South-Western College Publishing - Economics  
¿Habla Español? English Only Not as Easy or Effective as it Sounds
Topic Economic Analysis
Subject Older immigrants have more difficulty learning English.
Key Words education, age, immigration, wages
Full Article

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Reference ID: A147319706

News Story Imagine how difficult it would be to be forced to learn and use exclusively Spanish overnight. New studies suggest that political proposals requiring immigrants to learn English may not be as easy as to enforce as they sound-for immigrants or for their children. Nor are the policies effective as tools to integrate non-English-speaking immigrants into U.S. society. New articles distinguish between immigrants from English-speaking and non-English-speaking home countries to help determine why wage differentials exist. Turning to educational theories of second language acquisition and adding a bit of economic analysis, researchers discover some interesting results. First, poor English skills lead to less education and lower wages, even for children of immigrants. This seems intuitive.

But it goes further than this. The studies indicate that even if an immigrant came from a non-English-speaking country, as long as that individual came during the period of easy second language acquisition (generally accepted to be before about age 12), they suffered no discernable difference between their wages and those immigrants from English-speaking countries. Apparently those individuals who come to the U.S. later in life find learning and using English to be much more difficult--and therefore many choose not to put forth the effort. That also makes intuitive sense, especially for those of us who now remember high school language classes that gave us nightmares.

The studies go even further. Those individuals who don't improve their English skills upon entry into the United States tend to pass their poor language skills along to their children, extending the cycle of economic disadvantage. The studies show a large wage distinction between workers from non-English-speaking countries with poor language skills, and those from non-English-speaking countries whose English has improved over time. Many economists insist that language instruction for immigrant children is vitally important for this very reason. It may be the only English instruction they will receive.

Questions
Discussion Questions:
1. Deciding whether to improve their English skills involves cost-benefit analysis for immigrants from non-English speaking countries. If you were forced to learn a foreign language as an adult, what costs and benefits would you consider in deciding how much training you would pursue?
2. Labor economists discuss the question of educational attainment, and the relationship between education and wages. Using the information in this article, why would an older individual consider going to college less important than someone coming directly out of high school?
3. The article summary ends with a statement about the need for immigrant children to receive public education in the U.S. Discuss this with your classmates. What are the costs/benefits of this policy initiative?
Multiple Choice/True False Questions:
1. True/False. According to the article, immigrants from non-English-speaking countries have no incentive to learn English.

2. True/False. According to the article, immigrants from non-English-speaking countries perform as well financially as immigrants from English-speaking countries as long as they enter the US before they are 12 years old.

3. Consider a 35 year old individual immigrating to the US from a non-English-speaking country. Which of the following is this individual most likely to do, according to the article?
  1. Become fluent in English
  2. Engage in work for relatively lower wages.
  3. Have children who will master English.
  4. A and C
Source Goolsbee, Austan. "Legislate Learning English? If Only it Were So Easy." The New York Times. June 22, 2006 http://www.nytimes.com.
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