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Bilingual Immigrants Report Better Health Than Speakers of One Language

By David Pittman, Contributing Writer
Health Behavior News Service

WASHINGTON, DC, February 29, 2012 — 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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About the American Sociological Association and the Journal of Health and Social Behavior
The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society. The Journal of Health and Social Behavior is a quarterly, peer-reviewed journal of the ASA.

The research article described above is available by request for members of the media. For a copy of the full study, contact Daniel Fowler, ASA’s Media Relations and Public Affairs Officer, at (202) 527-7885 or pubinfo@asanet.org.

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


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