Immigrants who live, work together less apt to learn English, study finds

Adult immigrants living and working in places where they are surrounded by others who share their ethnic backgrounds are less likely to learn or be proficient in the English language, say two Purdue University researchers.

In a study of Chinese and age 25 and older who came to the United States for reasons other than attending school, Purdue agricultural economists Brigitte Waldorf and Raymond Florax and three research collaborators found that residing and working in ethnic "enclaves" made it easier for immigrants to continue speaking their native language and put off - or avoid altogether - learning English.

Failing to know English hurts an immigrant's ability to integrate into American society and could limit their occupational opportunities, Waldorf and Florax said. Integration, including the ability to speak English, is at the center of the national debate on immigration reform and "pathway to citizenship" proposals offered by President Obama and Congress.

Living and working among a diverse group of people motivates immigrants to become , Waldorf and Florax said.

"In short, you can say that Chinatown, or little Italy, or any other enclave, is not very conducive to learning English," he said.

The Purdue study, "Living and Working in Ethnic Enclaves: English Language Proficiency of Immigrants in U.S. Metropolitan Areas," measured the effects of residential and occupational segregation on immigrants' ability to speak English and the effects of living with family members who were fluent in English.

Researchers looked at U.S. Census data and previous immigrant studies to produce snapshots of non-student Chinese and Mexicans who moved to the United States. Chinese and Mexicans are among the largest immigrant groups.

Census data indicate that while 32 percent of the U.S. population growth between 2000 and 2010 came from immigration, the proportion of English-speaking immigrants has declined from 85 percent in 1900 to 71 percent in 2010. The decline in English proficiency can be attributed, in part, to how immigrants assimilate into U.S. society when they arrive.

"In the U.S. there is basically no assistance with any sort of assimilation. Immigrants come into the country, and they are on their own," Waldorf said. "Other countries often take a much more active role in ensuring that immigrants can speak the native language, with governments offering language courses as part of the citizenship process."

Because there is no English proficiency requirement for immigrants, many who don't know the language when they arrive in the United States choose places to live and work where they feel most comfortable - places where English-speaking skills aren't necessary, the researchers said. Whether and how they learn English varies, depending on their educational level, job skills, language skills of others in their household and, sometimes, their country of origin.

The Purdue study found that immigrants with higher education levels and job skills were more likely to speak English or wanted to learn the language. Living with family members who already spoke English also was conducive to acquiring at least conversational English skills - especially for immigrants with job skills.

The presence of English-speaking children in the household often plays out differently for Chinese and Mexican immigrants. In Chinese immigrant homes, English-speaking children usually serve as language teachers to non-English-speaking adults. In Mexican immigrant homes, children with English skills often serve as translators for adults not proficient in English.

Country of origin also is a factor, the study found. Because accommodations are made for Spanish-speaking people in most of the , Mexican immigrants can get along easier without learning English than Chinese immigrants, who often don't enjoy those same accommodations.

Learning the English language is just as important to immigrants' economic status as it is to their ability to function in social circles, Florax said. Any immigration reform policy should be structured to meet the special needs of different .

"There is no one-size-fits-all," Florax said.

who integrate into American society can still hold on to their cultural traditions, Waldorf said.

"Learning English does not mean you forget your culture or your own ," she said. "You can keep your own culture and still be American. It's not one or the other."

The Purdue study will be published in an upcoming issue of Papers of Regional Science. The online edition is at … 1111/(ISSN)1435-5957 .

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Apr 10, 2013
How about adding some immediate economic incentive for acquiring language fluency? It would not have to be big, just big enough to motivate people to clear the hurdles of learning a language well enough for everyday use.
And by incentive, I mean a *positive* incentive, coming immediately after passing some language test, for instance. Even a symbolic incentive can make people go that extra distance.
And keep in mind that literacy is a big issue in acquiring a new language.
For those with marginal literacy, learning to read and write in the original language will be vital before moving on to good English skills or they will be unable to use textbooks or online resources.

Apr 10, 2013
"In the U.S. there is basically no assistance with any sort of assimilation. Immigrants come into the country, and they are on their own,"

In schools around the county, illegal aliens, and even legal US citizens are frequently force into Spanish immersion classes if they have a Latin name. Even if the parents don't want their children to be taught in Spanish.
Chinese don't demand US k-12 schools teach them Chinese. They have their own language schools on Saturdays.
Also, in many places around the country, ballots are printed in dozens of languages. But one needs to pass an English test to become a citizen.

Apr 10, 2013
Seems to mesh with my own experiences.
When I was in the US I had no choice but to learn english. But when I later was in France I was surrounded by english/german speakers and didn't pick up the language neraly as well.

Guess you learn most when you're forced to experiment (and forced to react to the feedback of getting stuff wrong). Whereas if you have an 'easy out' by letting others with the greatest proficiency in a foreign language handle day-to-day affairs (or get your gossip/news via word of mouth in your own language) you don't learn nearly as much.

As my philosophy prof once told us: "No" is a far more important word than "Yes". You learn much more by rejection/failed experiment/lost game than by corroboration of what you already know.

Apr 10, 2013
On the other hand: When you come to a new country as an immigrant you usually have a lot of other issues to deal with. Learning the language is probably WAY down on your list of priorities.
So I can see where choosing a place to live where that (big) burden is lifted from you may seem attractive, initially.

Apr 10, 2013
"Any immigration reform policy should be structured to meet the special needs of different immigrant groups."

The first immigration reform policy the US should adopt is to secure the borders and enforce visas.
Second, working visas should be much easier to obtain and anyone who has a valid passport, no criminal record, etc, should be permitted into the country IFF someone will hire them.
There are millions of Indians, Filipinos, Chinese and others that speak English as a second language who would welcome the opportunity provided in the US (assuming the 'liberals' don't destroy that opportunity first).
Such visas should be valid for 5 years and if they want to stay they must apply for citizenship.

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