Language and the Immigrant Wage Gap

2012-02-20_042110_language_iconI recently came across this article in MacLean’s: “New figures show just how big Canada’s immigrant wage gap is“. It was the sub-heading that caught my attention: “Even many second-generation immigrants earn much less than native-born workers. How speaking English impacts wages.”

After describing and discussing trends in the gap in wages between first and second generation immigrants to Canada and those who have been in Canada for several generations, the author talks about the role of English language proficiency and this wage gap. More specifically, the author focuses on whether English is spoken at home, and how this plays a role in the wage gap:

The latest census data says the native-first generation immigrant wage gap is 16 per cent at the national level. Once we examine whether immigrants speak English at home, things change — the wage difference is just 5.8 per cent. But for first-generation immigrants who don’t speak English at home, the gap jumps to 27.3 per cent.
For second-generation immigrants, there is barely any gap for those who speak English at home (0.7 per cent) but it’s still a significant gap for those who don’t speak English at home (a whopping 45.7 per cent).
This pattern also holds in the major metropolitan centres in the English-speaking parts of the country, which attract the most immigrants.

This article is written by an economist; he is just taking the statistical data that’s out there and analyzing it in different ways and seeing what interesting findings emerge. (It seems like there were no linguists, language teachers, people that work with immigrants, etc. involved in this article.) But I find the article dangerously close to leaving readers with the conclusion that all immigrants should abandon their L1 if it doesn’t happen to be English, and speak English at home, in order to close the wag gap.

Now, the author does acknowledge that there isn’t a causal relationship between speaking English at home and earning higher wages:

Though these patterns are striking, they should not be interpreted as causal – immigrants can’t necessarily start speaking English at home and expect to see their future earnings increase. There are unobserved qualities of individuals that may correlate both with the tendency to speak English at home as well as with labour market earnings potential. Without holding these fixed in some way, we can’t say whether there is a causal relationship between English skills and the gap in labour market outcomes.

I definitely agree; this is far from a causal relationship. First, neither the data nor the article define whether when they say an immigrant family “speaks English at home” are they referring to families who have immigrated from other countries where English is the dominant language and/or speak English as a first language? Or are they referring to immigrants who may have a different L1 but choose to raise their children in only English? It seems very obvious to me that if you’re talking about immigrants who may have English as an L1 and have come from the US, the UK, Australia, Ireland, etc. the there could be a host of socioeconomic and cultural advantages they would have over immigrants from other places that may give them a leg up in the job market. These are the “unobserved qualities of individuals” that the author mentions.

The author goes on to speculate.

But supposing that the findings here are suggestive of a causal relationship, why does speaking English at home matter so much?

One obvious answer is that individuals who speak English at home speak better English in general — and this would mean better communication at work. […] Or perhaps individuals of foreign descent that speak English at home tend to have other important skills on average.

But another possibility is the labour market discriminates against individuals with weaker English skills even when English is not important for productivity.

The author makes some important connections between English proficiency, the workplace and language-based discrimination in the workplace. His third point–that the labour market discriminates against “weaker English skills”, accents, non-standard Englishes and varieties of English that are different from the local variety even when it’s not an important for productivity–is a particularly important one. Anecdotally, I see this all the time in both my broader workplace, as well as around the city, in society in general, and even in pop culture.

Yes, the link between language skills and the workplace is real and important. But rather than leave folks with the idea that they should abandon their L1 when they arrive in Canada, why don’t we provide more funding and resources for different linguistic support and development mechanisms, so that people who want to continue to improve their English proficiency, and reap the benefits that may make on their wages, can do so if they wish? Also, initiatives to change attitudes in society in general, making people more understanding and accepting of linguistic diversity and bi- and multilingualism would also more helpfully contribute to closing the wage gap, I think.

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2 thoughts on “Language and the Immigrant Wage Gap

  1. Thanks for bringing this article to my attention and your insights, Jennifer. It’s an interesting topic for debate. The writer assumes that everyone in the family has equal English language proficiency and/or the desire or availability to speak English ( or speak at all) with each other. The Status of Women just published research on professional immigrant women in NS and their challenges with professional advancement in their profesion. Some of the women they interviewed have Advanced English, Business English and demonstrated evidence of strong Customer Service English. Food for thought.

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