An Economic Exploration of Bilingualism, Part One

As an Anglo resident of Montreal, I have gotten to know the city in my three years here as a student. Known as the “cultural capital” of Canada, Montreal is one of the most diverse metropolises in the world. The city has a rather complex demographic history, largely with Anglophone and Francophone residents sharing the island-city through most of its existence. Power and influence has shifted between the English and French since the colonial era, with the Anglophones occupying the business and social elite until a massive cultural shift–the Révolution Tranquille–resulted in the Francophonization of Quebec in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, roughly 60 per cent of Montrealers are native Francophone; Anglophone Montrealers constitute a mere 13 per cent.

Despite these shifts, Montreal is a shining example of bilingualism: Anglophone residents are 80 per cent bilingual and their Francophone counterparts are 51 per cent bilingual. Overall, Montreal is 52 per cent bilingual–the highest rate in Canada.

Economics is the primary driver of the phenomenon: actors make decisions based on perceived value.

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In 1993, Jeffrey Church and Ian King constructed a simple model of the economics of bilingualism, which led them to conclude that network externalities and the cost of learning a new language made it more efficient for a linguistic minority to become bilingual. This model suggests that it is more efficient for Anglophone Montrealers to learn French than it is for their Francophone counterparts to learn English. Unsurprisingly, the number of bilingual Anglophone Montrealers exceeds that of bilingual Francophone residents by a sizable margin. Many Montrealers are bilingual, however, despite one’s origin and considering over half of Francophones identify as bilingual–especially younger Francophone individuals–there must be an omitted variable.

A study published by the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2012 notes that Anglophones in French-majority cities assimilate less than Francophone individuals in English-majority cities, which may provide some insight into language diversity in Montreal. English is the lingua franca of the world, for example, and although Francophone residents can sustain themselves in Montreal using solely the French language, the economic incentive to learn English is substantial, especially for those with career prospects abroad. Bilingualism, however, is becoming a standard requirement for obtaining employment in Montreal’s service sector. Moreover, both English and French speaking Montrealers have a variety of incentives to adopt bilingualism and Quebec’s education system makes learning either language quite easy.

In essence, Church and King’s model explains why it is more efficient for Anglophone Montrealers to learn French, whereas the interconnectedness of Montreal with the English-speaking world creates an incentive for Francophone Montrealers to learn English. Alternatively, Montreal’s role as an economic hub that connects to the English-speaking world is a primary driver of the city’s unique bilingual nature: economic incentives outweigh cultural sentimentality.

Montreal has developed a cosmopolitan culture unlike the rest of Quebec, which enhances its standing as a multicultural hub and economic nexus. It certainly should stay that way.

Leo Plumer is an AIMS on Campus Student Fellow who is pursuing an undergraduate degree in economics and political science at McGill University. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies

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