Immigrants, Language and Income
The culture of their country of origin immigrants carry with them may have consequences for the speed of their integration and for their ability to assimilate. In turn, immigrants may cause a variety of changes in American culture. Language is central to both types of cultural effects.
Current immigrants frequently have inferior earning capabilities because they are less educated on the average than are the native born. This is not the only disability they bring with them. Often, usually, their command of the English language is limited. This linguistic deficiency has consequences beyond the economic sphere. The continued poverty language incompetence fosters also retards their assimilation.
Many on the right declare themselves concerned with immigrants’ eroding influence on wages. Most of us are interested in the speed with which immigrants assimilate. Both phenomena depend to a large extent on immigrants’ competence in the English language. Linguistic competence influences the ease and speed of immigrants’ assimilation in the long run. In the short and middle run, it’s a direct determinant of income. Immigrants vary widely on a continuum of this crucial variable, from a superior command English, to no English at all.
The English language is special. Much of the world has English as a first language or as normal language of instruction in schools. A second tier includes English as a second language in its schools or, more often, in some of its schools. English is the first second language in the world. Middle class people everywhere learn English. In many countries though most people have no systematic interaction with the English language. The disadvantages of not knowing the common language of the country where one lives are so great that it’s a sort of miracle that so many even try to ignore those by moving to the US equipped with no knowledge of English. It makes sense then mentally to divide immigrants into the US in two broad categories according to their mastery of English as they land.
Silicon Valley is teeming with prosperous Indians, many of whom are actual immigrants. (There is a kind of optical illusions at work here though: Many Indians are on temporary, H-1B and F-1 visas. Indian immigrants who are not successful just go home, soon to be replaced by others. They leave little trace.) The Indian real immigrants can themselves be subdivided in two economic classes. Some spread all over the US where they utilize family connections to manage hotels and retail businesses. The Indians in Silicon Valley belong largely to another breed. Almost all are graduates from two dozen elite Indian engineering and management schools of higher learning. They are solidly middle class by upbringing although many arrive poor because of the steep income gradient between India and the US. My Indian wife – who knows I know not how, but who does know – assures me that all, or nearly all of the latter, belong to the lofty Brahman caste. (This is a case where class and caste correspond, far from a universal given.) They are people who could aspire to a good job back home in India where, however, their economic futures and their horizons would remain limited because India keeps being India. They all seem to arrive, amazingly, with a strong work ethic and with excellent work habits.
I think I taught between 200 and 300 Indian immigrants in my MBA career. Not one contradicted this generalization. Of course, this is not a generalization about Indians, but about the self-selected subgroup of Indians that shows up in central and northern California after having been admitted to and survived gruelingly selective schools back home. A couple who self-designated to me, their MBA instructor, as “lazy” would have been considered veritable Heroes of Labor in the old Soviet Union.
All the Indians from this second group are educated in English from an early age. They are used, via reading, movies and the internet, to American English (and to American culture) before they land. Outwardly, their adaptation is seamless. Digression: Except possibly that they may suffer a high rate of failed marriages. They engage in arranged marriages in India, bring their brides to America. Here, the young brides, utterly deprived of the usual Indian female support network and also, I am guessing, with a lesser mastery of English, become terribly unhappy. For this reason alone, I am guessing that Indian immigrants are less well-adjusted overall than are Mexicans who tend to bring everyone who matters with them. This is just a plausible redundant impression I gathered over 25 years. I have no figures in support.
These educated Indians obtain good jobs and they work diligently and intelligently. They are able to progress at work in good part because they express themselves with a clarity seldom achieved by other kinds of immigrants. (This, in spite of some peculiarities of Indian English: “You will go there, is it?”) They are thrifty at first, helped by the shock of finding out that a pound of lentils costs three times more in San Jose than in Kolkatta (personal research – an email to my sister-in-law there). So, they achieve a modest level of prosperity in a relatively short few years. The quick emergence of Indians in other walks of American life unconnected to high technology or to business, including medicine, the law and even journalism, testifies anew to those widespread virtues but all of this success would hardly be possible absent initial fluency in English.
