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Language Policy and Human Development



This article explores how language policy affects the socioeconomic development of nation states through two channels: the individual’s exposure to and (in reference to an individual’s mother tongue) linguistic distance from the official language. In a cross-country framework the article first establishes a robust and sizeable negative relationship between an official language that is distant from the local indigenous languages and proxies for human capital and health. To establish this relationship as causal, we instrument language choice with a measure of geographic distance from the origins of writing. Next, using individual level data from India and a set of 11 African countries, we provide microempirical support on the two channels—distance from and exposure to the official language—and their implications for educational, health, occupational and wealth outcomes. Finally, we suggest policy implications based on our findings.


Corresponding author

David D. Laitin is Professor, Department of Political Science, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305 (
Rajesh Ramachandran is Postdoctoral Researcher, Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, Goethe University Frankfurt, Grüneburgplatz 1, 60323 Frankfurt am Main, Germany (


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The authors thank critical audiences at numerous universities and conferences. From those audiences and from individual responses, we have received useful feedback from Darin Christensen, Saumitra Jha, Thomas Pepinsky, Philippe van Parijs, David Stasavage, Abram de Swaan, Roman Wacziarg, Jack Willis, and Andreas Wimmer. Anonymous APSR reviewers have put earlier drafts through the proverbial ringer, and we thank them for pushing us to our limits.



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