The Language Tradeoff

New research suggests that when children in immigrant families learn a new language, their parents are less likely to also pick it up.
December 18, 2013
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Traditionally, most learning that takes place in the home flows from adult to child, especially when it comes to communication: parents actively teach their children how to talk, read, and write. Yet immigrant families may face a unique challenge when it comes to these essential tools, and may see learning flow from child to parent, says Professor Ilyana Kuziemko. “Children have the natural gift of acquiring language, so children in immigrant families usually pick up the language of their new home before their parents do,” she says. “That leaves the parents to decide whether to invest the time to learn the language.”

The best decision isn’t obvious. On the one hand, Kuziemko points out, parents might find it easier to learn a skill if their child acts as a sort of personal tutor who can help them learn English — for example — at home. “But parents might have less incentive to learn, because once someone else in the home speaks English, they may less need to learn it themselves,” she says. Census and public school data from before and after the 1998 passage of California’s Proposition 227 (or Prop 227) offered Kuziemko the chance to see which of these was the most likely outcome for parents whose children learned English.

Prop 227 mandated that California’s public schools provide English-only education in lieu of the once common practice of providing bilingual education in English and, most often, Spanish, which had evolved in part to serve the state’s immigrant population, which is largely Mexican and Spanish-speaking. Among educators opposition to bilingual education is controversial, because while immersion seems to help children acquire language skills quickly and effectively, many believe that it makes other important skills more difficult to acquire. “Think about how hard learning math in a foreign language might be,” Kuziemko points out. So although Prop 227’s mandate extends statewide, individual schools could and did opt out: if at least 20 parents in a school petitioned to continue bilingual education for their children, the school could petition the school board for a waiver. As a result, there is some variability in how strictly school districts adhere to English-only instruction. (Though parent petitions were no guarantee of retaining bilingual programs: schools whose administrators or boards supported Prop 227 were less likely to opt out than schools whose administrators opposed Prop 227.)

First, Kuziemko used data from the California public school system to look at the prevalence of English-only and bilingual education after Prop 227. The state doesn’t measure residents’ English competency in any comprehensive way, but the 1990 and 2000 Censuses both required respondents to self-report if and how well each member of the household spoke English. (Self-reported data from the Census on language skills, unlike much self-reported data, has been shown to be a reasonably reliable gauge of language competency.) Comparing the prevalence data with the Census data for before and after the implementation of Prop 227 allowed Kuziemko to measure whether and how much English-language skills improved for both parents and children of immigrant households after the implementation of Prop 227. Among students, English skills improved most in those areas of California where schools were more compliant with Prop 227. But parents in those same neighborhoods were less likely to learn English or to see their English language skills improve.

To Kuziemko, this suggests that while Prop 227’s policy aim worked on its face, it had an unintended consequence: parents no longer needed to learn English themselves. But is this a bad outcome? “It might be that for these families, the best use of their time is for the kids to specialize in learning English and performing the household tasks that require English fluency — reading bills, filling out a rental application, talking to the landlord, translating TV news — and for the parents to be working or contributing to the household in ways that don’t require English-language skills,” she explains. But if parents struggle to understand how well their children are doing in school, or what the doctor recommends at their child’s annual checkup, that’s less than ideal. If immigrant families are to participate more fully in social and political life — and be more competitive in the job market — then, Kuziemko says, policymakers should consider programs that help immigrant adults learn English.

This apparent skill subsidy that children offer parents may not be limited to language. “People often jokingly refer to how parents only learn to program the DVD recorder after their kids go to college,” Kuziemko says. “Removing somebody who had that skill actually made the parents learn themselves.”

These considerations are especially salient in developing countries, where considerable economic growth has offered younger generations more access to education and financial opportunity than their parents likely had. “There may be trade-offs among siblings — is it enough for one sibling to know how to do something?” Kuziemko asks. “To what extent does that knowledge and opportunity spill back to parents? And to what extent does authority and decision-making in the household shift away from parents to children? Does the experience of negotiating for the household at a young age improve children’s later life outcomes, or do they miss out on being able to rely on the guidance of adults?”

Ilyana Kuziemko is the David W. Zalaznick Associate Professor of Business in the Finance and Economics Division at Columbia Business School.

Read the Research

Kuziemko, Ilyana.

“Human Capital Spillovers in Families: Do Parents Learn From or Lean On Their Children?” NBER Working Paper 17235, 2013.


Ilyana Kuziemko

Ilyana Kuziemko was a Columbia Business School faculty member from 2012 to 2014.