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The Language of Economic Growth: A New Measure of Linguistic Heterogeneity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2016


Conventional wisdom holds that languages, as ethnic markers, build communities with shared preferences and strong social networks. Consequently, ethnolinguistic homogeneity can facilitate growth. This article challenges this conception of language as a cultural marker. It argues that language is also a practical vehicle of communication; people can be multilingual, and second languages can be learned. Hence language boundaries are neither (1) congruent with ethnic boundaries nor (2) static. If true, the purported advantages of ethnolinguistic homogeneity should also be evident in countries with large populations of non-native speakers conversant in official languages. The study tests this hypothesis using an original cross-national and time-variant measure that captures both mother-tongue speakers and second-language learners. The empirical results are consistent with the understanding of language as an efficiency-enhancing instrument: countries with exogenously high levels of heterogeneity can avoid the ‘growth tragedy’1 by endogenously teaching the official language in schools.

© Cambridge University Press 2016 

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Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin (email:; Department of Political Science, University of Iowa (email: A previous version of this article was presented at the 2014 International Political Science Association’s World Congress (Montreal, Canada). Many thanks to Ericka Albaugh, Caitlin Andrews, Brendan Apfeld, Andy Baker, Carew Boulding, Daniel Brinks, Jason Brownlee, José Cheibub, Zachary Elkins, Jennifer Gandhi, François Grin, Allen Hicken, Wendy Hunter, Raúl Madrid, Edmund Malesky, Rachel Navarre, Jan Pierskalla, William Safran, Sarah Shair-Rosenfield, Sarah Wilson Sokhey, Kurt Weyland, and three anonymous reviewers for their suggestions, comments and advice. All errors remain our own. Data replication sets are available at



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