Being Multilingual: Expats and immigrants

Being Multilingual: Expats and immigrants

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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.

  • Expat(riate): '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'?

The difference between expats and immigrants

Intergrating 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 realisation that her favourite (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 recognised as citizens of more than one country – such as my Swedoguese children (Swedish/Portuguese) – 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

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 'abberations' 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. You can find her on Twitter.


Photo credits: Gaabriellablee (friendship fingers), Fluss (multilingual). 

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3 Comments To This Article

  • MossMan posted:

    on 8th May 2014, 08:49:07 - Reply

    LC - I think that what you have written is exactly what Madalena was getting at... *YOU* PERCEIVE immigrants to be low class and expats to be high class - therefore you describe it as such!

    Linguistically, there is NO such distinction. But that is how society imposes prejudice through language.

    As a white guy, I'm seen by others as an expat... "oh really? wow!". If my skin was browner, I bet I'd be an immigrant... "so what are you doing here? You must be glad you got this job. Are you sending money back home?" etc. etc.

    These are things I've observed from friends and colleagues and it pisses me off. Now I'm "back" in the UK. I've been an immigrant most of my life, and returning here after 30 years away, I still am one - even though UKIP'ers would never see it that way. My last port of call was France, along with 400000 other UK citizens. All immigrants. Should they all be "sent back to where they came from" too? Oh no, they're white. They're okay.
  • LC posted:

    on 6th May 2014, 17:22:06 - Reply

    Expats are usually from western countries and often well off (educated and able to apply their education in their new country). They are more able to take/leave what they want from their own country. More often go because they want to travel or try it elsewhere.

    Immigrants migrate from places where conditions are rougher (not first world), and often have few options on what they can do once they get there. They don't always have the means to have schooling in their own language, nor is that even desirable since the better paying jobs for them would hinge on learning the local language.
  • X. Niell posted:

    on 6th May 2014, 13:03:52 - Reply organise international exchanges for children from 9 y/o, and the results are incredibles. Many of our children decide to repeat the experience after the first exchange, so finally most of them are fluent in 3 or 4 languages. Living for 3 or 6 months with a selected foreign family is the best experience we can offer to our children ♥