Possessing strong English language skills is critically important to succeeding in the United States. Research has demonstrated decisively that regardless of where an immigrant lives, what level of schooling he or she attains, or how long they have lived in this country, no factor contributes more to their success than fluency in English.
The following findings illustrate why:
1. Immigrants to the United States can raise their earnings by well over 20 percent if their ability to speak English is raised from “not well” to “very well.” Further, other effects of building human capital through experience living in this country are blunted for those with poor English language skills.(1)
2. Improving English language skills contributes about 16 to 18 percent to the narrowing of the wage gap between male immigrants and natives, and about 6 to 10 percent for female immigrants.(2)
3. Language minority 18- to 24-year-olds who speak English very well were nearly three times more likely to have completed high school than those who do not (51 percent vs. 18 percent). They were also more likely to be enrolled in a postsecondary institution (28 percent vs. 37 percent).(3)
4. Language minority young adults are more likely to live with low-income families and work in traditionally lower paying occupations. Employment rates and income are significantly higher among language minority young adults who speak English very well.(4)
5. Foreign language enclaves within the United States may directly retard learning of English. However, evidence does not show that such enclaves alter the benefits from English language skills for those that have them. English fluency improved earnings even in non-English dominated workplaces. Second language skills other than English did not make a statistically significant contribution to higher wages, once all workers’ human capital characteristics are held constant.(5)
6. Immigrants who live in ethnic neighborhoods typically have less information about jobs offered by mainstream employers, which generally pay higher wages than other jobs in immigrant neighborhoods.(6)
7. For immigrants who have been living in the U.S. for 16-30 years, improving English-speaking ability increases wages by 33 percent. Compared to a person who speaks English poorly, a person who speaks English well earns 33 percent more and a person who speaks English very well earns 67 percent more.(7)
8. For immigrants arriving in New York City during the 1990s, low levels of English language fluency are associated with low median earnings. Foreign-born residents from countries where more than 60 percent of U.S. immigrants are fluent in English earn nearly twice as much as those from countries where fewer than 40 percent of immigrants are fluent English speakers ($28,500 vs. $14,800).(8)
9. A survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 2003, 791 Latino workers were fatally injured in workplaces nationwide. The rate of 4.5 percent fatalities per 100,000 workers for Latinos was 13 percent higher than the rate for all workers.(9)
10. A recent study of immigrant families in Los Angeles and New York City found that in both cities, about half of families headed by adults who spoke no English experienced food insecurity.(10)
1. Bellante, Don and Carl A. Kogut. “Language Ability, U.S. Labor Market Experience and the Earnings of Immigrants”. International Journal of Manpower. Vol. 19 No. 5. pp. 319-330.
2. Carliner, Geoffrey. “The Wages and Language Skills of U.S. Immigrants”. Institute for International Economics. p. 19. 1996.
3. Klein, Steven, et. al. Language Minorities and their Educational and Labor Market Indicators – Recent Trends. National Center for Educational Statistics. June, 2004.
5. Fry, Richard and B. Lindsay Lowell. “The Value of Bilingualism in the U.S. Labor Market.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review. Vol. 57, No. 1. 2003.
6. Martinez, Tia Elena and Ted Wang. Supporting English Language Acquisition.. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. p. 16.
7. Bleakley, Hoyt and Aimee Chin. Language Skills and Earnings: Evidence from Childhood Immigrants. August 15, 2003.
8. Rosen, Rae, Susan Wieler and Joseph Pereira. New York Immigrants: The 1990s Wave. Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Vol. 11, No. 6. June, 2005.
9. William Petroski. “Language Troubles Can Be Deadly.” The Asbury Park (NJ) Press. June 26, 2006.
10. Gonzalez, Libertad. Nonparametric Bounds on the Returns to Language Skills. IZA Discussion Paper No. 1098. March, 2004.
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