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Bilingualism and Immigrant Health: Primary Language Retention as Improving Health Status


Beginning in the 19Bilingulaism pic 220s, the Americanization movement sought to transform immigrants into “loyal Americans,” by imposing cultural norms and habits characteristic of the culturally dominant, native-born population of the United States on newcomers to American shores. Many immigrants, in hopes of being “accepted” by the mainstream culture, were happy to encourage such initiatives, and put pressures on other foreign-born persons to adopt the American way of life, especially including the English language. The movement never subsided, and cultural forces continue to push immigrants toward acculturation, even when certain traits of the American lifestyle are detrimental to the overall health and well-being of society.1

A particularly disturbing cultural trend can be seen in the obesity epidemic plaguing the United States. One third of American adults qualify as obese, and there is no sign indicating this trend will slow or reverse anytime soon. Meanwhile, the health consequences of obesity are diverse and severe, as being overweight is linked to a variety of comorbidities including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and a number of cancers.2 Immigrants to the United States often arrive with a healthier weight statuses than the typical American, with average BMIs close to two and five percent lower than American-born women and men, respectively.2 Research has demonstrated, however, that immigrant health declines to converge with native-born health the longer an immigrant resides in the country; the BMIs of female immigrants align with those of their American counterparts by the ten-year mark of residency, and the same is true for male BMIs after about a decade and a half.3,4

This “weight assimilation” suggests that certain cultural factors, such as pressure to acquire English language skills, influence immigrant behavior in the United States may be contributing to the larger problem of the proliferation of obesity, and its diverse health consequences, in American society. As the immigrant population in the United States continues to grow, the impacts of such a trend will be far-reaching, particularly in terms of the additional stress placed on the already strained American healthcare system resultant of the growing population’s growing waistlines and worsening health.3

However, an unrelated trend in immigrant health provides a more dynamic perspective of the cultural factors that influence health status. Irrespective of ethnic group, bilingualism among immigrant populations is correlated with improved self-reported mental and physical health, as compared to both proficiency in only English or only another primary language.5

Mexican immigrants, for example, have more positively-rated mental health if they retain Spanish language proficiency, suggesting that bilingualism serves as an invaluable tool for navigating the various sociocultural spheres in which the immigrants exist. Additionally, immigrant parents who pass on native language skills to their children instead of opting to raise pure anglophones have more positive health outcomes overall – as do their children – as both emotional and structural support is reinforced by shared language within the family unit.5

Bilingulaism pic 1Maintaining primary language capability is indicative of wider social connectivity – language is inherently associated with how social networks are established, as it serves as the basis for communication. Such width of connectivity within immigrant populations contributes to improved access to vital health resources and improved self-perception of mental health, as well-connected individuals can more readily access information and are less isolated.6 Particularly in light of the sociocultural barriers many immigrants face when seeking health services, immigrants are a uniquely vulnerable population in the realm of healthcare. As a result, robust social connectivity among immigrants may positively counteract the ostracization and lack of adequate access to needed health services, which may contribute to the aforementioned trend.4

While there is pressure and demand placed on immigrants to undergo the process of acculturation, abandoning traditional cultural practices in favor of familial language dissonance and Americanization is negatively associated with self-rated mental health. Especially with regard to poor immigrant communities, which are often isolated and insular, immigrants without the linguistic capability to communicate effectively with other immigrants in their community have lower-reported mental and physical health than their bilingual counterparts.6 This trend is noted among Latino and Asian immigrant populations alike.5

Such positive impacts of bilingualism demand further research directed at uncovering the specific linguistic and cultural factors that produce improved immigrant health statuses.4,5,6 These cultural factors that uniquely alter immigrant behavior in ways that result in negative health consequences result can more effectively be targeted and combated by larger actions within the healthcare system.3 With one in five Americans predicted to be an immigrant by the year 2050, failing to adapt health policies and practices to curb the current trends of poor health status in the United States may place an untenable burden on the healthcare system at large.7

The sociocultural implications of this research cannot go unnoticed. The belief that acculturation and assimilation are desirable among immigrant populations may not be as wise as previously thought, as such cultural conformity has been empirically shown to be detrimental to health status in the United States in terms of both with BMI convergence and decreased social connectivity.3,4,5,6 These health trends suggest greater appreciation and hospitality on a macroscopic level with regard to accepting and inviting diversity in the United States may relieve some of the cultural pressure on immigrants to adapt to the American way of life and ultimately benefit society as a whole.


  1. Hanley, Alexis Claire, “Immigrants as Americanizers: The Americanization Movement of the Early Twentieth Century.” (August 1, 2012). Graduate Masters Theses. Paper 138.
  2. Shea, Jennifer, Eleftherios P. Diamandis, Arya M. Sharma, Jean-Pierre Després, ShereenEzzat, and Frank Greenway. “The Obesity Epidemic.” Clinical Chemistry 58, no. 6 (February 6, 2012): 968-73.
  3. Antecol, Heather, and Kelly Bedard. “Unhealthy Assimilation: Why Do Immigrants Converge to American Health Status Levels?” Demography 43, no. 2 (May 2006): 337-60.
  4. Lebrun, Lydie A. “Effects of Length of Stay and Language Proficiency on Health Care Experiences among Immigrants in Canada and the United States.” Social Science & Medicine 74, no. 7 (April 2012): 1062-072.
  5. Schachter, Ariela, Rachel T. Kimbro, and Bridget K. Gorman. “Language Proficiency and Health Status Are Bilingual Immigrants Healthier?” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 53, no. 1 (March 1, 2012): 124-45.
  6. Mulvaney-Day, Norah E., Margarita Alegría, and William Sribney. “Social Cohesion, Social Support, and Health among Latinos in the United States.” Social Science & Medicine 64, no. 2 (January 2007): 477-95.
  7. Passel, Jeffrey S., and D’Vera Cohn. U.S. Population Projections: 2005-2050. Report. February 11, 2008.
  8. Image Credit (Creative Commons): jasleen_kaur. “Stethoscope.” Flickr. Las modified Aug. 27 2010.
  9. Image Credit (Public Domain): ElinorD. “Bathroom Scale.” Wikimedia Commons. Last modified Feb. 1 2007.

Nicole VanderMeer is a first-year student majoring in Linguistics at Emory University. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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