Monolingualism is bad for the economy

Losing their heritage language decreases the earning potential of 2nd-generation migrants

In most countries of immigration, linguistic diversity is by and large ignored by policy makers. If there are language-related policies, they take a deficit view of migrants and their children and focus on improving their English (or whatever the national language may be). Many people resent even the meagre efforts that states are making to help migrants and their children learn the dominant language, and ESL provision in schools is a ready target for funding cuts, as is currently the case in NSW. Going beyond ESL provision and investing into meaningful bilingual education that would enable migrant children to reach high levels of bilingual proficiency in both their heritage language and the dominant language are, by and large, unheard of. Usually, ensuring bilingual proficiency is the exclusive responsibility of parents and thus the usual vagaries of luck and privilege apply.

Bilingual provision in schools that would allow children to reach high levels of proficiency in two or more languages is widely seen as located in the “nice to have but expensive”-basket. In an environment where ESL provision is often considered expendable, bilingual provision may seem like utopian bells and whistles that we simply cannot afford. Linguists and educators have long pointed out the educational, cognitive and psycho-social benefits of bilingualism and have argued that achieving high-level proficiency in both the heritage language and the dominant language is good for the social fabric of a diverse society. However, such non-quantifiables without an immediate dollar-value usually cut no ice with hard-nosed budget planners and the proponents of bilingual education are mostly simply ignored as idealistic dreamers.

Well, it turns out the proponents of bilingual education have much more good economic sense than your average monolingual policy wonk.

A recent study by Orhan Agirdag published in the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism investigates the earnings of second generation migrants relative to their level of bilingual proficiency. Re-examining data from two large-scale longitudinal studies conducted between 1988 and 2003 in the USA, the author analysed the linguistic proficiency and earnings of 3,553 individuals. These individuals were either born to at least one migrant parent or came to the USA at a young age. In the early 2000s, they were in their mid-20s.

On the basis of participants’ self-reported proficiency data, the author identified three groups:

  • High-level bilinguals, who had high levels of proficiency, crucially including the ability to read and write, in both English and their heritage language
  • Low-level bilinguals, who had low levels of proficiency in both English and their heritage language
  • English-dominant, who had high levels of proficiency in English but low levels of proficiency in their heritage language (or no proficiency at all)

No one will be surprised to learn that the English-dominant accounted for more than half of the participants, as that is what the US school system (as most others) is designed to achieve. With a bit over 20%, the numbers of low-level bilinguals are also unsurprising: these are the young adults who would have needed special ESL provision in school but presumably didn’t get it; while unsurprising, it is disturbing to see that more than 20% of migrant kids can go through their entire schooling career in the US without achieving adequate proficiency in English. The percentage of high-level bilinguals in the sample is very similar to that of low-level bilinguals (ca. 22%). These are the lucky kids who either lived within the catchment area of a bilingual immersion program or whose parents put in the effort of teach them how to read and write the heritage language after school and on the weekends.

Now which of these three groups do you think earned the most? According to the logic of the education system, it should be the English-dominant kids who fare best in the labour market. Well, they don’t!

High-level bilingualism was robustly associated with higher earnings of around $3,000 per year and the effect held even if other variables that are known to influence earnings were controlled for (e.g., gender, parental socio-economic status, educational achievement). The effect also held across language groups, even if some languages were more valuable than others (e.g., Chinese-Americans were found to earn more than other migrant groups but within the group of Chinese-Americans those with high-level bilingual proficiency earned more than those who were English-dominant or those who had low-level bilingual proficiency). Interestingly, when other variables were controlled, there was no earnings difference between those who were English-dominant and those who were low-level bilinguals.

Higher earnings of $3,000 per year when everything else is kept constant are a sizable effect. Additionally, the actual financial advantage of high-level bilingualism is likely to be higher due to indirect effects which are obscured by keeping other variables constant such as the link between high-level bilingualism and educational achievement (i.e. high-level bilinguals are more likely to achieve high levels of education and thus they have a compounded earnings advantage).

We all know that imposing English monolingualism on migrant children is bad for them educationally, cognitively and socio-psychologically. Thanks to Agirdag’s research, we now also know that it is bad for them economically. Beyond the economic disadvantage suffered by individuals who have been forced into linguistic assimilation, their linguistic assimilation through the education system is bad for the economy and thus for everyone: decreasing the earning potential of second-generation migrants through linguistic assimilation will, inter alia, lower the tax base and increase the demand for social services. Conversely, those who earn more, spend more.

Bilingualism has these earnings benefits because high-level bilinguals can access two labour markets: the mainstream labour market and the ethnic labour market. My guess is that the labour market advantages of high-level bilingualism are likely to further increase in the future: as the global economy becomes ever more connected, multilingual proficiencies will become ever more central to labour mobility.

