Sociologist Cornelia Kristen explains why exposure is crucial when learning a language, and explores possible causes of inequalities in the educational attainment of immigrants.

Sabine Gysi: It is important for immigrants to learn to speak and read the language of their new home, where they may live for a long time. What factors have a positive influence on their language acquisition?

Cornelia Kristen: A distinction is made between three components of language learning. First, there is exposure: You have to be exposed to a new language – for example, through contact with native speakers or language classes. Second is efficiency, which basically means that some individuals are faster than others to learn a new language, or more gifted – this relates mainly to things like cognitive skills, which differ from one person to another.

“If you know that you will be staying for an extended period of time, it’s much more reasonable to make  investments. So incentives and motivation also play an important role.”

Third is motivation, or incentives. These are the things that make you more or less likely to invest in language learning. For example, refugees who don’t know whether or not they will be staying in the destination country are less likely to take a language class, since they may have to leave tomorrow. However, if you know that you will be staying for an extended period of time, it’s much more reasonable to make such investments. So incentives and motivation also play an important role.

SG: You co-authored the book Ethnische Ungleichheiten im Bildungsverlauf [Ethnic Inequalities in Education]. Are these disparities rooted primarily in society as a whole, or are they perhaps a function of the school system?

CK: There are many contributing factors; we shouldn’t immediately assume that institutions are the main cause. It’s better to first consider various factors that have been repeatedly shown to contribute to ethnic inequalities – and then we can come back to the role of institutions.

Most important are the conditions associated with a person’s socioeconomic background. They play a crucial role in school success, not only for immigrants and their children, but more generally.

For immigrants, however, there are additional things to consider, such as the resources they or their parents bring with them. For example, immigrant children are likely to lag behind their majority peers when it comes to their target language skills. Another factor is the degree to which parents are familiar with the local school system. Parents who attended school in a different country will be less familiar with the system and may find it more challenging to navigate.

“Institutional conditions can sometimes work in favor of one group, for example, children of lower social origin, while at the same time negatively affecting another group such as immigrant children.”

All of these factors contribute substantially to the ethnic gaps typically found in education. When it comes to institutions, the picture is less clear. While there are many assumptions about the impact of rules and regulations, both formal and informal, on educational achievement and attainment, the available evidence is rather limited.

Part of the problem is that it is difficult to design a study in a way that allows for variations in institutional conditions. In the ideal case, individuals would need to be randomly assigned to different educational settings, which vary in a specific institutional feature. Moreover, institutional institutional conditions can sometimes work in favor of one group, for example, children of lower social origin, while at the same time negatively affecting another group such as immigrant children.

Given the lack of a systematic body of evidence, I’m reluctant to draw definitive conclusions about the role of institutional factors, other than to say that they play a less important role than individual conditions do.

SG: Once children have overcome the barriers they encounter in school, they enter the labor market. You recently published a study about the difficulties Turkish immigrants encounter in the German labor market – for example, when their accent causes problems in their first job interviews.

CK: In this experimental study we took a sample of job offers from newspapers and websites and asked whether the position advertised was still available – it was a really simple design. The assumption was that individuals with foreign-sounding names and those with an accent would be rejected more often; our goal was to find out whether there was in fact discrimination, and if so, on what basis. We used actors and varied the accent – choosing a Turkish accent, for example – and the names.

We found that applicants with an accent were more likely to be told that the position was no longer available, but that the name made no difference. In most other studies the name matters as well, but our study was conducted by telephone, and it’s possible that the names weren’t clearly heard. So an applicant’s name might be less relevant when making contact by phone, but the accent is something you can’t hide, and it has an impact.

SG: What is the reason for such discrimination?

CK: This is exactly what our study wanted to find out. Do employers have a negative attitude toward a certain group? Is it simply a matter of preference? Or could it also be related to what we call statistical discrimination, which means that you form expectations about an individual based on the knowledge you have of a group as a whole? In these instances, opinions are based not on a specific individual’s productivity, but on perceptions of the productivity of a certain group.

Hiring someone with an accent for a job in which language skills play an important role has a cost in terms of productivity, and rejecting an applicant on that basis is qualitatively different from saying, “I won’t take this person because he’s Turkish. I don’t like Turks.” The challenge for these kinds of studies is to determine what the causes are of differential treatment. Is it about preferences, or about statistical discrimination?

SG: Are you saying that people will discriminate against someone without realizing that they are doing so?

CK: Definitely. Many things go on in our brains at an unconscious level. There’s no denying that using stereotypes simplifies life; you can’t get around it, even if you try. We all tend to do that. In many cases, people are unaware that their responses and actions are based on stereotypes – which, of course, is not an excuse for discriminatory behavior.

SG: Do teachers, too, unconsciously discriminate?

CK: Irena Kogan, Petra Stanat and I just conducted a project that looked at teachers’ expectations when children enter school. We were interested in the Pygmalion effect, the idea that over time, biased perceptions affect student achievement. If a teacher has low expectations, will the student’s performance decline?

“If a teacher has low expectations, will the student’s performance decline?”

In one of Germany’s states, we investigated this question for an entire school year, using different points of measurement, and we collected all kinds of information from the children, their parents and their teachers. Our basic finding was that teachers do indeed have biased perceptions, to some extent. And they are biased not only in terms of ethnic background, but also in terms of socioeconomic background and gender.


Cornelia Kristen is Professor of Sociology at the University of Bamberg, Germany, and head of the migration unit of the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS). Her major research interests lie in the fields of migration and integration. Recent publications include an edited volume on ethnic educational inequalities in Germany and several articles on immigrants’ and their offspring’s incorporation including language use and acquisition, education, and ethnic segregation. Her current work focuses on hiring discrimination and selective migration.


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