NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 23, 2006

Immigrants have a strong incentive to learn English: better English means a better job and a higher income.  Not speaking English largely means being trapped in a low-paying job with no obvious means of advancement, says Austan Goolsbee, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business..  Yet millions still do not know English.  Why not?

According to economists Hoyt Bleakley and Aimee Chin, the language skills of immigrant parents have a great effect on their children's ability to learn a new language:

  • It turns out that children whose immigrant parents came to the United States when young do just about the same in school regardless of whether the parents came from English-speaking or non-English-speaking countries.
  • But the situation is different for children whose parents were older when they arrived. The children from non-English-speaking households do much worse than English-speaking ones. They are less likely to go to preschool and much more likely to drop out of high school.

Based on his research, Bleakley sees some serious problems with the more extreme immigration proposals like the old Proposition 187 in California, which sought to deny a public education to the children of illegal immigrants.

"For many children of immigrants," says Bleakley, "the school system is one of the only exposures to English they will get."  Kicking them out of school when they are young means they will most likely never be fluent in English.

Source: Austan Goolsbee, "Legislate Learning English? If Only It Were So Easy," New York Times, June 22, 2006; based upon: Hoyt Bleakley and Aimee Chin, "Language Skills and Earnings: Evidence From Childhood Immigrants," Review of Economics and Statistics, August 15, 2003; and "What Holds Back the Second Generation? The Intergenerational Transmission of Language Human Capital Among Immigrants," Center for Immigration Studies, Working Paper 104, October 2004.

For RES study:


Browse more articles on Government Issues