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Language Distance: The Reason Immigrants Have Trouble Assimilating

How different an immigrant's native tongue sounds from that of his new home influences literacy -- and job prospects.
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An immigrant to Russia sits during a Russian language test in the southern city of Stavropol on February 21, 2011. (Eduard Korniyenko/Reuters)

Germany can't seem to attract enough high-skilled immigrants, and the government thinks it has something to do with how confusing the country can be for new arrivals.

A young man from India said the immigration office staff who greeted him, "should probably have some people who speak English -- at least for the newcomers."

So now, Germany is greeting Ausländers with, "a welcome bag, a smartphone app, and personal counseling."

They aren't the only country pushing improved integration for immigrants. In 2011, the Netherlands shifted away from its longstanding policy of allowing immigrants to lead parallel lives within society, and instead began vigorously urging immigrants to learn Dutch and abide by Dutch cultural mores. And the U.S. Senate's own bipartisan immigration proposal includes provisions for "learning English and the basics about America's history."

Immigration reform can be polarizing, but language assimilation is one thing people on all sides of the debate tend to agree on: How quickly immigrants learn to navigate their host countries plays a big role in how likely they are to thrive in their new homelands.

But it isn't always easy for newcomers to learn these new languages -- and an interesting recent paper from Ingo E. Isphording, an economist at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, sheds light on the reason why. Isphording found that immigrants do indeed lag behind native speakers in literacy scores -- but it has less to do with the immigrant herself, where she's from, or where she's arrived, and more to do with the so-called "linguistic distance" between the country of origin and the final destination. In cases where immigrant communities aren't performing well economically, it could be partly because they're coming from countries where the language sounds too different and is thus harder to transition out of.

First, Isphording used a metric that found the number of cognates, or words in different languages that sound similar and mean the same thing, as well as the number of sounds that need to be changed between two words that have the same meaning (say, Tu and You) in two different languages. The more different the words, the greater the linguistic distance between the tongues.

He includes a fascinating chart of the different language distances. The findings might seem obvious to English-only speakers who have ever watched a German-language movie and realized it only requires looking at the subtitles most of the time, but blinking too long during Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meant missing a crucial chunk of dialogue. (Basically, Germanic languages are closest to English, while various Asian, African, and Uralic ones aren't so much.):

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By examining nine host countries, 70 sending countries, and 1,559 test scores, he then found that immigrants who come from languages that are most linguistically dissimilar have the worst literacy scores in their new host countries. A Turk in the Netherlands, the author posits, has about the same linguistic proficiency scores as a native who has little or no primary schooling. In this chart, "LD" stands for language distance:

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That lag lasts for years, but it does improve over time and can practically disappear after about 20 years or so. The disadvantage was there for both late-arriving immigrants, who moved after age 11, and for those who moved as small children, though adults faced a much steeper learning curve. (In our Turk in the Netherlands example, a child would lose 35 points on a literacy test as a recent arrival, but an adult would lose 79.):

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In terms of immigration policy, this is a big deal. Isphording points out that people with better reading and writing abilities are much likelier to both be employed and to find themselves in the top 20th percentile of all wage-earners:

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The awkward thing here is that there aren't that many linguistically-similar Danes or Swedes banging down the doors to U.S. visa offices. Most of our immigrants come from Mexico (though they've dwindled significantly in recent years), while most holders of high-skilled worker visas are from Asia. But it seems like if the U.S. wants those individuals to perform their best economically, it could offer some sort of welcome package of its own -- in the form of some generous language assistance.

"The results might be used to identify target groups for supportive policy measures (language classes, etc...)," Isphording told me in an email. "They aim at uncovering further sources of the persistent gap in economic success between immigrants and natives in many receiving countries."

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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