Bilingualism is good for you! … if you are a girl …

By May 6, 2015Migration
Bilingualism has a gender

Bilingualism has a gender

A while ago, I reported on the findings of a US study that demonstrated that children of immigrants who achieve high-level bilingual proficiency in both English and their home language have, as young adults, a significantly higher earnings potential than their English-dominant peers (Agirdag 2013). A new study throws gender into the mix and complicates the relationship between bilingualism in adolescence and status attainment in young adulthood further.

Both studies use data from the US National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS). This is a nationally representative dataset based on a longitudinal survey of 12,144 young US Americans who were first surveyed in 1988 when they were in eighth grade. Subsequent follow-up surveys were conducted biennially until 2000, when the respondents were in the mid-to-late twenties.

NELS includes full-data sets (the participant has taken each survey and parent survey data are also available) for 1,245 Latinos, and this subset is the focus of the recent study by Jennifer Lee and Sarah Hatteberg. Like Agirdag (2013), the researchers ask whether bilingualism during adolescence has a long-term influence on education, occupation, and income. Additionally, they examine whether this relationship varies by gender.

The authors measure bilingual proficiency as follows:

  • A biliterate is someone who has high levels of oral and written proficiency in both English and Spanish. 303 respondents (just under 25%) were biliterate.
  • A fluent oral bilingual is someone who has high levels of oral proficiency in both English and Spanish but has little or no written proficiency in Spanish. 237 respondents (19%) were fluent oral bilinguals.
  • A passive bilingual is someone who is English dominant but understands Spanish well without speaking Spanish well. 151 respondents (13%) were passive bilinguals.
  • In contrast to a passive bilingual, an English dominant person does not understand Spanish well. 456 respondents (32%) were English dominant.
  • A limited language proficient person is someone who is fluent in neither language. 71 respondents (6%) had limited proficiency in both languages.
Occupational prestige by gender and bilingual proficiency (Source: Lee & Hatteberg 2015, p. 17)

Occupational prestige by gender and bilingual proficiency (Source: Lee & Hatteberg 2015, p. 17)

Boys and girls in the sample were equally likely to be English dominant and limited language proficient. However, there were notable gender differences related to bilingualism: girls were a lot more likely to be biliterate than boys (30% for females vs. 20% for males); but boys were more likely to be fluent oral bilinguals (22% for females vs. 27% for males) and passive bilinguals (9% for females vs. 16% for males).

What does this finding of gendered bilingualism mean for future life chances? Do girls’ higher biliteracy rates translate into higher high school completion rates, higher status occupations and higher incomes? The literature on the multiple benefits of bilingualism – for an overview of the cognitive, educational, and economic benefits of high level bilingual proficiency you can listen to this podcast on the Bilingual Avenue – would lead us to assume so.

Well, it did not quite turn out that way.

The researchers found that biliteracy did indeed do wonders for the high school completion rates of girls: biliterate girls in the sample were five times more likely to complete high school than English dominant girls. However, it did not work this way for boys: the high school completion rates of biliterate boys were almost identical to those of English-dominant boys. What is more, orally and passively bilingual boys were less likely to complete high school than their English dominant peers.

With regard to occupational prestige in young adulthood the findings were similar: biliterate women were significantly more likely to be employed in roles with higher occupational prestige than English-dominant women. Biliterate men, by contrast, were slightly less likely to be employed in roles with high occupational prestige than English-dominant men.

How can bilingualism be advantageous for females but detrimental to males? Surely the cognitive benefits of bilingualism – greater brain plasticity and better executive control – accrue to males and females equally.

The answer to this conundrum is that ‘bilingualism’ does not equal ‘bilingualism.’ The benefits of (high-level) bilingual proficiency are not absolute but social. What is means to be Hispanic in the USA is different for men and women. As the authors point out, “men and women experience race and ethnicity differently and indicators of ethnicity, like language, have different meanings for boys and girls, and for men and women” (Lee and Hatteberg 2015, p. 21).

That bilingualism is gendered is not a new finding (two overview articles about bilingualism and gender research by Aneta Pavlenko and myself are available here and here).

