Language Learning and Migration

Image: J.-P. Kasper

Language skills do not only affect migration costs, but also the subsequent integration of migrants into the host country's economy and society. Due to data restrictions, empirical research has focused mainly on language skills rather than on language learning. This project seeks to examine the motives of language learning in relation to migration and integration, focusing on the case of Germany.

In the first period (2015–2018), the focus was on a macro-level analysis, while in the second period (2018–2021), a micro-level analysis will complement this.

About the project:

First phase 2015-2018: Macro-level analysis

Language Learning and Migration

Silke Uebelmesser, Matthias Huber, Severin Weingarten

Most people learn one or more languages while in school. If language skills are acquired during childhood or adolescence, the decision is more likely determined by factors outside the learner's direct control. These factors may be related to the school system's foreign language options and parents' preferences. In contrast to language learning during childhood, language learning as adults is more likely to be an individual's decision driven by different motives which can be of personal or economic nature.

The literature so far has mostly focused on language proficiency and its determinants and largely abstained from a closer analysis of the process of language acquisition of adults itself - not least because of a lack of data. This project aims at closing this gap. As part of this project, a new "hand-collected" panet dataset on adult-age German language learning has been constructed comprising more than 100 countries for more than 50 years. The data is used, first, to investigate the demand side of course participation and the circumstances under which migrants acquire language skills and, second, to examine the effects of language learning opportunities on migration making use of exogenous changes in the supply of language courses.

The results help to understand the role of formal language courses in the language learning process of migrants, which is a very timely topic.

Second phase 2018-2020: Micro-level analysis

Language-Skill Investments and Migration Decisions

Silke Uebelmesser and Matthias Huber (in cooperation with Panu PoutvaaraExternal link and Till NikolkaExternal link, Ifo Institute, Munich, Germany)

Migration has become an increasingly important aspect of globalization over the last decades. A factor which is likely to be important for most migrants is language skills. Empirical research in the area of language and migration is, however, constrained by the scarcity of high-quality data, in particular individual level information on pre-migration language learning, language skills and migration intentions.

For this, we will conduct surveys among participants of language courses offered by the Goethe-Institut which is an important provider of German language courses abroad. Surveys among university students will complement these surveys. The data will contain individual level information on migration intentions, on previous migration experience, on language learning, including the reasons of learning or not learning, and on the level of existing language skills. Furthermore, there will be detailed information on the socio-economic background, in particular the level of education and the type of qualification.

The data will be used to investigate the reasons of language learning in the home country and its determinants, as well as the relationship between migration intentions on one hand and language skills on the other. Furthermore, the link between migration and the international applicability of acquired education will be studied. In addition, there will be an analysis of language-skill investments in the presence of potentially gender-specific migration incentives.

This is a joint project by the Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena and the info Institute for Economic Research at the University of Munich.


Publications in peer-reviewed journals

    • Fieles-Ahmad, Omar Martin and Matthias Huber (2022): “Learn German, Buy German? Language-learning opportunities abroad and exportsExternal link", World Economy (open access).

      Using data on the presence of the Goethe Institutes (GI) in 134 importer countries between 1978 and 2014, we study the effect that language learning opportunities abroad have on German exports. We employ a gravity model of trade with a single exporter and use the Poisson Pseudo- Maximum Likelihood (PPML) estimator to measure the relationship of interest. To gauge the importance of potential reverse causality, we also estimate the effect that institutes have on Swiss exports. Our findings for both Germany and German- speaking Swiss cantons show that institutes do stimulate exports to GI- hosting countries but that this effect is confined to institutes offering language training services. This finding suggests that language requirements and acquisition underlie the positive link found between institutes and exports. This reading of our findings receives further support in additional explorations, where we study exports differentiated by Rauch (1999, Journal of International Economics, 48(1), 7) product categories to account for differing communication requirements in trading.

    • Adema, Joop, Till Nikolka, Panu Poutvaara and Uwe Sunde (2022): “On the stability of risk preferences: Measurement mattersExternal link”, Economics Letters 210, issue C.

      We exploit the unique design of a repeated survey experiment among students in four countries to explore the stability of risk preferences in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Relative to a baseline before the pandemic, we find that self-assessed willingness to take risks decreased while the willingness to take risks in an incentivized lottery task increased, for the same sample of respondents. These findings suggest domain specificity of preferences that is partly reflected in the different measures.
  • Silke Uebelmesser, Ann-Marie Sommerfeld und Severin Weingarten (2022): „A macro-level analysis of language learning and migrationExternal link”, German Economic Review 23(2), 181-232.

