Why are immigrants less proficient in literacy than native-born adults?

by Theodora Xenogiani
Senior Policy Analyst, OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs

Why is it that highly educated migrants to OECD countries are less likely to be employed than native-born adults who are similarly educated, even if they have lived in their host country for several years? The OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) provides some answers. Based on results from the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), a new Adult Skills in Focus shows that immigrants tend to have lower proficiency in the language of their new country than native-born residents. On average, the difference amounts to about 3.5 years of schooling and a difference is observed even when comparing immigrant and native adults with the same level of education.

Migrants in the various countries participating in the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) differ in their reasons for migration, their country of origin, the time they have already spent in the host country, and the age at which they arrived. For instance, the literacy gap is much wider for immigrants in Sweden than for immigrants in other countries. This could reflect the fact that a large share of Sweden’s migrants came to the country for humanitarian reasons. It could also be because relatively few people outside of Sweden speak Swedish, so migrants are less likely to be already familiar with the language.

In contrast, the small differences in literacy proficiency between immigrants and natives in Australia and New Zealand could be explained by these countries’ selective immigration policies, leading to a large share of highly educated migrants with good knowledge of the English language.

Migrants’ language skills should be taken into account when interpreting their literacy proficiency. Two-thirds of the migrants assessed by the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) were not taking the test in their native language. The literacy and numeracy proficiency measured in the survey thus does not just reflect migrants’ cognitive skills, but also – possibly to a large degree – their familiarity with and fluency in the test language. That means we have to distinguish between language skills and purely cognitive skills. For instance, we could take into account the country where migrants earned their qualifications, or the languages they speak at home or have learned in their lives.

A report by the OECD and the European Union shows that around one-third of the gap in literacy proficiency between immigrant and native-born adults can be explained by whether immigrants speak the host-country language at home or had learned it as a child. In Finland and Norway, countries with complex and less widely spoken languages, this factor can account for at least half of the gap in proficiency between migrants and natives.

The good news is that migrants’ literacy and numeracy skills improve with time, especially in countries where the gap is large and the language issue is important. In most countries, immigrants who arrived as young children and completed their education in their host country do just as well as their native-born peers.

If countries are to make the most of immigration and ensure the successful integration of migrants into their labour market and their society, they need the right policies to tackle these issues. However, the lack of detailed data up to now has made it hard to provide the analysis needed to create effective policies.

The Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) opens a new world of information to policy makers. Not only does it assess the skills of both migrants and natives, but it also includes detailed information about immigrants, their country of origin, their migration experience and their outcomes since arriving. It is possibly the first data source that allows us to draw a detailed picture of migrants’ skills and how those skills are used in the labour market. It provides a solid basis from which we can design policies to help migrants integrate more quickly and successfully into their new communities.


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