Hyyppä, M. T., & Mäki, J. (2001). Individual-Level Relationships between Social Capital and Self-Rated Health in a Bilingual Community. Preventive Medicine, 32(2), 148–155.
Previously, I have written about how bilingualism affects individual health. For example, research from Canada has shown that there is a delay in the onset of the symptoms of dementia in individuals who have spoken more than one language for the majority of their lives; and that in indigenous communities where the indigenous language is maintained, or revived, there is a significantly lower youth suicide rate in comparison to similar Canadian communities where the indigenous language is not maintained. Such studies confirm that, for the individual, learning to speak another language – and in the latter case, the language of one’s heritage – can have far-reaching positive effects on health.
The present study by Hyyppä and Mäki, examined how health and language interact in Finland. For starters, it is important to note that Finland is officially bilingual; most Finns are Finnish native speakers, but there is a small minority of native Swedish speakers (there are also other minority languages in Finland, such as Saami). One of Hyyppä and Mäki’s claims is that variables associated with health would differ across the two language groups even though all the individuals who responded to their large-scale survey (284 Finnish-speaking and 271 Swedish-speaking men and 374 Finnish-speaking and 355 Swedish-speaking women) came from the same bilingual Ostrobothnian municipalities in Finland, i.e. everyone had access to all the same health resources. This is different from other studies in which different language groups were geographically separate and hence might not have been exposed to all the same health resources.
Before embarking on the results of their own large-scale questionnaire, Hyyppä and Mäki provide some rather shocking results from similar studies in Finland, which are worth repeating here (references have been omitted, but are present in their original publication).
“Ever since epidemiological health surveys have been published in Finland, total mortality rates have favoured the Swedish-speaking minority. Significant disparities have been established in the annual suicide rates, violent and accidental death rates, and especially in cardiovascular mortality. The life expectancy of the Swedish-speaking people living in the Aland Islands and in Ostrobothnia ranks among the highest in the whole of Europe. Through 1991-1996, the Swedish-speaking men lived on average 8.7 years longer than their Finnish-speaking compatriots. Swedish-speaking women died at the age of 82.9 years and Finnish-speaking women at the age of 78.1 years. […] [W]e conducted surveys […] and found that the age of disability retirement fell at 48 years among the Swedish-speaking men and at 36 years among the Finnish-speaking men. For women, the corresponding ages were 53 and 45 years.” (p. 149)
To a certain degree, the results from Hyyppä and Mäki’s study corroborate these findings. For example, they found that Finnish speakers were more often unemployed than Swedish speakers; the Finnish population was more likely to drink until drunk than their compatriots; the Swedish speaking women were on average more educated than Finnish speaking women; and the Swedish speaking men were also more likely to participate in community events than the Finnish speaking males. Interestingly, the Finnish speaking population also showed more distrust. (Here, the specific questions were “Generally speaking, would you say most people can be trusted”? and “Do you think most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance?”). However, Hyyppä and Mäki continue that in their study good self-rated health, disability, and diagnosed long-term diseases were equally frequent in both language groups, which is perhaps due to the fact that, indeed, all their participants had access to the same health resources given that they were all from the same geographical area.
Nevertheless, to explain the apparent disparities between the two language groups within the same bilingual Ostrobothnian municipalities in Finland, Hyyppä and Mäki propose that the Swedish-speaking group holds more social capital than the Finnish-speaking group. The term social capital originates from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who put forth the idea that material wealth is only one form of capital; according to Bourdieu, and subsequent linguists, language is a form of capital and people can be at the wealthier ends (here, speak Swedish) or at the poorer ends (here, speak Finnish) of the language capital’s scale. For Hyyppä and Mäki, social capital refers to “the properties of the individuals who adopt positive feelings toward others and belong to voluntary associations, which have been shown to reduce psychological stress, and therefore may promote good health” (p. 149). Their suggested rather direct relationship between membership in voluntary associations and positive feelings towards the group is perhaps somewhat speculative. However, their more general claim that membership to a specific language group within a bilingual community may have social advantages over membership to the other language group – and that this membership can impact health – indeed appears to be validated by both the results from their own and colleague’s research.
That speaking one language over another can be socially advantageous is not really surprising. Some dialects are more “respected” than others, and likewise, some languages give rise to greater opportunities than others. Hyyppä and Mäki’s research is novel because it suggests that via social capital the use of one language over another links to the health of the speakers. To gather more information on this, it might be worthwhile to investigate bilingual families. What do the health prospects look like for Finnish-Swedish bilingual children in Finland? Do they diminish cross-generationally if Finnish becomes the dominant family language? It would also be worthwhile to investigate other bilingual communities (I’m thinking of cities which are officially bilingual, such as Montreal and Brussels, as well as cities which have high immigrant populations, such as London and Lyon). Here, it would be reasonable to assume that as the immigrant group acquires the language of the socially advantaged group, the health of the immigrant population might also improve. However, such speculations would need to be viewed in light of other research, such as that of Hallett, Chandler, and Lalonde, which suggests that maintenance of the heritage language improves health (i.e. lowers youth suicide rates in indigenous populations).
Perhaps it is both – acquiring the language of the majority alongside maintenance of the language of one’s own identity (i.e. bilingualism) – which is most beneficial to an individual’s health.
Esther de Leeuw