Money makes the world go round

By June 27, 2017Globalization

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan has just come to an end. Like Christmas, Diwali or a wedding, the closing holiday, Eid al-Fitr, constitutes a massive occasion for gift-giving. In many parts of the world, one way to pay for all these gifts that have to be exchanged among family and friends on occasions such as these is through funds coming in from abroad, through the remittances of family members who work overseas.

In this post, I will explore the global flow of remittance monies and the language practices to which they are related.

Remittances are big business

The amount of remittances – monies transferred internationally by individual international migrants to family members in their home countries – is staggering: according to World Bank data, in 2016, migrants remitted USD 601 billion to their families back home.

Migrants in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are amongst the world’s top senders: in 2015, Indian nationals alone transferred USD 13 billion from the UAE to their families back home; another USD 5 billion were sent to Pakistan and USD 4 billion to the Philippines.

Multillingual money transfer ad in English, Hindi, Bangla, Urdu, Telugu, Malayalam and Tamil

Staggering as these totals may be, they are made up of relatively small individual sums: the average value of an individual transfer from the UAE is 700 dirham, that’s about USD 190. Workers remit about 70% of their salary.

During Ramadan 70% is not enough, though, as Abdullah, a construction worker from Pakistan, explains:

“There is a need for more money in every home for Eid, it’s a necessity,” [he] said. He earns Dh700 [USD 190] but sent home an extra Dh200 [USD 54] on top of the Dh500 [USD 136] he sends each month. “I budget and save, and keep less for my needs. A gift must be given and everyone at home must get a gift.”

That it is very modest amounts that add up to form these large remittance streams is further illustrated by Zubair, a factory worker from India:

“Some people borrow but then they spend the whole year paying back,” said Zubair. “I try and save Dh30-40 [USD 8-11] more a month, so I can send more money now. Slowly, slowly that is how you can keep money aside, but it will not stay with you for long, so best send it home quickly.”

Bank ad offering to transfer “happiness” from Dubai to India

Languages in the UAE

The official language of the UAE is Arabic and the de facto language is English. This overview statement hides as much as it reveals, as I explain in a chapter about the urban sociolinguistics of Dubai. One of the complexities the statement hides is the fact that the UAE’s huge migrant population of around 85% speak a great variety of languages other than Arabic and English.

As is true of most migrant-receiving countries, migrant languages are, by and large, hidden and rendered invisible in public space. Migrant languages do, of course, appear in the signage of small ethnic businesses but they are excluded from “mainstream” commercial spaces: in the large supermarket chains, the shopping malls or the multinational eatery chains one will look in vain for any signs of languages other than Arabic and English.

For people on salaries such as those of Abdullah and Zubair, these venues have nothing to offer and just as these men are excluded from Dubai’s glitzy image, their languages are.

Multilingual money transfer businesses

While the signage in each and every corporate business in the UAE is dominated by English and, to a lesser extent, Arabic, there is one industry that is an exception and where extensive multilingualism is prominently displayed: money transfer businesses.

The ubiquitous retail outlets of global money transfer service providers constitute one domain where Dubai’s other languages have a strong presence in the public linguistic landscape. Given the figures cited above, it is not surprising that money transfer businesses in the UAE always seem to be doing a brisk business and on Fridays long queues can often be observed as migrants use their weekly day off to send remittances back home.

Money exchanges advertise their services in many different languages. It is not unusual to find advertising materials printed in up to seven languages in a variety of scripts.

Ad for

What do remittances buy?

The main purposes for which remittance monies are used are education, emergencies and gifts, according to a survey by Western Union. These material uses are loaded with an emotional connection in remittance advertising, where the money sent home constitutes the migrant’s key link to family left behind. Remitting money is invested with the promise of belonging, connection and happiness.

The lives of migrants are often schizophrenic and caught up in transnational circuits where different parts of the migrant’s identity are anchored in different places. The money migrants send and Dubai’s other languages provide a link between their economic identities in their destination and their familial identities in their place of origin.

Want to learn more about urban sociolinguistics?

Watch out for this new book on urban sociolinguistics due to be published by Routledge later this year:

Smakman, D. & P. Heinrich. Eds. 2018. Urban Sociolinguistics: The City as a Linguistic Process and Experience. London: Routledge.

From the blurb:

From Los Angeles to Tokyo, Urban Sociolinguistics is a sociolinguistic study of twelve urban settings around the world. Building on William Labov’s famous New York study, the authors demonstrate how language use in these areas is changing based on belief systems, behavioural norms, day-to-day rituals and linguistic practices.

Each chapter is written by a key figure in sociolinguistics and presents the personal stories of individuals using linguistic means to go about their daily communications in diverse sociolinguistic systems such as:

  • extremely large urban conurbations like Cairo, Tokyo and Mexico City
  • smaller areas like Paris and Sydney
  • lesser developed areas (from an urbanisation point of view) such as the Western Netherlands Randstad area and the Kohima area in India.

Providing new perspectives on crucial themes, such as language choice and language contact, code-switching and mixing, language and identity, language policy and planning and social networks, this is key reading for students and researchers in the areas of multilingualism and super-diversity within sociolinguistics, applied linguistics and urban studies.

