Sociology ETDs

Publication Date

Fall 11-15-2019


Host country language proficiency among resettled refugees has been associated with better mental health; yet, in qualitative studies, refugees describe psychological distress acting as a barrier to their learning. To clarify varying results, this longitudinal study of refugees from Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan (n=290) examined language acquisition with positive mental health and psychological distress as distinct concepts on correlated unipolar dimensions (Keyes 2002; Rumbaut 1989). With multilevel modeling, initial English speaking ability was significantly related to increasing positive mental health over time, indicating host country language proficiency acts as a protective factor for refugees, and supporting the growing body of research demonstrating the impact of social determinants on mental health. In contrast, refugees’ initial levels of English proficiency were not significantly related to changes in psychological distress, nor was initial psychological distress related to English acquisition over time. These findings indicate a lack of support for the hypothesis that psychological distress acts as a barrier to English acquisition and further corroborate growing evidence that positive mental health and psychological distress are related, but are not opposites on a single continuum. Higher levels of education and younger age were positively related to both higher initial English levels, and also increased rates of language acquisition. Although women initially had lower mean levels of English proficiency, their language learning growth rates were parallel with their male counterparts, a new finding with this wave of refugees.

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First Committee Member (Chair)

Jessica R. Goodkind

Second Committee Member

Reuben J. Thomas

Third Committee Member

Kimberly R. Huyser


English language acquisition; Psychological distress; Mental health; Refugees; Personal growth models; Hierarchical Linear Modeling (HLM); Multilevel Modeling; dual continua of mental health



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