Monday, April 23, 2018

European lingua franca in the context of the 4th Industrial Revolution

Here are some considerations regarding the role of a European lingua franca in the context of the 4th Industrial Revolution (automation and Artificial Intelligence), or Industry 4.0.

(1) There is considerable talk about various European initiatives that aim to develop or implement Industry 4.0 technologies under the DigitalEU heading; I will mention a couple of them, where a key component is intra-EU data transfer:
Speaking at the High-Level Hearing on the European Union Strategy for Artificial Intelligence, Pascale Fung touched a sensitive issue related to data transfer : linguistic heterogeneity is a "huge barrier to data", and therefore to achieving the planned European AI leadership (TBD) or even parity with US & China, who both "have the advantage of having a single language data market."

(2) We are in the first stages of the 4th industrial revolution, when technologies are in their infancy, and a lot of invention, discovery, and development work is further required - and for that people are essential. "Perhaps, the real 'arms race' in AI is the battle for talent," as Elsa Kania put it in her post on the AI Talent "Arms Race" - a battle waged in earnest by China, and (less aggressively) by Canada. "The most frenzied rush is for human talent, which is far more scarce than either data or computing power", states an Economist article on "the race to dominate artificial intelligence".

Europe is underachieving in the global competition for talent, due to, among other shortcomings, a labor market fragmented by the multitude of national languages. It has been acknowledged that "the most important challenge to achieving a single EU labor market is language proficiency" (Labour Mobility in the EU : Addressing challenges and ensuring 'fair mobility', p. 8; see also Never mind the treaty squabbles. Europe's real problem is Babel)

In contrast to linguistically homogeneous societies, "European Union is not perceived as a destination for labour migration in its own right, but that each country attracts migrants for particular reasons. [...] National languages further link migrant applications to individual EU Member States." (Recruiting Immigrant Workers : Europe 2016, p. 228) Within the EU, "well-known languages make it much easier for employers in certain Member States – particularly those where English is spoken and, to a lesser extent, Spanish and French – to recruit workers from abroad." (Recruiting Immigrant Workers : Europe 2016, p. 33) For European students, "les pays les plus attractifs sont anglophones ou, à tout le moins, dispensent des cours en anglais" (Encourager la mobilité des jeunes en Europe, p. 116); more generally, "la mobilité spontanée, sous ses diverses formes, tend plutôt à privilégier l’objectif professionnel, lequel passe le plus souvent par des enseignements en anglais" (p. 116). Because "English is the first or second language of highly-educated people in the world [,] countries where English is the official language have had greater success with the talent-attracting programs than countries like Germany or Japan." (Competing for global talent, p. 164)

To sum up, lack of (support for) a European lingua franca - preferably English - places extra obstacles to attracting international talent, and to labor mobility in general.

(3) In order to enable new ways of working and to prevent Industry 4.0 from turning into "the nightmare social, economic, and political scenario some fear", we would need a veritable "skills revolution", meaning "training - and retraining - workers to continually adapt to the demands of the new economy" (A new social contract between man and machine) Among the ways of achieving this, the author mentions "focused, demand-led training programs", the self-guided Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and rapid targeted training matched to jobs.

I don't have the data to support this, but I'm sure that there is a large enough core of such tools / programs which are of high-quality, available in English. Their variety, coverage, and quality, as well as the speed of the core's expansion, is directly related to the size of the market. In other words, original English ones are vastly more numerous than those produced directly in Czech or Italian.

This means that access to educational / training tools and resources that will soon become indispensable for acquiring and / or maintaining relevance in the labor market is determined by language skills, in particular by the level of proficiency in English. Waiting for the version in the native language is also an option, but that one, if it ever appears, could be of poor quality, insufficient, and - most importantly - already obsolete. Coming from a minor culture, I have firsthand experience of how frustrating and handicapping this could be.

Briefly put, English is very likely to become the key to acquiring and maintaining a presence in a shrunken and more demanding labor market.

Concluding remarks

EU could consider a linguistic strategy similar to that of Singapore : ethnic languages (Mandarin, Malay, Tamil) are the "carriers of culture" while English is the lingua franca, the working language for administration and business. (Lee Kuan Yew's views on multilingualism can be read here and here). It is generally recognized that "one important and critical factor in Singapore’s success in attracting talent is that English is the main language of government and business." (Competing for global talent, p. 164)

Soon, English will no longer be the language of a major EU Member State, and thus can be seen as a quasi-neutral one, more easily accepted as the lingua franca of the European Union (this is wishful thinking, I know...).

Last, but by no means least, a workforce mobile within a geographical area which is culturally diverse but underpinned by a common working language would be the connective tissue that would allow the EU to overcome the identity and solidarity deficit (see e.g. Europe and the identity challenge: who are "we"?; also Benedict Anderson's insight, in his Imagined Communities, p. 133, that "the  most  important  thing  about  language  is  its  capacity  for generating  imagined  communities,  building  in  effect  particular  solidarities" ). What Holds Europe Together? (p. 113-4) makes basically the same argument :
In the context of past nation-building, the perception that historically contingent borders of states coincide with stable cultural communities could only be made plausible through […] geographic mobility in linguistically standardized labor markets. […] there is some empirical evidence for the emergence of a new European elite that identifies with the integration project mainly because its members project their own career plans into this wider geographic space. For the great majority of Europeans, however, the continent with its multiple linguistic borders is a house in which each citizen feels at home in only one of its many rooms. Geographic mobility is a commodity that needs to be imported. While native middle classes remain largely immobile and distrustful of Europeanized elites, immigrants from third countries provide a mobile economic force whose job biographies and social networks create new transnational spaces. It is quite ironic that those who are still perceived as cultural aliens in Europe’s nation-states could turn out to be the true Europeans of the future. 

I would like to conclude by directing the reader to a study on Lingua Franca: Chimera or Reality?, published by the European Commission in 2013, which tackles the topic from a historical and linguistic perspective. It is definitely more comprehensive and professional than my post, and I believe presents a very balanced view of a multifaceted, complex, and sensitive issue.

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