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Determinants of bilingualism among children: an econometric analysis


This paper analyzes the determinants of bilingualism (i.e., speaks a language other than English at home) among children age 5–18 years in the American Community Survey, 2005–2011. Two groups of children are considered: those born in the US (native born) and foreign-born children who immigrated prior to age 14 (the 1.5 generation). The analyses are conducted overall, within genders, and within racial and ethnic groups. Bilingualism is more prevalent if the parents are foreign born, less proficient in English, of the same ancestry (linguistic) group, and if the child lives in an ethnic (linguistic) concentration area. Although the effects are relatively smaller, a foreign-born grandparent living in the household increases child bilingualism, while a higher level of parental education tends to decrease it. Children of Asian and Hispanic origin are more likely to be bilingual than their white, non-Hispanic counterparts.

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  1. The ACS is a new data set. As a test of comparability to the CPS, a comparison was made of the means and standard deviations for the relevant variables used in the analysis. The means and standard deviations were essentially the same. The absence of a language question in the CPS prevents these data from being used to study child bilingualism.

  2. Feng et al. (2014) also analyze the determinants of early reading among bilingual children and conclude that they are at a disadvantage in that they tend to live in households with fewer resources and fewer family activities that promote early reading.

  3. The percent of children who have foreign-born parents with English-speaking ancestry is trivial (1 % for both parents to 4 % for mother or father). This indicates that English-speaking ancestry does not drive any results.

  4. Results are consistent when the sample is restricted to only those who speak English only or English “Very Well” (available upon request). See Appendix A in ESM for more details on the construction of these variables.

  5. As Lutz and Crist (2011) showed, particularly in Hispanic households, the mother is more likely to teach the foreign language to her daughters.

  6. This variable is based on the definition of a Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) by the Census Bureau. See Appendix A for more details in ESM. Given the inclusion of this variable, adding fixed effects for state does not significantly impact the results (analysis available upon request).

  7. 96 % (92 %) of the native-born (1.5 generation) Asian children who speak a language in addition to English at home have two Asian parents.

  8. The frequency distribution of the concentration measure varies widely by racial/ethnic group (See Appendix Table B2.1 in ESM). The distribution appears to be U shaped for Spanish-speaking groups. There is a clear decline in the percent of children in the higher concentration index categories for non-Hispanic groups overall and East-Asian groups. Excluding New York City (a high-concentration area for many groups) does not significantly impact the distribution of the linguistic concentration measure (see Appendix Table B2.2 in ESM).

  9. Among the foreign-born children in the sample, we expect that those who arrived at a younger age would be more likely to be monolingual English speakers. The mean age of migration is 4.9 years for foreign-born children, age 5–18 in the ACS, with a mean age of migration of 3.4 years for those who don’t speak a foreign language at home, and 5.3 years for those that do.

  10. Note that in order to compute the effect for only child, we must add the effects of only child and child order as an only child receives a 1 for both variables.

  11. Education of the child was also considered. Children who are not enrolled in school are 2 % more likely to speak a language other than English at home (analysis available upon request).

  12. 10 % of the 1.5 generation children have two native-born parents. Of these, 70 % arrived in the US at less than 5 years of age. It is not possible to identify adopted children in this sample. Recall that children “born abroad of American parents” were deleted from the sample under study.


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Correspondence to Marina Gindelsky.

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Chiswick, B.R., Gindelsky, M. Determinants of bilingualism among children: an econometric analysis. Rev Econ Household 14, 489–506 (2016).

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  • Bilingualism
  • Native born children
  • Immigrant children
  • Family

JEL codes

  • J15
  • J24
  • I210
  • Z13