The Distribution of Foreign Language Skills
as a Game Equilibrium
The birth, death, growth, and shrinkage of languages over millennia has given us a
world containing about three thousand living languages, whose speakers number from 1 up
to several hundred million.
Our current knowledge of what causes a language to gain more
speakers than it loses or lose more speakers than it gains is limited to a few generalizations
about bivariate, more–less effects (see Dressler, 1982; Laponce, 1984; Lieberson, 1982).
One important generalization is that the children of two native speakers of the same
language tend to acquire that native language unless outside the home the language is
rarely used or is despised.
In addition, persons who spend a few years or more in a milieu
(e.g., neighborhood, school, or workplace) where a language other than their native
language is the main language tend to add the other language to their repertoire.
tend to learn a language through deliberate study (in contrast with immersion in its milieu)
when the language is spoken by many persons, has widely distributed speakers, has
wealthy and powerful speakers, and has a prestigious literature, art, and history.
Languages tend to lose speakers through death, of course, but also through forgetting by
their native and nonnative speakers.
Forgetting tends to take place among persons who
are not in contact with other speakers of the language or whose rewards for using the
language are small or negative.
There is little evidence as to whether the dif
culty of a
language or its effectiveness as an instrument of thought and communication in
acquisition of new speakers or its loss of former speakers.
As Vaillancourt (1985, p. 18) points out, almost all attempts to model aspects of the
distribution of language skills in a population have started with the assumption that this
Given a population distribution of language skills and some
mechanism whereby costs of production or bene
ts of consumption depend on this
distribution, one can derive predictions about the production and consumption of
linguistically specialized products (Ho
evar, 1975; Vaillancourt, 1985a), the earnings of
persons with different repertoires of language skills (Sabourin, 1985; Vaillancourt &
Lacroix, 1985), and the distributions of language skills within labor markets and
(Breton & Mieskowski, 1975; Sabourin, 1985).