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Language Learning and Migration


Silke Übelmesser, 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 this children-age language learning, adult-age language learning 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 adult-age language acquisition itself - not least because of a lack of data. This project aims at closing this gap. As part of the project "Language Learning and Migration" funded by the German Science Foundation, a new "hand-collected" panel dataset on adult-age German language learning will be constructed comprising more than 100 countries for more than 50 years. The data will be 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 will help to understand the role of formal language courses in the language learning process of migrants, which is a very timely topic.

An article about the project "Learn German - And Then What?" hat been published in "German Research", the magazine of the German Science Foundation (DFG). (For the German version "Erst Deutsch lernen? Und dann?", published in "forschung", see here).


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.


The data is available to download here.


Work in progress:

Empirical Analyses

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

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.

2. Huber, Matthias and Silke Uebelmesser (2018). "Presence of language-learning opportunities abroad and migration to Germany", University of Jena, mimeo. (This version: January 14, 2018)

This paper analyses the effect of the presence of German language learning opportunities abroad on migration to Germany. We use a unique dataset that provides information on the presence of the Goethe-Institut (GI), an association that promotes German culture and offers language courses and standardized exams, in 77 countries for the period 1968 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 no violent conflicts. To establish causality, we consider Switzerland as an alternative destination country as the decision to open a language institute in a country should be 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.

Presentations (in chronological order)

Jena Economic Research Workshop (JERW, Jena - January 2017)

Central-German Doctoral Program 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 Research (Munich - June 2017)

European Society for Population Economics (ESPE, Glasgow - June 2017 - no participation due to an overlap with the CEMIR Workshop)

Empirical Micro Workshop (Leipzig - July 2017)

International Institute of Public Finance (IIPF, Tokyo - August 2017, no participation)

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 Economics of Migration (Essen - September 2017)

Annual Conference of the Italian 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)

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)