The language that you speak at age ten can help determine the course of your life: that’s according to a recent study into immigrant populations in the USA. Children that relocated to the US from non-English backgrounds before age 10 follow very different career paths from those that migrate there after that age. In most cases, older immigrants tend to pursue STEM-type careers – the kind that isn’t so communication-dependent.
Younger immigrants make later career choices that reflect those of the native population. Early migration has the effect of leaving your career options open to a much greater extent compared to migrating after this age.
It seems that ten years old is a significant turning point when it comes to language ability, and hence life choices. Prior to that age, children have perhaps greater flexibility to pick up English on arrival in their new home.
Learning English is less of a challenge, meaning communication is less of a battle and they can more easily acquire information in that language. For older kids, the language struggle is more significant and so they choose to focus on maths and logic, or perhaps on physical skills, which are less demanding of their language skill precision.
So it seems that their language mastery at aged 10 impacts on their future career path. Older children seem to draw more on skills that don’t emphasise communication or ones that perhaps enable them to use the skills and abilities they brought with them from their country of origin. For younger children, they also have a bit longer to acclimatise linguistically before they are required to make decisions about their career path.
The effect of language closeness
‘Linguistic proximity’, the measure of how similar two languages are, is also a consideration. Some language pairs are more fundamentally different to one another than others, and immigrant populations from backgrounds more linguistically different from the language of their new home may face more severe challenges of integration.
The similarity between an immigrant’s mother tongue and the language spoken in the country they move to can radically impact on their fate in the new destination.
In the 2017 study into immigrant children, language proximity was also a factor impacting on their choice of subject at university level. Language distance and age at arrival was found to have a very strong impact on the choices they later made about what to study.
The authors of the study, published in Demography, argued that this was because the children had performed cost/benefit analysis of their own and found it better to invest their effort into developing their comparative advantage in skills such as logic or maths.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that they might be turned off subjects where their communication level puts them at a disadvantage in the classroom.
Other research indicates, perhaps unsurprisingly, that immigrants who come from languages that are most linguistically dissimilar have the worst literacy scores in their new host countries.
The 2013 study looking at immigrants from 70 countries into 9 destination countries found that adult immigrants were at the biggest disadvantage, although their literacy scores did improve with time spent in the destination country.
Research from 2012 also suggests that migrants are more likely to be successful in their new country if their mother tongue is linguistically closer to the destination language. That seems to be true at any age.
So for example, migrants between German-speaking and English-speaking markets, two languages that are relatively close, are more likely to succeed professionally than a migrant moving between a Spanish-speaking and Mandarin-speaking one because the latter two languages are so different.
What’s interesting is that this effect seems to be less impactful when immigrants move to English speaking countries. Language proximity seems to be important to a migrant’s rate of success in the labour market but this link is less pronounced when their country of destination is English-speaking.
Pre-migration exposure to the language may be a key factor here. English is one of the most widely taught and learnt language in many places around the world, so migrants may already have some language ability on arrival in an English-speaking country. This may lessen the language barriers on arrival and help them integrate and thrive in the new country.
Why this matters
With falling birthrates likely to impact on future worker availability, and skills shortages in many markets, how immigration is handled is going to remain an important topic for years to come.
Although studies suggest that language proximity is an important factor in determining successful integration of migrants, some of the most highly skilled migrants come from language backgrounds that are not closely related to their host country.
For example, English-speaking countries are often dependent on skilled immigrants from Asia in areas such as healthcare, engineering and technology. Asian languages are often very different from English, suggesting the language distance effect could be considerable with these migrants.
One solution is to focus on offering language support to migrants with key skills. Many businesses already recognising that supporting their key workers can make a big difference to successfully integrating them into the organisation.
At national level, it’s harder and more controversial. Immigration is a sensitive topic in many parts of the world, which means the skill shortage problem isn’t being effectively tackled via supported migration.
It’s clear that our ability to communicate impacts massively on the direction of our lives. Language confidence at critical phases in a person’s lifespan is clearly highly influential on the decisions they make about their future.
Even for adults, language ability is highly important to making a success of their lives. As a society, we may benefit from greater awareness of the importance of bridging language divides if we’re to ensure we get the best value out of every member of our society.