Destination-Language Proficiency in Cross-National Perspective: A Study of Immigrant Groups in Nine Western Countries

Frank van Tubergen, Department of Economics, Utrecht University

Due to the growing share of immigrants in many Western societies, there has been increasing concern for the degree to which immigrants acquire the language that is spoken in the destination country. The reasons for this concern are clear: Language skills are a form of human capital that positively affect immigrant earnings and labor market opportunities and language fluency of immigrants is associated with better interethnic relations in a society.
Despite its importance, little is known about the determinants of immigrants’ language proficiency. Immigrants’ destination-language proficiency has been typically studied from a micro perspective in a single country. In this article, we examine the role of macro factors in a cross-national perspective. We argue that three groups of macro-level factors are important: the country immigrants settle in (“destination” effect), the sending nation (“origin” effect), and the combination between origin and destination (what we call a “setting” or “community” effect). We propose a design that simultaneously observes multiple origin groups (e.g. Chinese, Pakistani) in multiple destinations (e.g. Germany, the United States). We present substantive hypotheses about language proficiency and we use these to develop a series of macro-level indicators (e.g. group size, language distance). We collected and standardized 19 existing immigrant surveys for nine Western countries. Using multilevel techniques, our analyses show that origins, destinations, and settings play a significant role in immigrants’ language proficiency.

Date: 09 March 2006