Bilingualism: a plus

Off the Board/Opinion by

According to a recent study, Canadians who speak both English and French are likely to have higher incomes than their unilingual peers. Louis Christofides and Robert Swidinsky of the University of Guelph found that a basic knowledge of a second language could positively affect one’s income.

Using data from the 2001 Canadian Census and adjusting for variables such as industry and education, Christofides and Swidinsky discovered that outside Quebec, women who can speak French earn 6.6 per cent more than women who cannot, and men earn 3.8 per cent more than men in the rest of Canada who cannot. Within Quebec, male Francophones with the ability to speak English make 7 per cent more, while women earn 8 per cent more than their unilingual colleagues.  

Christofides and Swidinsky said they were not surprised by these findings. There have been similar studies in the past, however Swidinsky noted that these “dealt only with the knowledge of, and not with use of language.”

For their study, Christofides and Swidinsky were interested in what they call “ability” bias. The study “tries to determine how much of the higher earning applies to those who actually use [the second language].”

The 2001 census was the first  with a section that asks if the responder is bilingual and if the second language is spoken at their place of work. Using this data, Christofides and Swidinsky found that within Quebec, English-speaking men can earn up to 21 per cent more than French-only colleagues, and women up to 15 per cent more. In the rest of Canada, however, such a discrepancy does not exist.

By separating language knowledge and use the study aimed to understand why an employer would pay a bilingual employee more.

Swidinsky suggests that some may believe that the ability to speak a second language comes with traits like sophistication, culture, and intelligence. The profitability of the use of English in Quebec, he says, is indicative of its large demand for English-language skills. On the other hand, Quebec operates in an international field, which generally requires multilingual abilities.

The McGill Career Planning Service, which helps McGill students find jobs, is aware of the positives of being bilingual. Director Gregg Blachford said that being a unilingual in Montreal could seriously hurt a prospective employee’s attractiveness.

Students who speak both languages, however, are “sought-after and have more opportunities,” Blachford said. “Unless you find a niche sector [such as the cultural or telemarketing industries], you need French to do well.”