Bicultural and bilingual values add to U.S. economy

Posted: February 26, 2012

Liza M. Rodriguez

has worked on family and community issues for nonprofit and government agencies

Going back to the founding of this country, waves of immigrants have charted their path to integration. Navigating this circuitous route is no easy feat. It requires adaptability, initiative, and cross-cultural knowledge.

All these abilities are essential to a globally competitive workforce, according to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. So it's no surprise that the economic benefits of being bilingual and bicultural have been well-documented.

The Center for American Progress has noted that "immigrants are 30 percent more likely to start a business than are nonimmigrants." A study by the University of Florida found that fully bilingual Hispanics earn an average of nearly $7,000 more per year than their peers who speak only English, and that "corporations cannot find enough fully proficient bilingual employees." In Philadelphia, the Economy League has called for more investment in attracting and retaining immigrants of all skill levels, because "regions that attract these workers will enrich their talent bases, strengthen their international connections, and position themselves for economic growth."

Besides the economic advantages, the Society for Neuroscience has found that "being fluent in two languages, particularly from early childhood, not only enhances a person's ability to concentrate, but might also protect against the onset of dementia and other age-related cognitive decline." Newsweek science columnist Sharon Begley has written that the strongest evidence-based strategy for improving cognitive function is learning another language. She noted that when bilingual individuals choose which language to use in a conversation, the prefrontal cortex, the site of the brain's higher-order functions, gets an intense workout of the sort that strengthens "such IQ-building skills as problem-solving and attention-switching."

We have known for some time that being bilingual is good for one's economic prospects. Now we find that it's also good for one's health!

As a Puerto Rican who lived in three different states before settling in Philadelphia, I have navigated many different cultures, workplaces, relationships, and communities over the last 23 years. Throughout, I have met other "navigators" and heard their stories of adaptation and integration. These stories have strengthened my faith in the rich diversity of our communities.

Sparked by my newfound interest in the prefrontal cortex, I recently talked to a few friends about the benefits of being bilingual and bicultural. Nielufar Varjavand, a doctor at Hahnemann University Hospital and a daughter of Iranian immigrants, grew up in Los Angeles speaking Farsi and English. Her husband is fluent in Spanish and Hebrew, and they speak Farsi and Spanish at home so their two daughters will learn three languages. "Being bilingual makes it easier to get closer to people who are different from you," Varjavand told me.

Rubi Pacheco-Rivera, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, credits her Puerto Rican roots and bilingualism with helping her develop relationships across groups and institutions. She started the first Latino student organization at Central High School and later did so at Arcadia University. "I wanted to create a space where I could connect with people that had similar experiences, but also develop ways to improve relations and understanding between these institutions and Latino students," she said. In her current role as Philadelphia's assistant commerce director, she creates connections among city government, businesses, and neighborhood groups.

Mey-Yen Moriuchi's parents, Cuban immigrants of Chinese descent, raised their children in New York, Minnesota, Peru, and Mexico because of her father's job with an international firm. "People look at us and might make assumptions about our cultural identity," she said. "But we grew up speaking Spanish, eating Cuban food, and celebrating Latino traditions." Moriuchi and her Japanese American husband speak Spanish with their two children at home, and she said her family's blend of cultures "enables them to be more adaptable and flexible in new environments, and open to people of different backgrounds."

As many of us have come to understand intuitively, bilingualism helps us tackle and embrace complex challenges. We can speak someone else's language and establish a comfort zone, connect different groups of people, and be flexible in finding solutions to new problems.

Now that brain research has confirmed what many economists have argued for decades, I hope we can come to appreciate how immigrants strengthen the rich social and economic fabric of our society.


Liza M. Rodriguez can be reached at liza.margarita@gmail.com.

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