How much does English proficiency help you in economics?

by on June 20, 2016 at 3:21 am in Data Source, Economics, Science | Permalink

William W. Olney has a newly published paper on that topic, and it seems it helps a good deal:

This article investigates whether the global spread of the English language provides an inherent advantage to native English speakers. This question is studied within the context of the economics profession, where the impact of being a native English speaker on future publishing success is examined. English speakers may have an advantage because they are writing in their native language, the quality of writing is a crucial determinant of publishing success, and all the top economics journals are published in English. Using a ranking of the world’s top 2.5% of economists, this article confirms that native English speakers are ranked 100 spots higher (better) than similar non-native English speakers. A variety of extensions examine and dispel many other potential explanations.

“Similar” is a tricky word!Β  How similar can a Frenchman be?Β  I am not sure, but it does seem that growing up in the Anglo-American world may — language aside — be more conducive to patterns of thought which predict success in…the Anglo-American world.Β  Nonetheless this is an interesting investigation, even if I am not entirely convinced.Β  Note also that economics blogging is predominantly an Anglo-American enterprise, but I view that too as more about “mentality” than language per se.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

1 jim jones June 20, 2016 at 4:11 am

The Anglosphere is the engine of human innovation, I see no reason why Economics should be an exception

2 Moreno Klaus June 20, 2016 at 5:24 am

Yes, tell that to yourself while driving your Prius, and typing this message in a Samsung, and getting your GPS directions from a TomTom, while listening to Spotify.

3 Millian June 20, 2016 at 6:32 am

and writing using an alphabet

4 DCBob June 20, 2016 at 7:09 am

Hee hee. And speaking a dialect of the language of Eneolithic Ukrainian cowboys.

5 Maybell Brundidge June 21, 2016 at 11:05 am

You can always try this dialect to speak to girls from this site. I’m sure they will like you!

6 prior_test2 June 20, 2016 at 10:47 am

Developed by Romans, by the way – whose experience of anything that could be considered English in any sense was from a group of barbarians.

7 dan1111 June 21, 2016 at 4:37 am

“English speaking world, you may think you are a big deal now, but 2000 years ago you were nothing!”

What a great takedown.

8 dan1111 June 20, 2016 at 7:23 am

Modern hybrids with regenerative braking, smart phones, GPS navigation, and streaming internet music were all innovations first developed in America. πŸ™‚

Agree that the initial claim is silly though.

9 Urso June 20, 2016 at 5:37 pm

And wrecking into an overpass support

10 dearieme June 20, 2016 at 7:08 am

“The Anglosphere is the engine of human innovation”: there’s not enough sarcasm in these comments threads.

11 dearieme June 20, 2016 at 7:11 am

For example, a better title for that paper would be:


12 Moreno Klaus June 20, 2016 at 11:22 am


13 Thiago Ribeiro June 20, 2016 at 7:18 am

Yet Brazil invented the radio transmitter, the typewriter, the airplane, the Walkman and matkot.

14 Pshrnk June 20, 2016 at 8:51 pm

Yet in Copa and Euro: US, Wales, and England play on. Poor Brasil….eliminated.

15 Thiago Ribeiro June 20, 2016 at 11:08 pm

We have serious matters to think about, how to take Mankind to the Infinite and beyond.

16 jamesb.bkk June 20, 2016 at 10:02 am

Scotsman and later English speaking Austrians maybe. Still to be discovered are the results of the English, MIT, and Princeton types at the end of our current round of serial failures and sleights of hand.

17 So Much For Subtlety June 20, 2016 at 4:30 am

it does seem that growing up in the Anglo-American world may β€” language aside β€” be more conducive to patterns of thought which predict success in…the Anglo-American world.

Germany might have dominated academia over the past 200 years but they have not been doing well as economists. The Italians may have produced great opera but it is hard to think of many particularly impressive economists. The French have philosophy – why would they need economists too?

