Children of immigrants who can speak, read and write in both English and the language spoken at home have an advantage in the labor market, a new report released Tuesday finds.
The report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and the Educational Testing Service, a nonprofit testing organization, shows that individuals with immigrant backgrounds who only speak English and don’t retain the language spoken at home lose between $2,000 and $5,000 annually.
In contrast, those with immigrant backgrounds who know both English and the language spoken at home—also known as “balanced bilinguals”—are more likely to earn more money than those who only speak English. They are also more likely to graduate from high school, go on to college, enter higher status occupations and have more social networks.
“Being able to speak another language and being able to communicate with folks across cultural borders turns out to be very important in our modern world,” Patricia Gándara, the report’s author, said during a webinar Tuesday.
Gándara, who’s also a research professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, pointed out that Latinos who speak both Spanish and English go to four-year-year colleges at higher rates.
She called this “an extraordinary finding that we really need to pay attention to” given that Latinos are among those with low rates of college completion, and that many Latinos go to two-year colleges but don’t transfer to universities to continue their education.
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“The fact that these Spanish-speaking bilinguals, biliterates, go to four-year-colleges at higher rates has tremendously important policy implications,” Gándara said.
The report draws upon data sets and studies that follow children of immigrants into their late 20’s and early 30’s and who are entering the labor market.
It comes as schools across the country have policies in place that mandate English-only instruction for English language learners, which includes providing them a transitional bilingual education to help them along the way.
The fact that Spanish-speaking bilingual and biliterate children of immigrants go to four-year-colleges at higher rates that those who speak only one language has tremendously important policy implications, says the report's author, Patricia Gándara.
“We certainly have not been dedicating very much attention to helping them to maintain languages that they bring from home, and it turns out that that’s not where the payoff is,” Gándara said, referring to English language learners. “It’s true that it’s important to speak English, but maintaining immigrant languages gives them an extra leg up.”
Gándara said she decided to conduct the research because there was accumulating evidence that there were a lot of benefits to bilingualism. But she wanted to go a step further and see if there’s a labor market advantage to being bilingual in the U.S.
She initially found that economists had agreed over time that there is no income advantage for bilinguals in the U.S. labor market. Instead, they found that bilinguals earn less than those who only speak English in similar jobs.
For Gándara, this did not make any sense. She questioned why then were there so many parents wanting to enroll their children into dual-language or bilingual schools if there weren’t any advantages to being bilingual.
“We were not convinced that this was the case, particularly for these young people who are either holding on to their immigrant languages or trying to recover their heritage languages, so we set out to determine if this is really true,” Gándara said.
She poured through study after study, including some from outside the U.S., and concluded that being bilingual does result in increased earnings and better educational outcomes. She also concluded that the previous studies that found there’s no advantage for bilinguals based their findings on census data instead of literacy data.
Gabriela Uro, director for English language learner policy and research for the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington, D.C., said during Tuesday’s webinar that this research will be “very helpful” for educators and individuals who administer programs for English language learners.
“I think the importance for me about this research is going to be disseminating it to the educational leaders and actually having them process it and digest it and understand what it means,” Uro said.
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