[lg policy] Language Distance: The Reason Immigrants Have Trouble Assimilating

r.amirejibi-mullen at QMUL.AC.UK r.amirejibi-mullen at QMUL.AC.UK
Wed May 8 04:43:06 UTC 2013

How different an immigrant's native tongue sounds from that of his new  
home influences literacy -- and job prospects.

Germany can't seem to attract enough high-skilled immigrants, and the  
government thinks it has something to do with how confusing the  
country can be for new arrivals.

A young man from India said the immigration office staff who greeted  
him, "should probably have some people who speak English -- at least  
for the newcomers."

So now, Germany is greeting Ausländers with, "a welcome bag, a  
smartphone app, and personal counseling."

They aren't the only country pushing improved integration for  
immigrants. In 2011, the Netherlands shifted away from its  
longstanding policy of allowing immigrants to lead parallel lives  
within society, and instead began vigorously urging immigrants to  
learn Dutch and abide by Dutch cultural mores. And the U.S. Senate's  
own bipartisan immigration proposal includes provisions for "learning  
English and the basics about America's history."

Immigration reform can be polarizing, but language assimilation is one  
thing people on all sides of the debate tend to agree on: How quickly  
immigrants learn to navigate their host countries plays a big role in  
how likely they are to thrive in their new homelands.

But it isn't always easy for newcomers to learn these new languages --  
and an interesting recent paper from Ingo E. Isphording, an economist  
at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, sheds light on the reason why.  
Isphording found that immigrants do indeed lag behind native speakers  
in literacy scores -- but it has less to do with the immigrant  
herself, where she's from, or where she's arrived, and more to do with  
the so-called "linguistic distance" between the country of origin and  
the final destination. In cases where immigrant communities aren't  
performing well economically, it could be partly because they're  
coming from countries where the language sounds too different and is  
thus harder to transition out of.

First, Isphording used a metric that found the number of cognates, or  
words in different languages that sound similar and mean the same  
thing, as well as the number of sounds that need to be changed between  
two words that have the same meaning (say, Tu and You) in two  
different languages. The more different the words, the greater the  
linguistic distance between the tongues.

He includes a fascinating chart of the different language distances.  
The findings might seem obvious to English-only speakers who have ever  
watched a German-language movie and realized it only requires looking  
at the subtitles most of the time, but blinking too long during  
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meant missing a crucial chunk of  
dialogue. (Basically, Germanic languages are closest to English, while  
various Asian, African, and Uralic ones aren't so much.):

By examining nine host countries, 70 sending countries, and 1,559 test  
scores, he then found that immigrants who come from languages that are  
most linguistically dissimilar have the worst literacy scores in their  
new host countries. A Turk in the Netherlands, the author posits, has  
about the same linguistic proficiency scores as a native who has  
little or no primary schooling. In this chart, "LD" stands for  
language distance:

That lag lasts for years, but it does improve over time and can  
practically disappear after about 20 years or so. The disadvantage was  
there for both late-arriving immigrants, who moved after age 11, and  
for those who moved as small children, though adults faced a much  
steeper learning curve. (In our Turk in the Netherlands example, a  
child would lose 35 points on a literacy test as a recent arrival, but  
an adult would lose 79.):

In terms of immigration policy, this is a big deal. Isphording points  
out that people with better reading and writing abilities are much  
likelier to both be employed and to find themselves in the top 20th  
percentile of all wage-earners:

The awkward thing here is that there aren't that many  
linguistically-similar Danes or Swedes banging down the doors to U.S.  
visa offices. Most of our immigrants come from Mexico (though they've  
dwindled significantly in recent years), while most holders of  
high-skilled worker visas are from Asia. But it seems like if the U.S.  
wants those individuals to perform their best economically, it could  
offer some sort of welcome package of its own -- in the form of some  
generous language assistance.

"The results might be used to identify target groups for supportive  
policy measures (language classes, etc...)," Isphording told me in an  
email. "They aim at uncovering further sources of the persistent gap  
in economic success between immigrants and natives in many receiving  

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