A preprint of the chapter about Dubai – “Language in the ethnocratic, corporate and mobile city” (pp. 77-94) – is available here.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Jay Mi Tan

    Hi Dr. Ingrid Piller,

    This is a great post on global flow of remittance and language practices. Remittance is something I come across very often, as I used to work in the financial industry, but it has never occurred to me to look deep into the topic from a linguist perspective. I especially like the relation that you have made on ‘remitting money… with the promise of belonging, connection and happiness’. I can resonate with this relation as there are many foreign workers (in Malaysia) who eagerly remit money back to their home country as soon as they receive their salary, and most often than not they go through money changers who are Western Union linked rather than financial providers (the Big Four) because of language barrier. Also, despite knowing that remitting monies incur handling fees (depending on providers) they still do it rather often. Merely because similarly to Abdullah, there is a need for money, it is a necessity (not just during festivities but for day-to-day basis). It’s interesting to note that despite the differences in language practice, remittance around the world is made possible.

    Jay Mi

    • Julie

      Hi Jay Mi,
      We share a lot about this article though I do not have any experience in financial industry as you do. The thing I find interesting the most when reading the article is that we may notice the presence of mulitingualsim in money transfer business, but we hardly see it from the perspectives as what Prof. Ingrid has made about how ‘remittance makes the world go round’. I have many friends who used to work overseas and from their stories I could understand what the ‘link’ is as well as how happy they were whenever they remiited something back to their families. Before I read the article, I thoght that business was not for me to read. But thanks to it, I’ve learnt that I could do it.


    A good article about how money makes the world go round. I have also observed this phenomenon in European countries where foreign languages are limited to shop signs (even this is looked down upon by many) but are plastered all over money transfer centres and internet cafes which support telephone and internet services for local migrants. It is quite sad that where direct money is to be made, the recognition and use of foreign languages are exploited, just like teenagers are exploited by greedy companies that use famous personalities to appeal to them to buy their products.

  • Ha Pham

    I think that is an exciting article. Working abroad is never an easy thing to do. Workers have to work very hard and try to save as much as they can. Besides, they have no chances to display their indentities which are made through discursive practices such as: speaking, writing and communicating in their own languages. That is, in some sense, unfaair in terms of intercultural diversity that is happening on the global scale. There is one thing I wonder is that why do only money transfer businesses, not other business offer multilingual services? Do they care about migrants’ national language pride?

  • Nhung Nguyen

    It’s really interesting to see the link between language and international money transfer! In my opinion, the development of multilingualism in money transfer business is indispensable when the need of transferring money mainly arises at international level, between countries or continents. In that situation, language barrier is inevitable and the idea of offering services in many languages will of course appear.

    On the other hand, there is an interesting point that language and money share one common characteristic: the convertibility. The value of a nation’s currency can be converted into another country’s currency at a conventional rate. Similarly, the meaning conveyed by one language can be translated into another language according to prescribed linguistic rules.

  • Reem

    Dear Professor Piller,

    There is no doubt that money is a one of the essential necessities of life. And the fact that migrants are far from their families, they are working to obtain a livelihood for them and their families. As a multicultural and multilingual city, Dubai seeks to provide its citizens, residents and migrants with a convenient life of providing services that facilitate their communication with their families or even their colleagues and friends, both inside and outside UAE. According to Prof,Piller, literacy is a visual language, across time and space(2017). Hence, Dubai’s goverment nowadays provides such services with different languages throughout the country. As a result, the migrants can use those facilitated services for the transfer of money abroad.


  • Binisha Sharma

    In the context of Nepal too, a huge number of Nepalese are leaving their country for the sake of good job opportunities and a better life. And in return, the
    families of these immigrants get more and more foreign currency through remittances and enjoy comparatively better life than in the past. They get
    money especially during major festivals like Dashain, Tihar, Lhosar etc. One of the survey reports showed that this year Nepal received 48.9 % of the
    remittance from the Gulf and 10 % from Malaysia. And the business owners use a number of techniques to attract the families using different local languages like Newari, Maithili, Tamang, etc. However, government is ignorant about the fact that the field can generate funds through
    bonds which can be invested in productive areas for development.

  • rajni jaishi

    It’s an appaling situation in both Nepal and India- the country where I was born and the country I grew up in. The whole time when I was reading this blog, the present exodus of youth in Nepal was on my mind constantly. After reading it, I feel the overall situation of any developing country now is the same in terms of its overly ambitious youth, lack of opportunities and the foreign currency luring them as any sweet substance attracts ants. Making money and sending it back home is fine. The larger question here is how difficult it is to earn that extra money they have promised their families back home. In the process of making a living for themselves and earn a bit more to fulfill their (relatives’) aspirations, these migrants are losing their control over their own lives and identity, slowly in a foreign land. The fact that the languages spoken by these migrants remain as ‘hidden’ is an hint to it. As Professor Piller says that these languages are never heard in mainstream commercial spaces, let’s hope that these migrants are not lost in the crowd or ‘hushed’ in the loud noises and glitz of a city.