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Bilingual Immigrants Healthier Than Monoglot Stay-at-Homes
March 23, 2012 - By: - In: In the News / Awards - Comments Off on Bilingual Immigrants Healthier Than Monoglot Stay-at-Homes

“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.

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