Immigrants of many other different origins also make their way to Silicon Valley in response to the constant demand for high-tech specialists. The Chinese among them are numerous and conspicuous. I had them in my MBA classes for twenty-five years, right alongside the Indians. They gave me the impression of being about as excellently trained as the Indians. My intuition suggests that they were more entrepreneurial, on the whole, or maybe just more individualistic, but they nearly all struggled with English. (“Nearly;” one young Chinese woman had the cheek to correct my mistakes of syntax in class on several occasions.) If your native language does not use verb forms to distinguish between present and past, you can learn to say, “I did it,” instead of “I do it yesterday,” but it must be like a herd of potholes on the road you are traveling.
I suspect that many of the young Chinese immigrants I knew, star students back home, lived lives of frustration in the US because of the language barrier. The frustration runs deeper than a relative inability to get things done. (Though the latter counts too. I can mention it now because there is probably a statute of limitation: Forty-plus years ago, I wrote a Chinese student’s entire doctoral dissertation; it was very good both in content and in form. Also, the student cooked well.) If you express yourself at the level of a native-born ten-year-old, the unsophisticated foreign language virginal natives treat you like a fairly-gifted ten-year-old. This is pretty conjectural, of course. I would bet on it though! I have discussed this several times over steamed mussels with some favorite Chinese students with whom I had picked and prepared the shellfish; they had no reason to lie to me, not then, anyway.
It’s difficult to generalize about the few visually inconspicuous Europeans who also make it to Silicon Valley. Those who attended my classes were as competent in English as foreigners for whom it is a second language can be. I am guessing they were competent enough to be engineers. For some reason, Russians shone among them. Reminder: I am not indulging here in a devious comparative survey of different national educational systems. Immigration to America dips into different pools in different countries. Perhaps, smart Russians always go to America if they can while equally smart French engineers would rather stay home to continue their leisurely dégustation of blanquette de veau façon Normande.
It’s certain that mastery of English plays a big part in determining immigrants’ incomes as well as their economic contributions to American society. It’s also easy to miss the competence and the high character of those who don’t understand English well. And, as I have said, nothing sounds more like a ten-year-old than a bright foreigner whose English is struggling to reach the second grade level. With a low competence in English, even if it be only spoken English, the best jobs elude you although you would be capable of performing them, language notwithstanding. I believe that millions of immigrants are employed much below their maximum earning capacity solely because of their low linguistic competence. So, while the actual economic contribution of those immigrants is correctly assessed as low, their potential contribution is systematically underrated. This is a problem capable of solutions that are rarely discussed. A merit-based system would easily incorporate such solutions. So would a system of conditional admission linked to progress in English.
Anecdote: About twenty years ago, there was a tacit agreement among Anglo employers of casual Mexican labor that Mexicans were hard working and knew how to follow simple orders, but that was it. They were automatically treated as unskilled labor. Myself, with my good Spanish, I never had any trouble finding a tile layer, a carpenter, even an electrician among the day laborers gathering outside Home Depot every morning. The specialized workers I located were not slow to point out that the work I requested was skilled work and must be paid accordingly.
We must thus remember that linguistic disability must keep the wages of non-English speaking immigrants lower than they would otherwise be at a given level of occupational competence and personal ability. Language incompetence must thus also contribute to lower prices although at some cost to productivity. (Yes, here is the paradox: Each produces little but there are many of them. In the end, we pay less than if they were not here.) The situation of Mexican immigrant entrepreneurs, specifically, tests this idea. Entrepreneurs need to possess at least a fair command of English, if nothing else, to round up customers. The language disability is thus removed or lessened in their case, allowing for a more straight comparison of income with Anglos. It seems to me that immigrant contractors do not bid especially low, or not much lower than their Anglo counterparts. At least, when you ask for bids on a previously described job, you couldn’t guess by bid amounts who is a Hispanic immigrant. It may also be thought that such immigrants provide a better quality/cost ratio. I don’t know if this intuitive idea, based largely on my private experience, has been examined rigorously anywhere. It’s backed by the likelihood that the self-selected immigrant group possesses some traits of character superior to those found among natural groups, including among members of the host population. I develop this idea in “Why Immigrants are Superior” (referenced elsewhere).
[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 7]