    This article investigates the macro-level drivers of adult-age language learning with a focus on migration based on a new dataset on German language learning in 77 countries (including Germany) for 1992–2006. Fixed-effects regressions show that language learning abroad is strongly associated with immigration from countries of the European Union and the Schengen Area whose citizens enjoy free access to Germany, while language learning in Germany is strongly associated with immigration from countries with restricted access. The different degrees of uncertainty about access to Germany seem to be of importance for preparatory language learning. To shed light on country heterogeneities, we substitute the location fixed effects with a vector of country characteristics, which include several distance measures among others, and we estimate a random-effects model. Last, we provide some tentative arguments in favour of a causal interpretation. The main results related to the role of uncertainty are mostly unaffected. The Skilled Immigration Act from 2020 removes part of this uncertainty with potential positive effects on preparatory language learning and economic and social integration.

  • Uebelmesser, Silke, Matthias Huber, and Severin Weingarten (2018). "The German Language Worldwide: a New Data Set on Language LearningExternal link", CESifo Economic Studies 64 (1), 103 - 121.

    This article presents a comprehensive overview of German language learning for more than 100 countries (including Germany) over a period of 50 years. We provide new and unique data from the Goethe Institut, a German cultural institute which offers language courses and standardized exams. These data contain information about the supply of language learning opportunities, that is, the number and geographic distribution of institutes, and the demand in the form of course and exam registrations. These data not only show the development of language learning for the German language over time, but they also underline common trends and heterogeneities across regions.

Working Papers

  • Huber, Matthias, Till Nikolka, Panu Poutvaara, Ann-Marie Sommerfeld and Silke Uebelmesser (2022): „Migration aspirations and intentionsExternal link“, CESifo Working Paper 9708, Munich.

    We carried out two multinational surveys to analyze aspirations and intentions to emigrate, and how these are linked to each other. One survey covered language course participants in 14 countries, and another students in 6 countries. We identify two groups that have been largely neglected in previous research on migration aspirations and intentions: those who intend to migrate permanently without aspirations to do so and those who intend to migrate temporarily. Analyzing main motivations to emigrate shows that discrepancy among women is driven mainly by family, and among men by work and studies.

  • Huber, Matthias and Silke Uebelmesser (2021): "Language Learning: Human Capital Investment or Consumption?External link," Jena Economic Research Papers 2021-019, Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena.

    This paper focuses on foreign language learning as human capital investment or consumption. We apply the human capital investment framework to foreign language learning and enlarge it by adding consumption motives. Based on a novel dataset collected from language course participants in 14 countries worldwide, we estimate individual and country-level determinants of the different motives for language learning and of the expected use of language skills in the labour market. We highlight possible spillovers from the consumption motive to professional use in the labour market, which emerge mostly in a “tied-mover” context. This provides guidance for targeted migration and integration policies.

  • Huber, Matthias and Silke Uebelmesser (2019). "Presence of language-learning opportunities and migrationExternal link", CESifo Working Paper No. 7569, Munich.

    This paper analyses the effect of the presence of German language learning opportunities abroad on migration to Germany. We use information on the presence of the Goethe-Institut (GI), which is an association that promotes German culture and offers language courses and standardized exams. Our unique dataset covers 69 countries for the period 1977 to 2014. In this multiple-origin and single-destination framework, we estimate fixed-effects models as our basic specification. We find evidence that the number of language institutes of the GI in a country is positively correlated with migration from that country to Germany. The correlation is higher for countries with lower income, larger linguistic distance and without wars. To establish causality, we consider Switzerland as an alternative destination country, since the decision to open a language institute in a country is exogenous to migration flows from that country to Switzerland. We find that the institutes of the GI also affect migration flows to the German-speaking part of Switzerland, but not to the French- and Italian-speaking part. Backed by further extensions which control for the presence of multilateral resistance and omitted variable bias, we interpret our results as presenting a causal effect from language learning opportunities to migration flows.

