Tongue Tide

Author:Barry R. Chiswick

Tongue Tide Finance & Development, September 2016, Vol. 53, No. 3

Barry R. Chiswick

The economics of language offers important lessons for how Europe can best integrate migrants

European countries admitted more than a million migrants from North Africa and the Middle East in 2015, primarily from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Some are refugees fleeing civil war, discrimination, and chaotic situations. Others are economic migrants seeking better opportunities. The vast majority of both types of predominantly Arabic speakers will settle permanently in Europe, where Arabic is not the dominant language but where substantial enclaves of Arabic speakers live. Although some of these immigrants will be proficient in their host country’s language, most will not.

The recent surge in international migration has focused attention on the economics of language: the determinants and consequences—including prospects for employment and earning potential—of migrants’ proficiency in their host country’s language. The economic success of migrants depends heavily on how well and quickly they learn the language of their new country.

Theoretical and empirical research, both my own and by colleagues in the field, has benefited from the relatively recent release of large microdata sets in the major immigrant-receiving countries, which identify immigrants, their original language, and their proficiency in the host country’s main language, along with other relevant social, demographic, and economic characteristics.

Picking it upLanguage proficiency is a form of human capital, just like other skills acquired in school or on the job. It is an economic good that is useful professionally, personally, and socially and is acquired at a cost to individuals—in the case of children, to parents or caregivers—of time and financial outlay. Although the effects vary somewhat across countries, immigrants who are more proficient in the host country language are more likely to be employed, when employed earn more, are more likely to become citizens, and have a higher propensity to marry someone born outside of their country of origin or ethnic group.

Research on the determinants of immigrants’ proficiency in the host country language—conducted for several migrant-receiving countries, including Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, the United Kingdom, and the United States—has focused on the “four E’s”: exposure, enclaves, efficiency, and economic incentives.

Exposure to the host language can occur before or after migration. People may learn a language before migrating through formal or informal language training programs or via media and Internet exposure. Exposure after migration might also include formal or informal language training programs, but learning by living, typically measured by how long a person has lived in a new country, is the most effective method of language acquisition. An interrupted stay, perhaps from migrating to and fro (by sojourners or so-called birds of passage, who return home with their...

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