Whether immigrants to the United States are motivated to learn English depends on a variety of conditions, such as where they will live, how educated they are and whether they need to know the language for their job, a Purdue University study finds.

Their ethnic background, gender and even whether they are married also can influence whether they learn English, said Brigitte Waldorf, Purdue agricultural economist and the study's lead researcher.

"The likelihood of speaking English well among the immigrant community is very much dependent on who the immigrants are," Waldorf said.

The study, "The Role of Human Capital in Language Acquisition Among Immigrants in U.S. Metropolitan Areas," analyzed 2000 U.S. Census data. Waldorf and her research team looked at Census questionnaires completed by 31,767 people ages 18 and older who were born in either Mexico or China, not attending school and living in Boston, Chicago, Dallas or San Francisco. Mexicans and Chinese comprise two of the largest immigrant groups, with the four U.S. cities representing traditional entry points.

Just over half of the immigrants studied were proficient in English.

Data suggested immigrants living in metropolitan U.S. cities with large immigrant communities were, on average, less likely to have learned English than immigrants settling in cities with smaller or no immigrant communities, Waldorf said.

A Chinese immigrant living in San Francisco's Chinatown or a Mexican immigrant residing in the large Hispanic areas of Chicago or Dallas could function within those ethnic communities and never have to develop English skills, Waldorf said.

"If a person from China thinks about immigrating to the United States, they are more likely to settle in San Francisco where chances are high they already know somebody and can rely on the ethnic network," she said. "In a city like Boston where you don't have a big Mexican community, it becomes difficult for those immigrants to earn a living or have social interaction without learning English."

Education also plays an important role in immigrant English proficiency. The Purdue study indicated that about 40 percent of Chinese and Mexican immigrants with a high school diploma were proficient in English, compared with about 23 percent of those with less education. About 70 percent of immigrants with college degrees were fluent in English. Census data did not indicate where immigrants earned their diploma or degree.

Consequently, immigrants in professional occupations where higher education is required were far more likely to speak English than immigrants in blue-collar occupations, the study indicated.

Among the study's other findings:

  • English proficiency was more common among Mexican than Chinese immigrants; among males than females; among younger than older; and among unmarried than married.
  • The higher an immigrant's income, the more likely they are to know English.
  • Naturalized immigrants are almost twice as likely to know English as those who are not.
  • Immigrants with at least one other English-proficient member in their household are themselves more often fluent in English than those in households with no other English speaker.

The study provides much food for thought as legislators consider changes to U.S. immigration laws, Waldorf said.

"What are we, as a society, willing to push in terms of policies for language acquisition courses and English classes in schools?" she said.

"We also have the ability to select whom we let into this country. Some other countries do it differently than we do. They put much more emphasis on knowledge workers, where they select an immigrant on the basis of educational attainment and skills, including language skills. The Canadians, for example, have adopted such a strategy.

"In the end, our research makes a strong case for learning the language of a host country, and that it is absolutely essential for assimilation and integration into society and economic functioning."

The Purdue study appeared in the June 2010 issue of Regional Science Policy & Practice and can be read online at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1757-7802.2010.01019.x/full

The research team included Julia Beckhusen, Purdue agricultural economics doctoral student; Raymond Florax, Purdue agricultural economist; and Thomas de Graaff, economist at the Free University Amsterdam.