Bilingual immigrants are healthier, according to new Rice study

David Ruth
713-348-6327
david@rice.edu

Amy Hodges
713-348-6777
amy.hodges@rice.edu

HOUSTON – (March 15, 2012) – Bilingual immigrants are healthier than immigrants who speak only one language, according to new research from sociologists at Rice University.

The study, which appears in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, found that people with strong English and native language proficiencies report better physical and mental health than unilingual immigrants.

“Our research suggests that English proficiency gained at the expense of native-language fluency may not be beneficial for overall health status,” said Rice alumna and Stanford University graduate student Ariela Schachter, who co-authored the research paper with Rice sociology professors Bridget Gorman and Rachel Tolbert Kimbro. “It’s very important for the immigrants to hold on to their native language in addition to learning English.”

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 showed 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 said. “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 said. “We hope our findings will encourage further research of the subject.”

The research was funded by Rice University.

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Study: Language Proficiency and Health Status: Are Bilingual Immigrants Healthier?: http://hsb.sagepub.com/content/53/1/124.full.pdf

Rice University Department of Sociology: http://sociology.rice.edu

Bridget Gorman bio: http://sociology.rice.edu/Gorman

Rachel Kimbro bio: http://sociology.rice.edu/rkimbro

Ariela Schachter bio: http://bakerinstitute.org/personnel/students/arielaschachter

Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is known for its “unconventional wisdom.” With 3,708 undergraduates and 2,374 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice has been ranked No. 1 for best quality of life multiple times by the Princeton Review and No. 4 for “best value” among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. To read “What they’re saying about Rice,” go to www.rice.edu/nationalmedia/Rice.pdf.

About Amy Hodges

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.