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Open Access Publications from the University of California

What Holds Back the Second Generation? The Intergenerational Transmission of Language Human Capital Among Immigrants


Research on the effect of parental human capital on children’s human capital is complicated by the endogeneity of parental human capital. This study exploits the phenomenon that younger children learn languages more easily than older children to construct an instrumental variable for language human capital. Thus, among U.S.-born children with childhood immigrant parents, those whose parents arrived to the U.S. as younger children tend to have more exposure to English at home. We find a significant positive effect of parent’s English-speaking proficiency on children’s English-speaking proficiency while the children are young, but eventually all children attain the highest level of English-speaking proficiency as measured by the Census. We find evidence that children with parents with lower English-speaking proficiency are more likely to drop out of high school, be below their age-appropriate grade, and not attend preschool. Strikingly, parental English-language skills can account for 60% of the difference in dropout rate between non-Hispanic whites and U.S.-born Hispanic children of immigrants. (JEL J13, J24, J62)

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