In sum, bilingual education is good for the economy. It’s high time our leaders did their sums and showed some good business sense! Orhan Agirdag (2013). The long-term effects of bilingualism on children of immigration: student bilingualism and future earnings International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism DOI: 10.1080/13670050.2013.816264

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
  • I would like to thank professor Piller for this blog post, which very accurately summarized the arguments made in the article. Those who does not have access to the full-text of the article, can visit my homepage under the section ‘publications’.

  • Bai

    Interesting article. To some extent it is true in Inner Mongolia, those high-level bilinguals have more job opportunities than low-level bilinguals. the highly balanced bilinguals usually work as translators in business between China and Mongolia. However, the Chinese-dominant ones still has more chances in job market in Inner Mongolia. During the last few days I was in Inner Mongolia and collected some data for pilot study. It is very unfortunate that the increasing number of teenagers, though they can speak fluently both Chinese and Mongolian, they have poor proficiency in writing in Chinese. The other thing I noticed is that more and more university graduates are preparing for civil service exam in Inner Mongolia, and the last section of the exam is to analyze and expound upon one current social or political problems using 1,500 to 2,000 words in Chinese. For most of young Mongolian graduates it is the most difficult part of the exam. How to write coherently, logically, convincingly in a tone of political analytical article is very challenging for those bilinguals. So my point is that very highly balanced bilinguals are few in my hometown and the current educational system or policy makers are not giving thoughts to this problems, it seems it is a world wide phenomenon now.

  • Alejandra Ting Yin Yu

    This is indeed a very encouraging article for educators and parents who believe in the success of bilingual education, rather than monolingual education (English only programs offered by some international schools). The demand for English education in Taiwan is huge, and our reality does reflect what the article says: If you are highly proficient in your mother tongue and English, your salary is bound to be many times over the salary of someone who can only speaks his national language. However, there are still many parents insisting on sending their children to predominantly monolingual schools where English is the language of instruction. Their argument for doing so is that they believe that their children need to acquire native like proficiency of English to be able to compete in tomorrow’s work market, and that by speaking the mother tongue at home their children will not lose practice with it. I think this article points out clearly the outcomes that the parents might be seriously missing out.

  • Li Jia

    In doing my field work, most of the interviewees are Chinese Myanmars who are at least bilinguals, and some multilinguals. They all realize their linguistic advantages compared with their monolingual peers when asked about their future job-searching plans. To my knowledge, their bilingual/multilingual backgrounds make them more likely to dare to think, to try and to fulfill. What I’ve seen from those bilinguals in class and out of class is confidence, chances and aiming-high.

  • Alexandra Grey

    Thanks, Ingrid, for drawing attention to Orhan Agirdag’s interesting research. Do you know of any similar studies looking at the labour market value of bilinguals who are not themselves child migrants or a child of a migrant? That is, people who have acquired a second language in addition to the dominant language through formal schooling or other means? It would be interesting to consider the economics of government investment in language classes for children without a heritage language i.e. children from monolingual families.

    • Thanks, Alex! There’s a research topic for you! 🙂 I’m not aware of any comparable research in the Australian context.
      Francois Grin has a paper about the value of English in Switzerland, which might be relevant:
      Grin, F. (2001). “English as economic value: facts and fallacies.” World Englishes 20(1): 65-78.
      This paper offers an overview of the economic approach to the question of the ‘value’ of English. In the first section, I discuss the reasons why this question is attracting increasing attention, showing that it reflects an increase in the objective frequency of contact between speakers of different languages, as well as a concern for the role of English in those contacts. Section 2 presents five important analytical distinctions which help to structure the investigation: they address the direction of causality considered; the ‘regulated’ or ‘unregulated’ nature of the context being examined; the difference between market and non-market effects; the micro- as opposed to the macro-economic level; and the contrast between, on the one hand, the issue of (more or less efficient) allocation of resources between uses and, on the other hand, the issue of the (more or less equitable) distribution of resources among actors. Section 3 turns to the labour market value of English language skills in Switzerland, presenting first some methodological aspects and then providing some fundamental statistical results. Switzerland currently is the only country in which English is neither a majority nor an official language for which the data necessary for such estimations are available. These results indicate that, for Switzerland taken as a whole, English language skills can be associated with remarkably high and statistically robust wage premia which, in the models estimated here, range from 12% to 30%. Section 4 discusses the implications of these results with respect to long-term trends and policy orientations; the tentative prediction made is that the labour market value of English, relative to other skills, will erode in the long run, as a result of the dynamics of the labour market. This paper combines concepts from sociolinguistics on the one hand, and quantitative economics on the other hand. The presentation is kept non-technical throughout, in order to make it accessible to practitioners of both disciplines.

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