Immigrants to Canada who continued to struggle to speak English or French after four years tended to report poorer health, but gaining language proficiency seemed to help, a new report suggests.

Statistics Canada released its report on official language proficiency and self-reported health among immigrants on Wednesday. The report was based on a survey of about 21,000 immigrants who settled in the country in 2000 and 2001 who were tracked until 48 months after arrival. 

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Monica Meza Verastegvi, a refugee claimant living in Calgary, spoke in 2009 about her experiences since coming to Canada. Language proficiency was the only factor associated with self-reported health for both male and female immigrants. (Bill Graveland/Canadian Press)

Several studies have shown that new immigrants report better health than the Canadian-born population when they arrive but with time, this "healthy immigrant" effect often fades. The researchers wanted to explore whether language proficiency could be a factor.

In the first such Canadian study to look at the role of persistent limited language proficiency of immigrant health, the researchers found that limited ability to speak English or French was associated with a decline in self-reported health among male and female immigrants.

"Those who gained language proficiency were found to have a health outcome similar to those with persistently good language proficiency," Edward Ng of Stat Can’s health analysis division in Ottawa and his co-authors concluded.

"This suggests that the benefits of acquiring official language skills may not only be social and economic, but may also be associated with the maintenance of health."

The survey did not look at language training specifically, but it did show the benefits of having a good command of official languages, Ng said.

During the study, the prevalence of poor self-reported health among those with persistently limited language proficiency rose from five per cent to 12 per cent for men and from eight per cent to 21 per cent for women.

Male, female differences

Persistently limited official language proficiency was the only factor considered significant for both men and women, the researchers said.

Prof. Barry Chiswick at the University of Illinois in Chicago found similar results for language proficiency among immigrants to Australia, Ng said.

For men, other factors associated with a health decline included coming to Canada as a refugee, reporting frequent exposure to discrimination and living in Vancouver.

Among women, the factors included older age, having problems accessing health care, and a perception of unfriendly neighbours.

Respondents were surveyed at six, 24 and 48 months after arrival. Data for all three waves were available for 7,716 people.

The authors noted limitations of the study. For example, language proficiency and health status were self-reported instead of being objectively and consistently measured. Also, the survey did not collect data about behaviours such as smoking and physical activity that might have influenced self-reported health.