Language Learning and Migration

Image: J.-P. Kasper
DFG Image: DFG

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 wants 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 (2018–2020), a micro-level analysis will complement this.

About the project:

First phase 2015-2018: Macro-level analysis Show content

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 skilkls 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 Show content

Language-Skill Investments and Migration Decisions

Silke Uebelmesser and Matthias Huber (in cooperation with Panu Poutvaara and Till Nikolka, 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 and previous migration experience as well as 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 the one side and language skills on the other side. Furthermore, the link between migration and the international applicability of acquired education will be studied and, 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 Show content


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

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, an the demand in form of course and exam registrations. These data do not only show the development of language learning for the German language over time, they also underline common trends and heterogeneities across regions.

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, it is assessed which characteristics drive individuals to end up in the different decision-making phases. 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.

Huber, Matthias and Silke Uebelmesser (2019). "Presence of language-learning opportunities and migration", 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 as 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.

Uebelmesser, Silke and Severin Weingarten (2017). "A Macro-level Analysis of Adult-age Language Learning", CESifo Working Paper 6511, Munich.

This article investigates the macro-level drivers of adult-age language learning. We construct a new dataset that covers German language learning in 77 countries (including Germany) for 1992-2006. Fixed-effects regressions show that language learning in the EU is strongly associated with immigration. Instead, immigration by non-EU citizens in associated with language learning in Germany. Additionally, trade flows are strongly associated with language learning in non-EU high-income economies.

Data Show content

The data is available to download here.

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.

Presentations Show content
  • 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)
  • 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)
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