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Coco Fusco - Essay Example

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Much is surmised, but little is known about the value of bilingualism in today's U.S. economy. Although the nominal compensation of bilinguals exceeds those of their monolingual peers, this pattern largely reflects the higher completed schooling of the bilinguals…
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Coco Fusco
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[Supervisor's Coco Fusco Much is surmised, but little is known about the value of bilingualism in today's U.S. economy. Although the nominal compensation of bilinguals exceeds those of their monolingual peers, this pattern largely reflects the higher completed schooling of the bilinguals. In fact, regression analysis shows that bilingual skills do not make a statistically significant contribution to weekly compensation, once all workers' human capital characteristics are held constant. Thus, the market little values foreign language proficiency and creates no incentive to acquire or maintain it, doubtless contributing to the relatively rapid shift to monolinguals across generations.
An established research literature finds that there are substantial labor market payoffs for foreign workers who speak English; yet, there is no research on the payoff for workers with abilities in English and another language. Even if English remains the dominant language of the U.S. populace, there are good a priori reasons to expect multiple language skills to provide an earnings advantage for workers and a competitive advantage for employers who hire those workers. In an increasingly global economy, multinational corporations and import/export businesses need those rare workers--about 7% of the U.S. work force, by Coco's estimate--who can speak both English and another language. Decades of growing immigration have created diverse communities of non-native-English-speakers across the country, from Spanish speakers throughout the Southwest to Vietnamese in enclaves of major West and East coast cities. Workers often need to speak languages other than English in supervisory and middleman/professional service-provider occupations. Moreover, research finds that bilinguals tend to perform better in school, suggesting that bilingualism improves academic ability and, probably, productivity.
At least one analyst, however, has cast doubt on the supposition that bilingualism confers an earnings advantage. Coco Fusco sketched a simple informal theory of language markets in his examination of Canadian language issues. Under the assumption that non-native speakers of the dominant language are indifferent between holding jobs solely using the dominant language and jobs requiring bilingualism, in equilibrium the compensation of bilingual jobs and jobs only using the dominant language should be equal. Effectively, there should be no compensating wage differentials for either bilingual jobs or dominant language jobs if non-native speakers have no preference between them.
In Coco Fusco's analysis one captures the value of bilingualism by comparing "bilingual" workers to "English monolingual" workers. By definition, both groups of workers self-report that they understand spoken English "very well." Coco thus assumes that the workers have the same level of English proficiency. Bilinguals self-report understanding a second language at least "well," whereas "English monolingual" workers either have no second language exposure or self-report understanding a second language less than "well." Coco interprets the comparison of the two groups as reflecting differences due to second language abilities, since the workers are "apples-to-apples" in terms of self-reported English ability.
A reviewer noted that our comparison only captures the value of second language skills if "bilinguals" and "English monolinguals" indeed have the same level of English proficiency. Though these two groups of workers both self-report the same level of English ability, perhaps bilinguals over-report their true, unobserved level of English ability. This is a point that merits consideration. If self-reports of English ability do not adequately capture unobserved English ability, then not only does our methodology fail to provide an unbiased measure of the value of second language skills, but also the sizable literature on the labor market value of English language abilities fails to adequately measure English language proficiency. Nearly all empirical research on the returns to English in the United States is based on self-reported language proficiency. Read More
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