Executive Expats: How early English exposure influences non-native speakers

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Non-native speakers exposed to English before moving to America are more likely to use the language in their daily lives in the United States, according to a report led by Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Such early exposure – through newspapers, books, TV and classes as well as traveling – may help determine an immigrant’s socioeconomic mobility, as English proficiency is strongly tied to cultural and social assimilation. The report, featured in the journal Social Science Research, is one of the first to examine English proficiency among immigrants before moving to the United States.

“English-language ability is one of the most important determinants of socioeconomic mobility in the United States, with strong effects on employment, earnings and occupational status,” said lead author Douglas Massey, the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “For immigrants relocating to the United States, English usage is paramount to their cultural and social assimilation.”

Massey and his collaborators – Ilana Redstone Akresh from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Reanne Frank from The Ohio State University – used data collected by the New Immigrant Survey, a nationally representative sample of non-native speakers who were granted legal permanent residency in the United States between May and November 2003. Before immigrants can apply for U.S. citizenships, they must be permanent U.S. residents for at least five years.

To determine the influence of early English exposure, the researchers analyzed a set of pre-migration behaviors including trips to the U.S. before moving, how often the respondents consumed English media like newspapers or TV and whether the respondents were educated using English. To measure social assimilation, the researchers evaluated the participants’ responses to a series of questions in which they were asked to list the languages they use at work, with friends and at home.

Massey and his collaborators ran a series of mathematical regressions to see whether any patterns or relationships emerged. Overall, they find that English proficiency is not rare – nearly 50 percent of respondents are proficient. However, the odds of using English at work, with friends or at home in the United States are nearly three times greater for those who speak it well or very well compared with those who do not. Likewise, those who consumed English-language media abroad were about 30 percent more likely to us English at home once living in the United States, and those who took courses in English abroad were around 10 percent more likely to speak English here.

Still, Massey and his colleagues stress that English proficiency does not necessarily translate into social, economic or cultural integration or assimilation. They find that language assimilation is partially contingent on occupational achievements, and the use of English socially is very much predicted by the status and duration of one’s current job in the United States.

“Because of globalization, even if one is proficient in English, that doesn’t mean that he or she necessarily uses it for integration into American social networks and institutions or for cultural compensation,” Massey said. “It is entirely possible to work in a foreign-language environment, interact with same-language foreigners and consume foreign-language media while making sparing use of English.”

Overall, the researchers argue that by studying English proficiency after an immigrant settles in the United States, social scientists are missing the bigger picture.

“We live in a globalized world in which non-native speakers are increasingly exposed to English at home, school and through prior visits to English-speaking countries, so language assimilation does not begin with the moment of arrival for permanent U.S. residence,” Massey said. “Scholars need to take prior English experience into account with regards to their thinking and modeling.”

“In terms of policy, it’s important to remember that there is not much policy makers can do to steer people into one language or another. People will speak whatever languages they see as useful in their daily lives,” said Massey. “In the end, the vast majority of immigrants learn English – at least at some level – and virtually all of their children who group up in the United States become English dominant.”

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The paper, “Beyond English proficiency: Rethinking immigrant integration,” first appeared online Jan. 27 in the journal Social Science Research. The story will also appear in print in the May 2014 issue.

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2 thoughts on “Executive Expats: How early English exposure influences non-native speakers

  1. Reblogged this on Executive Leadership Systems and commented:
    This is an excellent article. I would like to offer a different perspective on the issue of Expatriates and English Language speaking skills. For almost eight years, I have worked in the international sector of healthcare as a contract CEO. I have worked for hospital companies (like Global Hospital and Apollo Hospitals out of India, even in countries like Bangladesh and Mauritius). In the early stages of my experience internationally, I believed the statements that I would be in a business environment where English was used. As my experience grew, I came to appreciate three things. One, English would always be “the second language”. Two, most work would get done in the “local” language. Three (and most important), language greatly influences understanding and culture. I can recall so many instances where indigenous persons who were ostensibly fluent English-speakers simply did not appreciate the nuance of conversation. I can always tell the difference between, for example, an Indian who learned English in an English speaking environment – even if it was in an immersion school – and someone who learned English in a State school where use of the local language was mandate. Those persons did not reflect the inherent “culture” of the language. These English as a second language speakers always struggled in the workplace where English was the Lingua Franca. Those locals who excelled in the workplace where always those who had learned English in a cultural context of some kind. This is not a valuative comment. Rather it reflects a practical issue for an Expatriate who will use English in the workplace, whether they are moving into or out of an environment where English is the primary language. I advise companies, regardless of location, who have English as the Lingua Franca and have a population of English as a second language employees to provide an ongoing education and training service (which I do not offer) to those employees which focuses on the implicit “culture” of the language. I believe it is true that language is culture and culture is language. To effectively use English (or any other language) as the Lingua Franca, one must understand the culture inherent to its structure, syntax, colloquialism, inference, inflection, and maybe a lot of other things I am not competent to speak of. Thanks,
    Dr. Ed

  2. This is an excellent article. I would like to offer a different perspective on the issue of Expatriates and English Language speaking skills. For almost eight years, I have worked in the international sector of healthcare as a contract CEO. I have worked for hospital companies (like Global Hospital and Apollo Hospitals out of India, even in countries like Bangladesh and Mauritius). In the early stages of my experience internationally, I believed the statements that I would be in a business environment where English was used. As my experience grew, I came to appreciate three things. One, English would always be “the second language”. Two, most work would get done in the “local” language. Three (and most important), language great influences understanding and culture. I can recall so many instances where indigenous persons who were ostensibly fluent English-speakers simply did not appreciate the nuance of conversation. I can always tell the difference between, for example, an Indian who learned English in an English speaking environment – even if it was in an immersion school – and someone who learned English in a State school where use of the local language was mandate. Those persons did not reflect the inherent “culture” of the language. These English as a second language speakers always struggled in the workplace where English was the Lingua Franca. Those locals who excelled in the workplace where always those who had learned English in a cultural context of some kind. This is not a valuative comment. Rather it reflects a practical issue for an Expatriate who will use english in the workplace, whether they are moving into or out of an environment where English is the primary language. I advise companies, regardless of location, who have English as the Lingua Franca and have a population of English as a second language employees to provide an ongoing education and training service (which I do not offer) to those employees which focuses on the implicit “culture” of the language. I believe it is true that language is culture and culture is language. To effectively use English (or any other language) as the Lingua Franca, one must understand the culture inherent to its structure, syntax, colloquialism, inference, inflection, and maybe a lot of other things I am not competent to speak of. Thanks,
    Dr. Ed

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