The Rise of Bio-Lingualism


I’ve just finished reading an amazing article on ‘sustainable’ banking or, as Peter Blom of Triodos Bank calls it with an ironic undertone, ‘Bio-Banking’. I’ve also just filled in the 2013 MIT Sloan Management Review & BCG Sustainability Survey. Both convinced me that sustainability is not just something for ‘do-gooders’, social revolutionaries, or members of the green parties around the world anymore. Sustainability is going mainstream.

Check out Triodos Bank’s website and read up on their commitment to the environment: “Triodos Bank believes that profit doesn’t need to be at the expense of the world’s most pressing environmental problems”; social change: “We finance work to improve and enrich the lives of millions of people; tackling inequality and injustice. And developing strong communities in the process”; and culture: “Triodos Bank believes that culture is a powerful force for positive change, driving creativity and innovation in business, and providing lasting opportunities for personal development”.

What is even more amazing, the bank’s chief, Peter Blom, earns ‘just’ 272,000 euro (this is small change for big bankers), it has 440,000 clients, and attracts 10,000 new clients every month. The bank’s clients not only see but also control where the bank invests: it is completely transparent.

An isolated case? Here is another example: Have you heard about Oekom? Two youngsters founded this rating agency at the end of the 90s in a backyard office in Munich. Today, they receive invitations from big financial institutions to talk about human rights violations, environmental protection, and sustainable investment. Oekom, unlike its competitors Moody’s or Standards & Poor, doesn’t focus on credit ratings, but rates more than 3,000 companies and 51 countries on their commitment to ecological and social principles. 520 billion euro is invested based on their recommendations worldwide!

They are not alone. Did you know that a fifth of global capital investment, or 13 trillion US dollars, is invested based on social, ecological, and ethical criteria? Did you know that this investment achieves returns that are 11% better than to the world stock index MSCI World (formerly Morgan Stanley Capital International)?

Interesting, you might say, but what has all this got to do with the language industry?

There is a lesson here for us in the language industry, an industry that sees itself driven by continuous and growing demands for efficiency, for ‘better, faster, cheaper’, an industry where money is king – an industry that to a large extent doesn’t seem to have noticed yet, never mind reacted to, some of the biggest challenges and changes in society and business: the move towards social responsibility and sustainability.

Signs of what one could call, following Peter Blom’s example, ‘bio-lingualism’ amongst commercial providers are hard to spot. Instead, Machine Translation (MT) continues its long relationship with military interventions and the cold wars. (LOGOS received a great boost during the Vietnam War; METAL during the Cold War; SYSTRAN still receives huge investments from the military.) Industry associations fight over access to conference venues in Washington when the conflicts in the Middle East heat up. Researchers in large government funded localisation research projects are not shy to promote partnerships with online gaming companies. – Many in the language industry still sell out too easily to the highest bidder. No matter what.

The few non-profit players in the language industry report (this is based on anecdotal evidence) that they don’t mention their non-profit interests or status to their clients anymore – because these clients, apparently, don’t take non-profit businesses seriously. To my knowledge, there is only one commercial provider, Alboum, which focuses on “translation services for non-profit organizations”. Another company, InEveryLanguage, is proud to promote itself as “the socially responsible way to meet your translation needs”.  Mondragón Lingua operates on cooperative principles and has a strong commitment to social responsibility. Many companies offer, as a special service, translations to non-profits, some for free or at discounted rates, among them TransPerfect, ABC Translation Services, Morningside Translations, ITC Global Translations, Lionbridge, SDL, and Welocalize.

What is the alternative to a primarily profit-driven language services business and research, at the expense of ethical and social considerations? Why on earth should we promote sustainable language services?

Well, a large number of studies have demonstrated that there is a clear causal connection between languages, and the environment, health, and education, as well as with social and economic well-being of people; the connection between bio-diversity and language diversity has also long been established. If we care about sustainable energy, the environment, and health – we need to care about sustainable language services, driven primarily by ethical, ecological, and social considerations, rather than by profit. The financial services sector has given us the examples that sustainable services are also financially more profitable. (I have reported elsewhere on findings that the non-profit sector also generates more employment than the for-profit sector.)

While language service companies are slow to react, thousands of language service volunteers are now investing their time and expertise in sustainable translation services with organisations such as Mozilla, TED, and the Khan Academy, but also with initiatives like PerMondo, Translators without Borders, Translations for Progress, and – of course my personal first choice – The Rosetta Foundation’s Translation Commons ( This site is powered by SOLAS, an open source software project coordinated by The Rosetta Foundation.

Friends and colleagues in the language communities: Is it not time to invest in social localisation? I mean, really invest! To sow the seeds and reap the benefits – together, in a sustainable bio-lingual language industry, for the benefit of the people and our one, shared world? Investing in sustainable bio-lingualism is a risk worth taking!

Reinhard Schäler

This blog was inspired by Böll, S. and Hese, M. (2013). Finanzindustrie: Aufstieg der Bio-Banker, in: Der Spiegel, 22/2013, 27 May 2013 (69-72).

More information on the financial institutions mentioned:

Triodos Bank

Oekom Research

MSCI World

More about the link between biodiversity and language diversity:

Penn State (2012, May 7). Endangered species, languages linked at high biodiversity regions. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 4, 2013, from­ /releases/2012/05/120507154112.htm.

UNESCO BIP (Biodiversity Indicators Partnership): Status of traditional knowledge, innovations and practices Status and Trends of Linguistic Diversity and Numbers of Speakers of Indigenous Languages (available at, last accessed 04 June 2013); Note: this article has a large number of links to related studies investigating the link between language and traditional knowledge related to biodiversity.

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