Work in Progress

Empirical Analyses

  • Huber, Matthias, Ann-Marie Sommerfeld (University of Goettingen) and Silke Uebelmesser (2019). "Should I Stay or Should I Go? - Migration Decision-Making in a Multiple-Phase Model", mimeo.

    This study aims at contributing to the understanding of how migration decisions are made. For this, it examines individual and household level predictors of migration. Drawing on a survey of German language course participants, a framework is developed that describes the migration decision as a process of consecutive phases: a predecisional phase, reflecting migration intentions and an actional phase, reflecting migration behaviour. Through multinomial probit regressions, the characteristics which drive individuals to end up in the different decision-making phases are assessed. The results show that the influence of individual and household characteristics differs substantially over the different decision-making phases. While the intention to migrate is linked to individual characteristics like age and risk attitude, actual migration behavior is mostly driven by individual living circumstances like occupational status and social ties. Finally, substantial differences between men and women are found, with the importance of social ties being more pronounced for women.

The data is available to download hereExternal link.

Related publication:

Uebelmesser, Silke, Matthias Huber und Severin Weingarten (2018), The German Language Worldwide: A New Data Set on Language Learning, CESifo Economic Studies, 64(1), p. 103-121.


Publications (external) using the data:

Jaschke, Philipp and Sekou Keita (2019), Say it like Goethe: Language learning facilities abroad and the self-selection of immigrantsExternal link, IAB-Discussion Paper 14|2019, Nuremberg.

    • 2022
      Spring Meeting of Young Economists SMYE 26th, (Orleans, May 2022)
    • 2021
      SSES Swiss Society of Economics and Statistics Annual Meeting (online, February 2021)
      ESPE European Society for Population Economics 34th Annual Conference (online, June 2021)
      IMISCOE 18th Annual Conference (online, July 2021 – not presented)
    • 2020
      RGS Doctoral Conference in Economics (Dortmund, February 2020)
      Annual Meeting of Austrian Economists (Wien, February 2020)
      Fourth International Conference Understanding Voluntary and Forced Migration Lille (online, May 2020)
      ERSA European Regional Science Association 60th Congress (online, August 2020)
      IIPF 76th Annual Congress (online, August 2020)
      European Association of Labor Economics (EALE, online, September 2020)
      VfS Verein für Socialpolitik Jahrestagung (virtuell, September 2020)
      CEMIR Junior Economist Workshop on Migration Research (online, October 2020)

      Meeting of European Public Choice Society (cancelled)
      10th ifo Dresden Workshop on Labor Economics and Social Policy (cancelled)
      Congress of the Swiss Society of Economics and Statistics (cancelled)
      Annual Conference of the European Society for Population Economics (ESPE, cancelled)
    • 2019
      Jena Economic Research Workshop (JERW, Jena, June 2019)
      Empirical Micro Workshop (Halle, July 2019)
      CEMIR Junior Economist Workshop on Migration Reserarch (Munich, July 2019)
      Fachtagung "Bildung: Mobilität global denken" (Goethe-Institut, Berlin, October 2019)
      Empirical Micro Workshop (Jena, December 2019)
    • 2018
      International Forum on Migration Statistics (OECD, Paris, January 2018)
      German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD, Bonn, May 2018)
      Spring Meeting of Young Economists (Palma, May 2018)
      European Economic Association (EEA, Cologne, August 2018)
    • 2017
      Jena Economic Research Workshop (JERW, Jena, January 2017)
      Central-German Doctoral Program in Economics Workshop (CGDE, Jena, March 2017)
      Jena Lecture Series (JLS, Jena, May 2017)
      CESifo Area Conference Employment and Social Protection (Munich, May 2017)
      CEMIR Junior Economist Workshop on Migration Reserarch (Munich, June 2017)
      Empirical Micro Workshop (Leipzig, July 2017)
      European Regional Science Association (ERSA, Groningen, August 2017)
      Doctoral Workshop "Demographic Change, Migration and Integration: Interdisciplinary Perspectives" (Jena, September 2017)
      European Association of Labor Economics (EALE, St. Gallen, September 2017)
      CReAm/RWI Workshop on the Eocnomics of Migration (Essen, September 2017)
      Annual Conference of the Italien Society of Public Economics (SIEP, Catania, September 2017)
      Economic Research Seminar, University of Leipzig (Leipzig, November 2017)
      Dondena Workshop on Public Policy (Bocconi, Milan, December 2017)