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Distant Languages Mean Higher Hurdles for Immigrants
May 14, 2013 - By: - In: Language - 3 comments

The soundtrack of the American dream is English. Linguistic diversity is all good, but it doesn’t pay the rent for struggling immigrants. English fluency makes sense, as in dollars and cents. Assimilation adds up and language is the cultural key.

And the more remote the language, A new study suggests that assimilation is a matter of distance, driven to a large degree by whatever teeming shore they are coming from, or more precisely, the language spoken on that shore.

Economist Ingo E. Isphording took a look at immigration around the world and came to the not-so-surprising conclusion that immigrants are not as literate as native speakers.  Even less surprisingly, some immigrants are better at language acquisition than others. The interesting thing about it is that it doesn’t matter where an immigrant is from, or when he arrived, or even the immigrant’s natural abilities. The big difference is how different the immigrant’s native language is from the new language he must learn.

Cognates are a handy way to measure language distance.  In linguistics, cognates are words that have a common etymological origin (English apple and German apfel are cognate words).  Quantifying grammatical differences or different cultural patterns of expression is much more challenging.  The analysis seems to correspond pretty closely to a 1993 U.S. State Department research paper, “Expected Achievement in Speaking Proficiency” by Lucinda Hart-Gonzalez and Stephanie Lindemann.  It’s a well-tested benchmark for English speakers attempting to learn other languages, and I can’t find a link to the original after searching for seconds and seconds on Google.

Isphording examined nine immigrant countries, 70 emigrant countries and about 1,600 test scores. His language distance chart for English, French, German and Czech demonstrates that languages that are cognitively similar are also culturally similar, too.

Findings suggest that a Turk, for example, recently arriving in the Netherlands has about the same Dutch proficiency as a native with little or no primary schooling.  That’s rough. It can take up to 20 years of residency before that lag is eliminated. This difference occurs regardless of age, even for young kids, although adult learners have more catching up to do.

The “dumbing down” of expression that occurs in a second language is frustratingly familiar to all language students and a constant source of amusement or irritation to native speakers listening in. That’s fine for tourists, but it’s no laughing matter for immigrants whose future is at stake, and determined to a large degree by their fluency in a new language.

Literacy is the key to a good living. I’m reminded of this every time I go through the depressing process of hiring, since illiteracy isn’t just a problem for second-language speakers.  At least immigrants can’t take English for granted in the way natives can.

More details on this study can be found in Olga Khazan’s interesting story in The Atlantic here.



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