Bilingual Immigrants Healthier Than Monoglot Stay-at-Homes

by Translation Guy on March 23, 2012

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

Says so right there on the Statue of Liberty. Nice mission statement, sure, but as a manager, I really have to question it as a recruitment strategy. Not that I have anything against huddled masses on teeming shores. In fact, some of my best friends are wretched refuse.

My problem is with the implementation, which by any measure has been a complete failure. We are not getting the wretched refuse we are looking for. Healthwise, the immigrants that arrive in the US are head and shoulders better off than the masses huddling right here in the homeland.

Scientists even have a name for it, “The Healthy Immigrant Effect,” but the actual cause remains a puzzle. Immigrant health screening, self-selection by health and wealth, or just plain boot-strap grit have all been considered as possible causes.

Even more curiously, the effect is temporary, lasting on average about 10 years. This happens not just for US immigrants, but for other immigrants to other high-income countries too, even Canada, eh. So it’s not just the American Disease.

“Since the 1990s, a growing body of data has suggested that most newcomers arrive in Canada healthier than the native-born population, only to have that advantage erode over time.

“New immigrants tend to live longer than the Canadian-born population, but within a decade of resettlement, their mortality rates creep up, as do their rates of chronic disease,” reports Louisa Taylor in the Vancouver Sun.

Stranger still, bilingual immigrants are even healthier than healthy monoglot migrants.

It makes sense that knowledge of English would provide a health advantage in navigating a strange healthcare system, but heritage language proficiency is just as important, say Rice University researchers. Bilingualism is the key.

“Our research suggests that English proficiency gained at the expense of native-language fluency may not be beneficial for overall health status,” said Rice alumna and Stanford University graduate student Ariela Schachter, who co-authored the research paper with Rice sociology professors Bridget Gorman and Rachel Tolbert Kimbro. “It’s very important for the immigrants to hold on to their native language in addition to learning English.”

The study also showed that socioeconomic status, the degree of acculturation. Family and friends, stress, discrimination and health behaviors have no measurable impact on immigrant health either. The researchers think that the health benefits that correlate with bilingual ability, might demonstrate a kind of “cultural flexibility” that makes for better reported health outcomes.

But after some 4600 interviews, researchers remain mystified. “Clearly, our language measures are tapping into something important which we are not measuring in this study.”

What could it be?  Low-cal Doritos? Maple-syrup free diet?  I know there are a lot of bilingual immigrants reading this blog. Tell us your secret.


  1. The study kind of leans toward environment over heredity. I thought health and longevity were tied to genetics, but if many are going down hill after 10 years in the new country, then the problem must be in the new country. But then how does the bilingual part affect this?

  2. Eventually, everyone finds the local Tim Horton’s in Canada.

  3. Nina Lawson says:

    It could be Canada’s free health care system that allows the immigrants more freedom to live a more hazardous lifestyle knowing that they don’t pay insurance or medical bills. I know that in the US many people try to stay healthy to try and keep the health care costs down.

    • Ken says:

      Everybody’s always looking for an angle, right? Even in Canada, eh?

  4. janne rieger says:

    Oh, my…I just immigrated to Canada. I’m moving back to the States. Crap, that place is just as bad. Where can I go?

    • Ken says:

      You’re running out of NAFTA partners, Janne

    • Ken says:

      Give it 10 years, Janne, then you’ll have 20 years of good health.

  5. Maybe by being bilingual it creates less stress for the immigrants and therefore have less stress-related illnesses.

  6. I think it’s the advent of a sedentary life for most. Many immigrants were once hard workers (physical-wise) and their bodies were just conditioned better. Once they get to the new place they have more comfort and crappy food.

  7. This doesn’t make sense. I would think that one would be healthier for the long haul in a new country such as Canada or the U.S.. There is a lot of preventative health measures, better food available, good doctors, etc.

    • Ken says:

      The relationship between health and healthcare is murky.

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