Non-native speakers exposed to English before moving to America are more likely to use the language in their daily lives in the US, a study shows. Such early exposure - through newspapers, books, TV and classes as well as travelling - may help determine an immigrant's socio-economic mobility as English proficiency is strongly tied to cultural and social assimilation, said researchers from Princeton University.
"English-language ability is one of the most important determinants of socio-economic mobility in the US, with strong effects on employment, earnings and occupational status," said lead author professor Douglas Massey from Prinston's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. For immigrants relocating to the US, English usage is paramount to their cultural and social assimilation, he added.
Massey and his colleagues used data collected by the New Immigrant Survey, a nationally representative sample of non-native speakers who were granted legal permanent residency in the US between May and November 2003. Before immigrants can apply for US citizenships, they must be permanent US residents for at least five years. To determine the influence of early English exposure, the researchers analysed a set of pre-migration behaviours including trips to the US before moving, how often the respondents consumed English media like newspapers or TV and whether the respondents were educated using English. To measure social assimilation, the researchers evaluated the participants' responses to a series of questions in which they were asked to list the languages they use at work, with friends and at home.
Overall, they find that English proficiency is not rare - nearly 50 percent of respondents are proficient. "However, the odds of using English at work, with friends or at home in the US are nearly three times greater for those who speak it well or very well compared with those who do not," they suggested. Likewise, those who consumed English-language media abroad were about 30 percent more likely to use English at home once living in the US, and those who took courses in English abroad were around 10 percent more likely to speak English here. "In terms of policy, it is important to remember that there is not much policymakers can do to steer people into one language or another. People would speak whatever languages they see as useful in their daily lives," said Massey in the report published in the journal Social Science Research.