Media Briefings

HOW LANGUAGE SHAPES INTERNATIONAL MIGRATION: New evidence of the impact of ‘linguistic proximity’ on migrants’ destinations

  • Published Date: August 2015

We know that people migrate in search of better jobs, higher wages, safety and freedom of expression – but how do they select their preferred host country? According to new research by Professors Alícia Adserà and Mariola Pytliková, migrants’ choice is crucially affected by the degree of similarity between their mother tongue and the language spoken in the desired country of destination.

The study, which is published in the August 2015 issue of the Economic Journal, also finds that ‘linguistic proximity’ matters less when migrants move to English-speaking countries. The same applies when they move to countries that already host large communities with their same linguistic background. Imposing language requirements for naturalisation slightly reduces migration from linguistically distant countries.

The authors study the role of language in determining international migration flows to OECD countries in recent decades using information on each country’s official and major languages and their position within the linguistic tree of a language encyclopaedia called Ethnologue.

Professors Adserà and Pytliková use this to construct a new set of refined indicators of the linguistic proximity between each pair of countries. They also contribute a rich new dataset on migration between 30 OECD destinations and all world countries for the period from 1980 to 2010.

The role of linguistic distance in migration

The researchers find that migration rates are higher between countries whose languages are more similar. Migration flows to a country with the same first official language as that in the origin country are around 20% higher than those to a destination with the most distant language, even after taking account of differences in other socio-economic conditions between origin and destination countries.

For example, migration rates to France from Benin (where French is the first official language) should be around 18% higher than those from Zambia (whose language shares only one level of the linguistic tree with French) but only 6% higher than those from São Tomé and Príncipe (whose language shares up to four levels with French).

In the context of other traditional determinants of migration, the study finds that the impact of linguistic proximity on migration flows is lower than that of ethnic networks or income per capita in the destination country, but much stronger than that of differences in unemployment rates.

In addition, the relevance of linguistic proximity in explaining the direction of migration flows is greater for origin countries with more educated workers, probably because of the greater need for skill transferability in the destination labour market.

The results are highly robust to the use of two alternative continuous measures of proximity developed by linguists: the Levenshtein distance, which measures the phonetic similarity between two languages of a core set of 40 common words; and the Dyen index among Indo-European languages, which is also based on similarities between samples of words.

Migration rates to countries with similar languages are 19-35% higher than those with no linguistic connection, even when using either the proximity between the most commonly used language in each country or the minimum distance between any of the official languages and major languages in both countries.

Widely spoken language as an additional pull factor in migration

A few languages are widely used across the world. Among them, English is clearly the most popular. A widely spoken destination language can constitute an immigration pull factor on its own.

Adserà and Pytliková show that linguistic proximity is more relevant for explaining migration flows to non-English-speaking destinations than to English-speaking ones. English seems to constitute less of a barrier to migrants than other languages. This may occur for a set of different reasons:

· First, English is widely used in international transactions and media; and it is taught in many countries as a second language. Pre-migration exposure to English by the average migrant probably weakens the linguistic barriers to migrate and lowers the cost associated with transferring his or her skills to the new market.

· Second, English is an asset in the labour market across the world. The hope of improving one’s English proficiency may also increase the appeal of English-speaking destinations, even for temporary migrants who expect to use this skill on returning home.

Linguistic enclaves

Adserà and Pytliková find that migrants are significantly attracted to destinations that already host large communities with the same linguistic background, where the pressure to learn the local language immediately after arrival is likely to be lower and where they can find psychological support and practical information.

The study’s estimates reveal that linguistic proximity between a migrant’s mother tongue and that of the destination country matters less in the presence of a large share of individuals with a first language similar to that of the migrant in the destination country.

But such linguistic or cultural enclaves – think Chinatown or Little Italy – might constitute a mixed blessing for migrants since they may slow down their (and most importantly, their children’s) socio-economic adaptation to their new country of residence.

Language-based immigration policy requirements

The relevance of linguistic proximity in determining the direction and strength of migration flows is also likely to be mediated by immigration policies that affect the selection of immigrants across destinations. For example, immigration policies in Australia, Canada and New Zealand emphasise candidates’ skills in their application processes for permanent resident visas, awarding points for English language proficiency (and French in Canada), educational attainment and age at migration.

To test whether immigration and naturalisation policies with strict language proficiency requirements may deter migration flows and affect the composition of migrants, Adserà and Pytliková code the existence of both formal and informal language requirements for naturalisation in 30 OECD destinations for the years 1980-2010.

They find that migration flows to countries with stricter language requirements are smaller. But even when these are taken into account, the linguistic proximity between origin and destination still matters.


Notes for editors: ‘The Role of Language in Shaping International Migration’ by Alícia Adserà and Mariola Pytliková is published in the August 2015 issue of the Economic Journal.

Alícia Adserà is at Princeton University. Mariola Pytliková is at the VŠB Technical University of Ostrava and CERGE-EI in the Czech Republic.

For further information: contact Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email:; Twitter: @econromesh); Alícia Adserà via email:; or Mariola Pytliková via email: