Last update on July 15, 2019

What’s the difference? Linguist Madalena Cruz-Ferreira considers the connotations associated with labelling foreigners as expats or immigrants.

Have you ever wondered why those of us who move to work in a different country are sometimes called expats and sometimes immigrants? The labels can’t reflect distance purposes behind the move, because both groups leave previous stomping grounds to seek (perceived) better conditions elsewhere. So I thought of trying to understand the reason for the choice of different labels.

We could start with standard dictionary definitions.

  • Expatriate: ‘one who lives outside their native country’.
  • Immigrant: ‘one who comes to live permanently in a foreign country’.

I wonder why these definitions can’t be swapped, in that neither expats nor immigrants live in their ‘native’ country – or that both are ‘foreigners’ in their new country, if we prefer. The word ‘permanently’ appears to hint at a difference, portraying immigrants as having moved for good, whether intentionally or not. Many immigrants leave their country not because they’ve ruled out returning to it, but because the only way to return to it and survive in it involves spending time elsewhere creating the means to do so.

On the other hand, if expats count as temporary visitors, I go on wondering what to make of families like mine (we rank as expats, not immigrants) who’ve stayed put in the same country for decades as permanent residents. How permanent is ‘permanent’?

Integrating into a new country and culture

We could try integration into the host community. Maybe not a good differentiator, on second thought, in that my thesaurus gives ‘alien’ and ‘outsider’ as head synonyms of ‘foreigner’. Whether quartered in dedicated compounds or roughing it out there in the mainstream jungle, neither expats nor immigrants are renowned for assimilation skills. Perhaps because we all tend to build our home even, or perhaps especially, when away from home?

I, for one, don’t see any difference between these two scenarios where I happened to play the role of confidant: the immigrant lady fussing about (substandard) standards of personal hygiene in her new country, and the expat lady who was devastated by her realization that her favorite (home) brand of coffee wasn’t available where she had moved to.

Could a differential (or do I mean deferential?) guest status in a host nation be it? The word expat does carry nicer connotations than the world immigrant, but connotations have nothing to do with what we are: whatever the labels we go by when we’re working in a new country, we’re aliens. We represent a nation within someone else’s nation, a foreign body in someone else’s eye.

Even when we are officially recognized as citizens of more than one country – such as my Swedish/Portuguese children – that citizenship is always hyphenated and therefore is always ‘special’. Vaidehi Ramanathan’s book Language Policies and (Dis)Citizenship explains the art of using citizenship as a weapon and/or shield, as needed. It is as if the countries ruled over us, the people. So no differences there either.

The language of expats and immigrants

Then, does the difference lie in our entitlement to the languages we brought along with us in the move? Expat children often attend schools featuring their home language. More often than not, these ‘international’ schools offer monolingual schooling, which means that it’s fine for little expats to stick to remaining monolingual, if they so are and they so wish. Immigrant children generally attend schools featuring the mainstream language.

More often than not, these local schools also offer monolingual schooling, which means that little immigrants must, in principle, become multilingual. I say in principle, because what happens in practice, more often that not, is that little immigrants find themselves discouraged to stick to any other language than the mainstream one.

There might be a few blurry edges here, though. Like immigrant families, multilingual expat families may also need to actively assert their right to keep their languages in good working order, as I report in my book Three is a Crowd?. Matthias Huning, Ulrike Vogol and Olivier Moliner put it this way, in their book Standard Languages and Multilingualism in European History: because of the principle of ‘one language, one state, one people’ […], multilingualism came to be viewed as an undesirable aberration. So do our linguistic aberrations further impact the way we are treated, in more than one sense of this word?

Reprinted with permission of Being Multilingual.

Madalena Cruz-FerreiraBeing Multilingual - Madalena Cruz Ferreira is a freelance linguist who works on debunking myths and misconceptions about multilingualism at home, in school, and in clinic. One of her books, Multilinguals are …?, is “a breath of fresh air in a field which desperately needs ventilation” (David Crystal), and “should be required reading for those who work closely with groups and individuals who use multiple languages” (Jeff MacSwan). She is Portuguese, married to a Swede, based in Singapore, and the mother of three trilingual children. She runs two blogs, Being Multilingual, on multilingualism, and Lang101 Blog, on linguistics for starters.