English Language Skills and Socioeconomic Segregation of UK Immigrants

At the same time that United Kingdom was voting the “Brexit” referendum, the potential withdrawal of the UK from the European Union, Yu Aoki and Lualhati Santiago, PhDs in Economics, were publishing the paper “English language skills and socioeconomic segregation of UK Imigrants” in the Discussion paper economics nº16-7, June 2016. A publication for the Centre for European Labour Market Research of the University of Aberdeen.

The researchers investigated the effect of English language skills on labour market outcomes, on residential deprivation and on congregation of immigrants in England. Thus, their paper contributes to the literature about immigrants in the particular context of the United Kingdom (UK).

The authors structured the research using the Office for National Statistics Longitudinal Study, with dataset from the England and Wales 2011 Census, matching English Deprivation Indices on income, employment and health. They used an instrumental variable strategy, highlighting the age at arrival in the UK as an instrument for English language skills. There is an idea about the called “critical period” hypothesis of language acquisition, that says that individuals exposed to a new language in their childhood can learn it more easily than those exposed to the new language later in their life period.


The hypothesis was coherent, because the study showed that immigrants born in non-English-speaking countries, who arrived in the UK after age eight, presented a poorer command of English than those who arrived before age eight – like they show in the graphic above. In this sense, the later a person arrives, the poorer his English is on average. They define the childhood immigrants as “those individuals born outside of the UK who moved into the UK at age 15 or earlier”, when the individuals didn’t make the decision to migrate themselves, but following their parents or guardians.

For the early-arrivers coming from Non-English-speaking countries, who tends to have better results than late-arrivers coming from Non-English-speaking countries, there is a higher probability of having a better position in professional, managerial or technical occupations.

To complexify the analysis, they incorporated in the reaserch immigrants from English-speaking countries to partial out all age-at-arrival effects aside from language acquisition, using the same hypothesis and variable instrument. In general, immigrant from European countries adapt better in the UK because they share commonalities with the culture and institutions, like the European Union.

Aoki and Santiago found out that English language skills significantly affect the socioeconomic outcomes of UK immigrants. These results are driven by differences in background characteristics of immigrants from non-English- and English-speaking countries. And the difference in socioeconomic outcomes between early and late arrivers from non English-speaking countries in excess of the corresponding difference for immigrants from English-speaking countries can be interpreted as the effect of language.

The language skills have positive effects in the organization of immigrants lifes. With these data and the variable instrument they used, the authors estimated that better English skills significantly raise the likelihood of having ever worked, being economically active, and being in full-time employment. On the other hand, the language skill hasn’t the reverse effect, what means that it does not affect datas on unemployment.

Better English skills also have a positive effect on the likelihood of working in professional or higher managerial occupations and reduce the probability of being self-employed. English proficiency also has an impact on residential outcomes: Lower English skills significantly lead immigrants to live in a more deprived area and in a local authority district that has a higher proportion of people whose main language is one’s native language. In this case, the conclusion is the same about the effect of the language skill over the employment: they didn’t find evidences that English skills significantly lead immigrants to live in local authority districts with larger shares of people from one’s own world region of birth or ethnic group.

In the last years, the rate of immigrants rose from 9% in 2004 to 13% in 2014, and the socioeconomic integration of immigrants has become a priority discussion for the UK government. Like a result of their research, the authors suggest that specific English language courses for immigrants could be an effective policy intervention to foster the socioeconomic integration of immigrants, since improving their English language skills can have a positive impact on their labour market outcomes, for fostering residential integration. Helping the immigrants improve their English skills could be a simple and effecttive way to help them better integrate into their social environment

By Perola Mathias

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