In Florida, It Pays To Be Bilingual, University Of Florida Study Finds

January 31, 2000

GAINESVILLE — Florida Hispanics who are fluent in Spanish and English earn significantly higher incomes and are less likely to live in poverty than those who speak only English, according to a new study.

The study, a joint project of the University of Florida, the University of Miami and the Florida Department of Education, will be released Tuesday (2/1) in a monograph entitled “Creating Florida’s Multilingual, Global Workforce.” It found that, for Hispanics, being bilingual offers advantages throughout the state, from the Panhandle to the Keys. In Miami, where the advantages were particularly pronounced, the study found that fully bilingual Hispanics earn nearly $7,000 per year more than their English-only counterparts.

“Think about what $7,000 means in a household of two or more wage earners — over a couple of years, the earning differences really add up,” said Sandra Fradd, co-author of the study and a University of Miami professor and program chair of teaching English to speakers of other languages.

Fradd, also a scientist at UF’s department of communication sciences and disorders and Institute for the Advanced Study of the Communication Process, said the study highlights the importance of bilingual education.

“The public is often opposed to bilingual education because people are unaware of the economic importance of being able to communicate in more than one language,” she said. “Such opposition may not make good sense when the financial benefits of being bilingual are considered.”

The study examined income levels for bilingual and English-only Hispanics in 10 metropolitan areas nationwide with high percentages of Hispanic immigrants. Fradd and co-author Thomas Boswell, a professor of geography and regional studies at the University of Miami, found that in Miami, Jersey City, N.J., and San Antonio, bilingual Hispanics earn more than those who communicate only in English . It also found that bilingualism had advantages for older employees in some of the other cities.

Although the Miami population is primarily from Cuba, the Jersey City area has a mixed Hispanic population from the Caribbean and Central and South America. In San Antonio, Hispanics have a predominantly Mexican background.

“These findings show that this is not a Cuban thing,’” Fradd said. “It’s about economic development, not ethnicity.”

The study calls into question English-only initiatives in Florida and elsewhere, Fradd said. During the past several decades, many states including Florida have passed laws declaring English the official language. Although such laws are largely symbolic, they often are accompanied by more forceful English-only initiatives. For example, California’s Proposition 227, approved by the state’s voters in 1998, requires students in the state’s public schools to be taught “overwhelmingly in English.”

The lack of public education in bilingualism means that corporations cannot find enough fully proficient bilingual employees, Fradd said. As a result, business organizations such as the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce have recently launched work force initiatives to try to add to the supply of bilingual employees.

“Rather than cutting bilingual programs, we can improve them at all levels so that all students, not just Hispanic children, can enjoy advantages of bilingualism,” Fradd said.

“Creating Florida’s Multilingual Global Workforce” will be distributed to all public schools in the state as part of an initiative to promote greater understanding of the advantages of bilingualism and biliteracy and to promote collaboration among education, business and government in preparing students for 21st-century work place requirements.