Girls in migrant families often act as language brokers and mediate between their family and mainstream institutions. Maybe such practices socialize them into the ‘feminine’ communicative styles built on cooperation, rapport building, sympathetic listening and showing empathy that are highly valued in contemporary service work, as Deborah Cameron has pointed out in Good to talk? Where such ‘feminine’ communicative styles are valued – as they are in schools and the workplaces of the service economy – it is perhaps not surprising that being able to deploy such styles in more than one language confers advantages.

By contrast, Spanish-speaking boys in the US schools are often stigmatized as trouble makers. For Latino boys and men, speaking Spanish is associated with working-class ‘macho’ styles that are not valued in educational environments nor in occupations that carry conventional prestige. Rather than being advantageous, bilingualism thus becomes a liability for Latino boys and men because it is associated with the ‘wrong’ kinds of masculinity; masculinities neither appreciated by school teachers nor by employers in the tertiary sector.

So, what about income? Does biliteracy pay? At least for the women? Unlike Agirdag (2013), whose research answered this question in the affirmative for participants from a variety of language backgrounds, Lee and Hatteberg (2015) found no relationship between bilingualism, including biliteracy, in English and Spanish, and income.

While surprising at first blush, this finding is really not unexpected. We know that “men have higher incomes than women despite having lower average levels of educational attainment and that the attributes that benefit women in school do not necessarily translate into labor market rewards” (Lee and Hatteberg 2015, p. 19). We also know that middle-class feminized work in education, health care or retail may be relatively prestigious but poorly remunerated compared to equally prestigious jobs in male-dominated industries.

Hispanics’ high-level bilingual proficiency in English and Spanish in the USA may well go the way of nursing and teaching: once it becomes feminized, it may well become ‘respectable’ and ‘prestigious’ but it will also become devalued economically. Agirdag, O. (2013). The long-term effects of bilingualism on children of immigration: student bilingualism and future earnings. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 17(4), 449-464. doi: 10.1080/13670050.2013.816264
Cameron, D. (2000). Good to talk? Living and working in a communication culture. London: Sage.

Lee, J., & Hatteberg, S. (2015). Bilingualism and Status Attainment among Latinos The Sociological Quarterly DOI: 10.1111/tsq.12097

Pavlenko, A., & Piller, I. (2001). New Directions in the Study of Multilingualism, Second Language Learning, and Gender. In A. Pavlenko, A. Blackledge, I. Piller, & M. Teutsch-Dwyer (Eds.), Multilingualism, Second Language Learning and Gender (pp. 17-52). Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Piller, I., & Pavlenko, A. (2007). Globalization, gender, and multilingualism. In H. Decke-Cornill & L. Volkmann (Eds.), Gender Studies and Foreign Language Teaching (pp. 15-30). Tübingen: Narr.

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

    Thank you for a very informative article. Frankly, I never thought that bilingualism could be gendered or a biliterate could be disadvantageous to his monolingual colleagues. In Vietnam (my home country), bilingualism is most likely to be a plus in a job interview.
    As far as I’m concerned, it is not fair when people hold prejudice against Hispanic male immigrants in the USA. Moreover, I wonder whether it is the case in Australia where there are many bilingual immigrants.

  • Thi Dung DOAN (Julie)

    I was impressed with the title of the article and I could not wait to read it. However, I went from being excited to get that girls in relevant studies achieved higher levels of bilingual proficiency than boys did, and then felt a bit ‘down’ as I learnt that such higher educational attainment did not go in parallel with the income the girls were expected to get. I was wondering why the benefits they received in schools could not be transferred to their workplaces, but then I quickly think of many similar situations I have heard of or read about. It is true that there would be some kinds of work that men will do better than women, but if they are responsible for equal workload and there is still unequal payment, it is not merely the issue in the field of education to think of.