Economists in most of the world seem to be the people politicians ignore before handing over as much money as possible to their cousins. Maybe it is only in the English speaking world they have any prestige because only there do they have influence? What is the point of being a Brazilian economist? In a country like France I would think economists would produce ideas that were politically unacceptable as they are too pro-British or pro-American. So they get ignored and sensible people choose to do political science instead.

18 Thiago Ribeiro June 20, 2016 at 8:07 am

“Economists in most of the world seem to be the people politicians ignore before handing over as much money as possible to their cousins. Maybe it is only in the English speaking world they have any prestige because only there do they have influence? What is the point of being a Brazilian economist? In a country like France I would think economists would produce ideas that were politically unacceptable as they are too pro-British or pro-American.”
Brazilian economists were very influencial in Brazil during the mass inflation/stagflation era (for the same reason surgeons are influential during emergency surgery–they are supposed to know something important that can help the patient) their counsel much sought-after, and the the Treasure portfolio (Fazenda) was the most important (can’t say the country profited much from this) one, yet how many renowned Brazilian economists were there?

19 (Not That) Bill O'Reilly June 20, 2016 at 9:49 am

It’s hardly as though there are no French economists–Piketty’s global fame dispels that myth quite quickly–it’s just that they come from a school of thought that was largely banished from English-speaking academies–again, Piketty being a prime example.

The Soviets had professional economists too, but it wasn’t the lack of English-language skills that made them unemployable in the U.S.

20 prior_test2 June 20, 2016 at 11:33 am

‘but they have not been doing well as economists’

Yeah, who has ever heard of that Marx guy? Or Max Weber?

21 Friedrich August June 20, 2016 at 12:35 pm

Or that Hayek guy for that matter…

22 Troll me June 20, 2016 at 1:06 pm

Economics in much of the world is more connected to its roots than in the Anglosphere where quant/empirical analysis and mathiness are the main things leading to a perception of being “good at economics”.

The costs and benefits in generally ignoring the moral philosophy roots of the field are not clear to me. But when a certain type of economic thought/analysis is emphasized in the Anglosphere, I would not deem that low publication rates of French or German thinkers in American or British journals should be considered as evidence that they are performing poorly. It would be a datapoint in that direction, but it could just mean that different ways of thinking exist and the foreign ones are less published in the anglosphere.

23 Todd K June 20, 2016 at 4:54 am

“So they get ignored and sensible people choose to do political science instead.”

At least that was Piketty’s route.

24 Bob Graboyes June 20, 2016 at 6:57 am

Wittgenstein wrote of a French politician who thought the French language had a peculiarity in that “words occur in the order in which one thinks them”. Perhaps the key here is that English has a peculiarity in that when writing economics, the English words occur in the order in which one thinks them. πŸ™‚

25 dearieme June 20, 2016 at 7:07 am

Many of the economics bits and pieces that you post here are written in clumsy, ugly English. I see no evidence that the fault lies with furriners. I suppose they learn to copy that bad English but it seems unlikely that they introduced it.

26 rayward June 20, 2016 at 7:25 am

New Testament scholars believe it must be read in its original language, Greek, to be fully and accurately understood. It’s true that the New Testament was originally written in Greek, but equally true that neither Jesus nor any of His Disciples spoke Greek; indeed, they spoke Aramaic, but they didn’t write Aramaic – they were illiterate. Faithful Christians in America study and memorize the words of the New Testament even though it’s written in a language, English, that did not even exist at the time of Jesus, and is a translation of a language, Greek, that neither Jesus nor any of His Disciples spoke. Most of today’s economic scholars write in a language, Jargon, that only they can understand. Like the faithful Christians, they study and memorize the words in scholarly journals even though written in a language hardly anyone understands and is so poorly written that non-scholars wouldn’t want to read anyway. Many economic scholars of the recent past wrote in a common language, English, which could be read and enjoyed by scholars and non-scholars alike. John Kenneth Galbraith comes to mind. That man could write a sentence that scholars in the English department would enjoy reading. By comparison, no scholars in the English department could bear the discomfort of reading what today’s economic scholars write.

