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Why the 10th Birthday Is Critical for Predicting the Career Paths of Immigrant Students

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The 10th birthday can make all the difference for the future of immigrant students.
According to a new study, children whose native languages are very different from English wind up following career paths similar to those of U.S.-born kids if they immigrate before age 10. But older kids are much more likely to pursue careers in science, technology, and math. So, teenagers from, say, Vietnam who move to the U.S. may as well say goodbye to poetry and accept their destiny as engineers.
The difference, writes labor economist Marigee Bacolod in the journal Demography, is that childhood development reaches a turning point around age 10. Whereas young children learn to read, she said, adolescents read to learn — to acquire information. If a student arrives in the U.S. after that critical age and learning a new language — English — becomes more difficult, he or she is more likely to expend energy on math, logic, and physical skills, fields that do not emphasize communication.
“There’s something about immigrants almost rationally choosing to specialize because ‘This is the packet of skills I came with when I arrived in the U.S.,’ ” said Bacolod, an associate economics professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. “ ‘The packet of skills I arrived with in the U.S.’ is, in a way, a function of your age of arrival and your linguistic distance from English.”
“It is really a story about what skills people who immigrated as children develop given the costs and benefits associated with the learning process,” Marcos Rangel, an assistant professor of public policy and economics at Duke University and co-author of the study, explained in a media release. “Late arrivals from English-distant countries develop a comparative advantage in math/logic, socio-emotional, and physical skills relative to communication skills, which ultimately generates the occupational segregation we are used to seeing in the labor market.”
The study, which relies on U.S. Census data, also highlights implications for American K-12 schools. As education leaders mull approaches to better preparing English language learners, early intervention appears to be key for programs designed to teach English as a second language.
“If that’s what we’re interested in, maybe optimizing these kinds of public programs, then maybe we need to re-examine how we target these kinds of programs in an environment of limited budgets,” Bacolod said. “From a human capital perspective, the return to these kinds of programs and these kinds of investments seems to be highest in early childhood.”


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