Bilingual Immigrants Report Better Health Than Speakers of One Language

Release Date: February 29, 2012 | By David Pittman, Contributing Writer
Research Source: Journal of Health and Social Behavior

KEY POINTS

  • Asian and Latino immigrants who are proficient in and use both English and their native languages report better physical and mental health than those who speak one language.
  • The connection between bilingualism and improved health is only partially explained by family or social support, stress, discrimination, health behaviors or socioeconomic status.
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Healthy individuals who immigrate to the U.S. often see their health decline over time. A recent study from Stanford University suggests that immigrants who learn English while maintaining their native language might be protected against this puzzling phenomenon.

Ariela Schachter, a Ph.D. student in sociology, examined the correlation between English and native-language proficiency and Asian and Latino immigrants’ self-reported health status. The results, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, showed that people who are proficient at both English and their native language report better health than do speakers of just one language.

“There is a lot of debate about whether we should be encouraging or forcing people to just speak English,” Schachter said. “Sometimes I think that debate ignores the positive things that people can get from maintaining a strong ethnic culture and identity, and part of that identity is a native language.”

Schachter and her colleagues used data from the 2002-2003 National Latino and Asian American Study, which asked questions about language use and self-rated health in addition to asking about respondents’ everyday experiences. The researchers constructed mathematical models to try to explain the health effect of bilingualism.

Surprisingly, the study found that the positive effects of bilingualism could not be simply attributed to more family or social support or less stress or discrimination. Socio-economic status helped to explain only some of the effects of bilingualism on health status for Latinos, while family closeness and communication explained some of the effects for Asians.

“What we found out is we need to do more to find out what drives this,” Schachter said.

The explanation of why bilingualism translates to better health is still puzzling and unexplained, said Ellen Bialystok, Ph.D., a psychology professor at York University in Toronto. “It’s possible that education and socio-economic status are the true underlying cause of the immigrants’ better health and not their language status.”

“Is it simply that immigrants who are more successful in learning English are more successful in many things, and success offers better access to health care?” Bialystok asked.

TERMS OF USE: This story is protected by copyright. When reproducing any material, including interview excerpts, attribution to the Health Behavior News Service, part of the Center for Advancing Health, is required. While the information provided in this news story is from the latest peer-reviewed research, it is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment recommendations. For medical questions or concerns, please consult a health care provider.

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For More Information:

Reach the Health Behavior News Service, part of the Center for Advancing Health, at (202) 387-2829 or hbns-editor@cfah.org.

The Journal of Health and Social Behavior is a quarterly, peer-reviewed journal of the American Sociological Association. Contact Daniel Fowler, Media Relations and Public Affairs Officer, at (202) 527-7885 or fowler@asanet.org for a copy of the full study.

Schachter, A., et al. Language proficiency and health status: Are bilingual immigrants healthier? Journal of Health and Social Behavior. Online, 2012.

Tags for this article:
Minority Health and Health Disparities   Latino and Hispanic Health  



Comments on this article
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Marcianna Lane Rodríguez, Ph.D. says
March 4, 2012 at 8:19 PM

Bilingual education is an essential part of most prestigious international school curricula for many sound educational reasons. With more than 30 years of experience in international education in Latin America and the United States I am often bewildered by how stagnant and unimaginative doctoral level research on second language acquisition is in the United States. Is it really any wonder that immigrant youngsters and adults benefit from continued instruction in their native language while they learn English? They will only learn as much English as Spanish (or any other native language) they know. Why is there a "..a lot of debate about...forcing people to just speak English" it seems an incredibly incompetent practice steeped in an outdated paradigm of language learning and teaching.