According to a study by Rice University speaking two languages may influence immigrants’ health in a positive way.
The researchers conducted their study with 4649 test persons who had immigrated to the United States originating from China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico. The participants in the study were asked to rate their own health, and the answers show that the bilingual test persons evaluated both their physical and mental health better than the monolingual ones.
Interestingly, acquiring English proficiency alone was not enough for good health. If learning English happened at the expense of the individual’s native language any benefit was asserted. The participants who rated their health the best had both strong English language skills and simultaneously maintained their native language.
It is also noteworthy that other factors such as socioeconomic factors, family support, stress, discrimination or health behaviors among other did not seem to impact the self-evaluation of the bilingual participants.
The research team sees the possible explanation in what they call “cultural flexibility”. This cultural flexibility allows immigrants to build relationships in the new country while still maintaining their relationships in their country of origin. They seem to integrate in the new surroundings easily but manage to keep their cultural identity.
Certainly, this study does not give an exact explanation and relation between bilingualism and self-rated health, but maybe if one feels good and well integrated his or her health might actually be better than an unhappy or miserable person’s health.
I can only say for myself that I could never immigrate to a new country without speaking the local language or at least starting to learn it once arrived. Personally, I would feel that something was missing from the full experience.
If you now imagine to live in a country without being able to speak or understand the local language it seems obvious that even the smallest daily undertaking, let alone dealing with more complex issues, can be a quite stressful experience. And medical research has proven that stress can lead to all sorts of health issues. Therefore we can assume that people who are less stressed in their daily lives will also feel more healthy in general.
Looking at the research paper I think it would also be interesting to explore on the relation between self-rated health and compare it with the actual health status of the test persons through conducting medical tests.