Are Bilingual Immigrants Healthier?

A new study by Ariela SchachterRachel Tolbert Kimbro, and Bridget K. Gorman found that strong English skills and native language skills are associated with better health for immigrants. Using language as an indicator of adaptiveness to a new country, the researchers set out to investigate the “healthy immigrant effect”:

The “healthy immigrant effect”—whereby immigrants initially appear healthier than the native-born, although with time in the U.S. their health status declines—continues to puzzle scholars. Acculturation, or the process by which immigrants adapt to a host country, is a primary explanation of this phenomenon.

Although they found that bilingualism is related to better self-reported health, they are still baffled as to why:

Our most striking finding is that none of the mechanisms which have been hypothesized to be responsible for the effects of language on health—acculturation, familial and social support, stress and discrimination, and health behaviors—had any significant mediating effects in our models … Clearly, our language measures are tapping into something important which we are not measuring in this study.

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COMMENTS: 10


  1. Quinton says:

    Do they control for education?

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  2. Elisabeth says:

    The last place to find assimilation is in the refrigerator.

    It takes a while for immigrants or their children to give up the diet of home-cooked meats, vegetables, and other natural foods and begin eating the processed foods that dominate modern American diets.

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  3. Ike says:

    Could it be that diets and typical environments where immigrants end up are not friendly? Over time, this adds up to a worse off health-snapshot than when they entered the US? Even as i ask this, its hard for me to believe, since I always hear places like S. America are lax on regulations, more pollutants, etc. Also, to the authors, as always ‘correlation does not prove causation’… there is more goong on here than health stemming from the virtue of bilingualism.

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  4. Joel Upchurch says:

    This hardly seems mysterious to me. Immigrants with fluent English skills are going to have a huge advantage in competing for jobs. If they also retain their native language, and if their language is important in international trade, this gives them an edge in jobs that require Bilingual skills. Better income = better health. I had a friend that moved back to Japan after living in the US for ten years and she almost immediately got a job based on her English skills. You also need to check how many of the Bilingual immigrants were actually relocated here by their company and they already had jobs with health insurance when they got here.

    I glanced at the study. Why is Puerto Rico included? They are American Nationals not immigrants.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      It seems to me that people who immigrate and learn English well are fundamentally different from (smarter than) people who immigrate and don’t (or can’t) learn English well.

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  5. Brian says:

    The surveys were all self reported so there were no real objective measurements of health. Different interpretations of language on describing their own health could explain the differences.

    I met my wife in a foreign country and when she arrived, the one thing I had to teach her was that describing something as ‘okay’ can be insulting. To her okay means something is good, but to most Americans, it means adequate but unremarkable. She also thinks Americans exaggerate more like using the word ‘awesome’ all the time when it clearly isn’t warranted.

    I don’t know if that can explain the results of the study or not, but it is something to consider.

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  6. Caleb b says:

    Somewhat related: I used busboy in HS/college in a restaurant where every dishwasher and half the other busboys were illegal Mexicans. One day Miguel said to me, “Señor Calos, you will be very rich some day.” I asked, “why do you say that?” He replied, “Because you speak English very well.”

    I’ve never forgotten that moment. I like to think that Miguel MEANT that he saw that I was the hardest worker, and one day that would pay off. Or that he recognized that I had ambition. But I can never escape the conclusion that he really meant what he said.

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    • Bert says:

      He most likely meant that literally. I am 1st gen Chinese American and I get that a lot too. But I know that in their world their lack of communication skills is why they feel most held back. So someone who has that ability seems very fortunate to them. It’s the same mentality that makes people think that if they only had that college degree every other aspects of their financial life will just fall into place.

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  7. m.m. says:

    “none of the mechanisms which have been hypothesized to be responsible for the effects of language on health—acculturation, familial and social support, stress and discrimination, and health behaviors—had any significant mediating effects in our models”

    Did they control for income? If not, then what kind of study is this? That would seem to be the #1 factor re: health whether you’re an immigrant or not.

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  8. Steve Sailer says:

    Hardworking people tend to be healthier. Smart people tend to be healthier. Smart, hardworking people tend to be healthiest.

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