27 So Much For Subtlety June 20, 2016 at 8:08 am

What New Testament scholars would these be then? Twice you assert positively that Jesus and the Disciples did not speak Greek. On what basis do you make that claim? Even some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in Greek so it was clearly common at the time. It was even more common in the region where Jesus grew up – the Bible repeatedly calls it “Galilee of the Gentiles”. He lived three miles or so from the Greek city of Sephoris. Most of the figures in the Bible are known by the Greek versions of their names and two are only identified by their Greek names.

What is more Jesus is shown speaking Greek – or at least it is a reasonable assumption that he spoke Greek. He visited to Tyre, Sidon and the Decapolis (Mark 7:31ff) and in particular the conversation with the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30). He spoke directly to Pontius Pilate a the trial (Mark 15:2-15). There is no mention of an interpreter. He spoke with the Roman Centurion. Again no mention of an interpreter. He is also said to have spoken to some ‘Greeks’ (John 12:20-36). He even made a joke in Greek – calling Peter the stone on which he would build the Church.

As for not being able to read and write Aramaic or any other language, what on Earth gives you that impression? How can you possibly come to that conclusion given the evidence before you?

Finally you have no idea what modern English Departments do. They are not remotely interested in the English language much less good examples of English. They are interested in Social Justice. And they tend to write exceptionally bad English themselves – presumably to cover up the poverty of their intellectual contributions.

28 Moreno Klaus June 20, 2016 at 11:25 am

If Jesus speaks Greek, shouldnt we bail him out, when he defaults too? Maybe we can sell the rights of bible sales to some chinese corporation. πŸ˜›

29 Troll me June 20, 2016 at 1:17 pm

Very interesting points about Greek usage in Biblical times. It all seems likely, but in those days I imagine it would have been quite common for common people to speak the local language, and for the language of the empire to mostly be spoken/written by administrators – common people would most likely only have had very rudimentary knowledge of the imperial language. And, top administrators for the empire would almost certainly have been required to have decent knowledge of one or two of the main local languages where they were working.

Anyways, that’s all curious, and difficult to be conclusive about.

But for the matter of your assumptions about English departments? Definitely not at all the impression I’ve ever gotten from people I’ve met who hold English majors. All those literary tools may not make for concise writing in the academic sense, but literature and scientific writing are not and should not be held to similar standards.

30 JC June 20, 2016 at 8:31 am

English is the new Latin…

31 Michael Tinkler June 20, 2016 at 7:26 am

the quality of writing is a crucial determinant of publishing success

Tee hee!

32 Anon7 June 20, 2016 at 7:34 am

It does not take much proficiency in writing English prose to explain the mathematical and econometric gibberish found in most articles in economics journals.

33 Troll me June 20, 2016 at 1:20 pm

Explaining that gibberish in a way that links theory to real world understanding with due attention to weights of certainty and methodological uncertainties inherent in the mathematical/modelling developments … very difficult, and most certainly requires high proficiency in English prose. Which is good for me, since I can earn income proofreading/editing for such things (among other things).

34 Axolotl Jones June 20, 2016 at 9:41 am

I attended graduate school in economics along with many students who were not native English speakers. They were highly intelligent, motivated, and well prepared in economics and mathematics. They tended to be the very best undergraduate students from their home universities. , Many have since gone on to distinguished careers.

However, as non-native speakers, they experienced some difficulties. Typically, their command of spoken, vernacular English was very good. But they tended read slowly, particularly technical material on unfamiliar topics. So, they had to work much harder than their native English speaking counterparts. Their command of idioms and metaphors, for example, those based on, say, the King James’ Bible, was weak. Though well educated, they were not widely read in English.

However, their biggest weakness was in English composition. Many European languages have elaborate grammatical structures that make it possible to construct very long sentences, and even longer paragraphs, embedded with digressions and qualifications. Academic prose in, say, Italian, tends to the flowery, filled little courtesies. Someone who is thinking in German or Italian while trying to write in English will produce a product that is almost unreadable.

