciplinary orientation

Language economics spans across disciplines such as economics, linguistics, (linguistic) philosophy, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and education, providing these fields with a new perspective and analytical approach. In terms of the development of language economics, its particularly close relationship with (linguistic) philosophy, sociolinguistics, and institutional economics is evident. However, due to different disciplinary orientations, language economics inevitably differs from these fields.

Language economics and (linguistic) philosophy both focus on language, and one of the central propositions of linguistic philosophy is to explore the relationship between language and the world. Philosophers understand the world through understanding language, and focus on conceptual reasoning, which can provide a certain philosophical basis or methodological guidance for language economics. Economists can also use economic methods and tools to verify or refute certain philosophical methodologies.

Sociolinguistics is a discipline that connects social studies with language studies, studying language from both social and linguistic perspectives. Language economics can provide new perspectives and ideas for sociolinguistics based on the existing achievements of sociolinguistics, as well as bring new analytical tools, forming a complementary and collaborative relationship with sociolinguistics. The study of sociolinguistics, which examines the relationships between language, society, culture, and politics, has provided assistance in revealing the relationship between social language and economics.

Language, as a unique social institution, serves as the carrier of all human institutions apart from itself. In other words, language functions as a “meta-institution.” With the help of this meta-institution, other customs, conventions, norms, and institutions in human society become possible. From this perspective, language should be a subject of common concern for both institutional economics and language economics.

Therefore, language economics is expected to possess broad research prospects. However, it should be noted that while we acknowledge the strong explanatory power of economic theories and methods, there are instances where we should not indiscriminately apply economic models to language problems, especially when certain abstract concepts or terms themselves are ambiguous.


Zhang Weiguo is a professor from the Center for Economic Research at Shandong University.

Editor:Yu Hui

Copyright©2023 CSSN All Rights Reserved

Copyright©2023 CSSN All Rights Reserved