Healthier immigrants keep native tongue

RICE (US) — Immigrants who are proficient in both English and their native language are physically and mentally healthier than unilingual immigrants, new research shows.

“Our research suggests that English proficiency gained at the expense of native-language fluency may not be beneficial for overall health status,” says Ariela Schachter, an alumna of Rice University who is now a graduate student at Stanford University. “It’s very important for the immigrants to hold on to their native language in addition to learning English.”

Schachter is a co-author with Rice sociology professors Bridget Gorman and Rachel Tolbert Kimbro.on a paper published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.


The study examined associations between English and native-language proficiency and usage and self-rated health for more than 4,649 U.S. immigrants from China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.

The research shows that the favorable health reported by bilingual immigrants is not impacted by factors such as socioeconomic status, acculturation, family, and social support, stress and discrimination and health behaviors.

The researchers theorize that the health benefits may be the result of a kind of  “cultural flexibility” that allows them to easily integrate with their surroundings while maintaining cultural ties.

“Individuals who maintain native-language fluency while also learning English may be better equipped to retain relationships in their countries of origin and form new ones in the U.S.,” Gorman says. “We believe this can help explain the positive relationship between bilingualism and self-rated health.”

“There are still big questions about why bilingual immigrants are healthier than their unilingual counterparts,” Kimbro says. “We hope our findings will encourage further research of the subject.”

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