  • Jay Mi Tan

    It is interesting to note that bilingualism is gendered, and that it favours women’s occupational prestige but not necessarily their income. Gender equality in workplaces have been debated numeral times, and it is quite interesting (sometimes hilarious) to know the thoughts of society. If all factors being equal (language proficiency, qualifications, working hours, etc) between both men and women, equality should be practised. Just because one is bilingual or have a higher qualification, does not necessarily equal superiority or higher renumeration. Thus, it is not surprising that the findings found [“no relationship between bilingualism, including biliteracy, in English and Spanish, and income”]. It is quite disheartening though, when statements are framed in a way such as, [We know that “men have higher incomes than women despite having lower average levels of educational attainment and that the attributes that benefit women in school do not necessarily translate into labor market rewards” (Lee and Hatteberg 2015, p. 19)]. It is statements like this, which encourage women to evolve from being submissive to being aggressive and vocal, in fighting for their rights for equality in workplaces. However, at the end of the day, I believe that if one fights for gender equality, it basically means everything needs to be equal (paid maternity/paternity leave, flexible work hours for both genders, no overtime because spending time with mom and dad are equally important, etc), which might not be business feasible.


    This article is a great insight which raises the issue of gender and bilingualism amongst Hispanic bilinguals in the USA. Although the sample was large, i don’t know how much it could be generalised to a whole population or to other migrant communities in different settings across the world. I believe that socioeconomic backgrounds immensely influence the success rates from high school onwards amongst bilingual students rather than gender. Also, I don’t know how far Latino-Australians boy would appear macho at a job interview if they were bilingual. One would think on the contrary.


    This is an impressed article about the variety of bilingual people and the effects on education and occupation. I was surprised at the result that biliterate girls tended to get higher occupational prestige than English-speaking women and biliterate men because I thought that bilingual people generally had benefits related to education and occupation. This article got me to try to find various differences or influence of the wide range of bilingual levels. Personally, considering my home country, Japan, the effect of areas where bilingual people take education and work, such as inner, outer, or expanding circle, seems to influence their success of education and occupation.

  • 44277660

    I have read through many articles on this web page but this article is, to me, the most fascinating one as it reveals a matter that I have never thought of which is bilingualism has a gender. As mentioned in the article, while bilingualism does wonders for girls in terms of education and occupational prestige, there is no relationship between bilingualism and income. This is such a sad finding as students perform well in school in order to later succeed in life and earn high income. Things are different in my home country (Vietnam). Since the importance of English is increasing significantly, bilingualism can ensure not only occupational prestige but also good remuneration.

  • Reem

    The advantages of bilingualism are established through studies that lead to better career prospects. Gender also seems to form one of the key factors playing a fundamental role into language literacy, which means that language learning and teaching has to incorporate the dynamics that keep specific approaches to gain literacy. Such studies and researches would inform theoretical assumptions that may be critical in instituting language learning structures that would be suited to learners of different genders. For instance, considering Saudi Arabia’s gender based education system, maybe theoretical underpinnings like this one would promote the efforts of advancing female language literacy and empowering women while making them have more career options in such community.

  • Long leg

    As many commentators above, it was a bit surprising that bilingualism has a relationship with genders. Personally, I think both genders can get equal chances when they are bilingual or biliterate. However, I still agree that females could attain higher proficiency of language than males do. And bilingual females, of course, could get more success in school than males as well. This isn’t because I’m a girl, but this is a fact I have encountered until now. The only sadness of this article is that after all learning efforts and success at school, females couldn’t get equal prestige jobs or remuneration as males in male-dominated industries.

  • Dhanisa Kamila

    I had never thought that bilingualism can be highly related to gender. It is quite surprising to me knowing that the reason of the USA’s Hispanic migrant girls and the boys difference in academic and career success, despite of their bilingualism, is because of the values in their society. In my home country Indonesia, most humanities and language studies’ students are girls. In my department in my bachelor degree, we only had 3 boys out of 35 students in total. Language and humanities are not really popular among boys. However, bilingualism in Indonesia is still an additional value whether you’re a girl or a boy. It’s a positive factor and many people including boys are giving positive outcomes in this matter.

  • S_A_

    This is a great article, Prof. Piller, thank you! I am actually a bit surprised as I did not really expect the outcome of the study. I would have never thought the difference between boys and girls in bilingual proficiency would be because of a social issue. I hope for the future that bilingualism and Spanish will be seen by both genders as valuable for their future lives and I hope that this change comes soon, as well as a change in the way bilingualism is regarded for men and women in terms of jobs.