Daniel Auer, Johannes Kunz
Language and Infant Health: Causal Evidence from the Swiss Language Roulette

IAB-ECSR interdisciplinary conference "Refugee migration and integration revisited: lessons from the recent past", (virtual conference), May 27th to May 28th, 2021

Health at birth strongly predicts chances later in life and several environmental factors have been shown to causally affect health in-utero and at birth. We assess a new dimension, that is communication barriers and whether they can causally transmit socioeconomic disadvantages across generations via health at birth. To address this question we leverage a unique natural experiment in Switzerland where refugees are conditional-randomly allocated across the country's distinct language regions (German, French, and Italian). Switzerland receives a large share of refugees from countries with exposure that match these languages (French or Italian), which allows us to identify the effect of mothers' language match on child health outcomes. Using administrative data on all refugees entering the country linked to all births that occurred between 2010 and 2017, we find substantial benefits of being allocated to a familiar language environment. Our results are robust to various alternative specifications and model tests. Contrasting the language match with high-quality networks of recent refugee mothers in the region suggests that social networks substitute for the benefits of being allocated to a familiar language environment. This supports the hypothesis that communication barriers are likely drivers of our results. Given the well documented long term effects of poor health at birth, our results further suggest that communication skills can have important inter-generational effects that are already measurable at birth.