Cornelia KristenJulian Seuring

Destination-language acquisition of recently arrived immigrants: Do refugees differ from other immigrants?


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This article describes new immigrants’ levels of destination-language proficiency shortly after taking up residence in Germany. The focus lies on a comparison of refugees from Syria with new arrivals from Italy, Poland, and Turkey, who came as economic immigrants, for family reasons, or as students. The theoretical account builds upon a well-established model of language acquisition, according to which language fluency is a function of exposure, efficiency, and incentives. The empirical study is based on data from the first wave of the ENTRA project (“Recent Immigration Processes and Early Integration Trajectories in Germany”) that covers about 4,600 young adults. The analyses reveal that most individuals improve their proficiency over time. Syrians’ experience a faster learning curve than those of other immigrant groups. The conditions identified as relevant to language fluency largely reflect the findings of previous studies. They indicate that language learning is a general process that, for the most part, does not differ across the four groups. Exposure is the major force driving language acquisition. There are also indications that certain kinds of exposure, such as attending language classes, are especially beneficial for individuals with lower resource endowments. In addition, Syrian refugees profit more than other new arrivals from increased levels of language exposure, such as from taking language courses, pursuing education or being active on the labor market.

New immigrants; refugees; language proficiency; Germany