I edited my colleagues’ prose with some frequency: mostly dividing long paragraphs into short ones, and long sentences into a series of short, declarative sentences. Since I was working with smart people, they understood what I was doing rather quickly and eventually learned to adjust their writing style. Still, I think that it will always take a lot of extra effort to pursue a graduate degree in a foreign language,

35 prior_test2 June 20, 2016 at 11:31 am

Truly bizarre – but then, who knows what is going on with all that travelling.

36 prior_test2 June 20, 2016 at 11:43 am

So, is it now wikipedia that has achieved the status that the New Yorker attained?

‘Modern hybrids with regenerative braking, smart phones, GPS navigation, and streaming internet music were all innovations first developed in America.’

I’m just amused by that list. GPS is American, so no problem there, but you do know that regenerative braking essentially predates the automobile, right? ‘Electric motors, when used in reverse function as generators, convert mechanical energy into electrical energy. Vehicles propelled by electric motors use them as generators when using regenerative braking, braking by transferring mechanical energy from the wheels to an electrical load.

Early examples of this system were the front-wheel drive conversions of horse-drawn cabs by Louis Antoine Krieger in Paris in the 1890s. The Krieger electric landaulet had a drive motor in each front wheel with a second set of parallel windings (bifilar coil) for regenerative braking.[3] In England, the Raworth system of “regenerative control” was introduced by tramway operators in the early 1900s, since it offered them economic and operational benefits as explained by A. Raworth of Leeds in some detail.[4][5][6] These included tramway systems at Devonport (1903), Rawtenstall, Birmingham, Crystal Palace-Croydon (1906), and many others.’ Article from wikipedia on Regenerative_brake

Nokia or even NTT DoCoMo can certainly make a decent claim to being the first smartphone manufacturer, though the idea was floating around for a while (if you think IBM is an American company, then you may need to read how IBM became such a big supporter of Linux on mainframes – as a hint, check ‘Boblingen’ and Linux ) – wikipedia article Smartphone

No more links, but the layer 3 audio was developed by the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany (admittedly, it was the cDc that brought the format to mass attention). American developed formats – notably, those from Real – failed to catch on for streaming audio. (And not to hammer a point ever so studiously avoided here, but the GPL’d Shoutcast streaming server is basically what ensured layer 3 audio streaming dominance.)

37 prior_test2 June 20, 2016 at 11:50 am

Yep, layer 3 audio is allowed – the common variants aren’t.

Just remember, ‘streaming audio’ is OK, but apparently most of the formulations relating to the Moving Pictures Experts Group, layer 3 audio format are not allowed to be posted here.

That’s right, audio books are fine, but talking about how they are likely encoded is apparently a decided no-no for the filters of MR.

38 Jimbino June 20, 2016 at 12:06 pm

I disagree: It has long been apparent to me that many foreign-born persons who write and speak in the sciences have a much better grasp of proper English usage than do our native-born English speakers. Germans, in particular, but also those reared in Romance languages, do not so regularly abuse the subjunctive mood or ignore the rules of sequence of tenses. Even powerful native English speakers, such as Christopher Hitchens, commonly show(ed) imperfect mastery of English grammar rules.

39 Stanley June 20, 2016 at 4:02 pm

Native speakers of a language cannot speak it badly, but perhaps it not a language that you enjoy. Abusing the subjunctive mood? Imperfect mastery of English grammar? What silly things to say.

40 Steve Sailer June 21, 2016 at 1:23 am

This helps explain why so many American economists can’t grasp why anybody would not want open borders. Immigration provides top American economists with cheap grad students while they get the glittering prizes. What’s not to like?

41 Steve Sailer June 21, 2016 at 1:25 am

The funny thing is how much better of a prose stylist Ha Joon Chang is in English than Thomas Piketty is in French:

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