Legislating Learning English? If Only It Were So Easy

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Jun 29 16:41:30 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes,June 22, 2006
Economic Scene

Legislate Learning English? If Only It Were So Easy


PRESIDENT BUSH'S plan to give longstanding illegal immigrants a path to
citizenship would require them to learn English as a sign that they accept
American culture. The conservative base of the Republican Party considers
any policy that would open that path as little more than amnesty, and they
consider the English requirement trivial. In the midst of this dispute,
evidence from economics suggests that for a large share of today's
immigrants, this path would not be nearly as easy as either side might
think. Immigrants already have a strong incentive to learn English: better
English means a better job and a higher income. Not speaking English
largely means being trapped in a low-paying job with no obvious means of
advancement. Yet millions still do not know English. Why not?

As Hoyt Bleakley, an economist at the University of Chicago Graduate
School of Business, puts it: "For someone not to speak English after being
in the country for many years and in the face of the clear job market
reward for learning English, is likely a sign that learning the language
is very tough for them. I'm not so sure that having Congress tell them
it's required will actually do anything." The difficulties adults have
with learning English are at the center of the research that Professor
Bleakley has done with a fellow economist, Aimee Chin, of the University
of Houston, in their forthcoming Review of Economics and Statistics study
"Language Skills and Earnings: Evidence from Childhood Immigrants"

The study's approach begins with a linguistic theory known as the critical
period of second language acquisition. The idea is that a child can learn
a new language as fluently as a native speaker as long as the child starts
before a critical age (usually thought to be around 11 or 12). Past the
critical period, it is difficult to become fluent in a new language and
virtually impossible to speak without an accent. It is a theory that can
help explain why Henry A. Kissinger, who immigrated to the United States
at about age 14, speaks English with a German accent while his younger
brother, Walter, does not. (The alternative theory, supposedly given by
Walter Kissinger, was that Henry does not listen.) And it is a theory
probably quite familiar to millions of Americans with residual nightmares
of high school French.

Professor Bleakley and Professor Chin show rather stark evidence for this
theory in the data on immigrants' job prospects. By comparing the outcomes
of English-speaking and non-English-speaking immigrants who arrived in the
United States around the critical period age, they document that poor
English skills meant less schooling and substantially lower wages for
immigrants and that these disadvantages often extended to their children,
even if those children were born in the United States. One of their
simplest demonstrations of this fact compares immigrants from different
islands of the Caribbean. They document that the wages and education
levels of immigrants from non-English speaking islands like the Dominican
Republic or Puerto Rico look similar to those of immigrants from
English-speaking islands like Jamaica and Trinidad as long as the person
originally came to the United States by age 11. For those who were older
when they arrived, however, immigrants from non-English-speaking islands
do significantly worse, on average, than those from English-speaking ones.
Non-English speakers are much more likely to drop out of school and also
have significantly lower-paying jobs when working. Their finding points
strongly toward language as the deciding factor, since the differences
exist only after age 11.

Professor Bleakley and Professor Chin extend this initial study of
immigrants by asking how immigrant parents' language skills affect their
children in "What Holds Back the Second Generation? The Intergenerational
Transmission of Language Human Capital Among Immigrants"
(http://www.ccis-ucsd.org/PUBLICATIONS/wrkg104.pdf). As a starting point,
the study notes that half the students now classified as having low
English proficiency were, in fact, born in the United States. They are
overwhelmingly the children of non-English-speaking immigrants. So, it is
natural to ask what impact parents have. In turns out that children whose
immigrant parents came to the United States when young do just about the
same in school regardless of whether the parents came from
English-speaking or non-English-speaking countries.  But the situation is
different for children whose parents were older when they arrived. The
children from non-English-speaking households do much worse than
English-speaking ones. They are less likely to go to preschool and much
more likely to drop out of high school.

When Professor Bleakley and Professor Chin compare the overall
distribution of test scores of English- and non-English-speaking families,
they find that the big differences appear mainly among children with the
lowest performance. The top half of students from non-English-speaking
households do just about as well as the top half from English-speaking
households. It seems that a child with talent can succeed no matter what
the parents' skills are, as has been true for centuries in this country.
But parents whose English is poor have a big negative impact on the
below-average children. Based on his research, Professor Bleakley sees
some serious problems with the more extreme immigration proposals like the
old Proposition 187 in California, which sought to deny a public education
to the children of illegal immigrants.

"For many children of immigrants," Professor Bleakley said, "the school
system is one of the only exposures to English they will get." Kicking
them out of school when they are young means they will most likely never
be fluent in English. The current dispute over immigration reform has been
characterized as a battle between two messages: "Welcome to America" and
"Please Go Home."  Whichever message prevails in the political battle this
summer, unless directed mainly at 10-year-olds, had best come with a

Austan Goolsbee is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago
Graduate School of Business and a research fellow at the American Bar
Foundation. E-mail: goolsbee at nytimes .com.


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