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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8 Comments To This Article

  • Bill posted:

    on 22nd May 2014, 09:53:14 - Reply

    I agree that the words used to describe ones status as immigrant/expat are important to the perception. However, I think the postitve or negative view is somewhat more complex than just questions of skin color. I have spent time in both Italy and Belgium and I find that people in both countries are generally pretty open to foreigners, as long as they do not perceive them as a threat. (This, despite the ugly official propaganda concerning "clandestini" dying in the Mediterrenean and Romanian/Albanian gangs France/Belgium.) I, as a white American, am not perceived as a threat and have never had any hostility directed at me as a result of my original nationality. North-Africans tend to be viewed as more of a threat because a significant number seem to adhere more to traditions that are alien to many Europeans (Islam, other home-country customs) and resist almost all attempts at integration with their new home communities. The problem is, once this dynamic gets going, it feeds back on itself and resistance from the local (Italians and Belgians) population appears in the form of xenophobic/populist politics and sometime open violence.

    Interestingly, the experience of Central Africans (non-islamic) seems different. Many that I have had contact with seem to suffer less discrimination than the North Africans. The level of literacy was much higher and their attitude toward at least partial integration was much better. It comes as no surprise that they are viewed much less negatively. There is always some Northern League or Vlaams Belang clod that will bash them, but most locals seem to have a very high opinion of their industriousness and non-agressive demeanor. So much so that Cicile Kyenge was elected into the Italian Parliament and became a Cabinet Minister. (Hope to see more of this!)
  • Petrus posted:

    on 21st May 2014, 16:17:06 - Reply

    Strange how some people always keep themselves busy tracing all sorts of strange illusionary defined ghosts. I mean being in the privilege position to be called an 'Expat' /'Immigrant' is 99,9% out of own choice and own 'selfish' reasons of which financial security is the most important. Only two definitions and you know exactly who what you are. But ever thought how people must feel that's associated with that miserable sounding Dutchie designed concept that sounds more like an extinct insect namely 'ALLOCHTONEN'. Jewish man, after 24 Wikipedia definitions I came to the amazing conclusion that it must meant something in the line of ; you are quite able in at least 2 languages, can vote sometimes in 2 different countries, live on to continents, can enjoy at least two pension Funds in future if you are a fly personage, enjoying more than one culture, know how it is to surf the web at Maximum bps, excellent education…and so on. Really how boring to be and called a LOCAL JOCAL alias AUTOCHTOON. No, thats not for me thank you!
  • MossMan posted:

    on 13th May 2014, 08:17:59 - Reply

    And if you're a non-white woman, then you're labelled as another class of immigrant. The first questions in every conversation: "so... are you married...? Is he [local]? Do you have kids?".

    Again, this is direct observation of people I know.
  • Madalena Cruz-Ferreira posted:

    on 11th May 2014, 10:39:58 - Reply

    Much food for thought you give here, LC, MossMan and Jess! What we do with the words that we use (or create, or inherit), like ‘expat/immigrant’ here, never ceases to fascinate me. What do they mean, really, and why do we use them? Your comments show that I’m not the only one wondering about these things, and that it is *very* relevant to do so. Thank you so much for joining this discussion!
  • Jess posted:

    on 9th May 2014, 15:41:54 - Reply

    Yeah I was a bit confused by LC's definition there of immigrants -

    "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."

    I've migrated from Ireland to Belgium. Conditions are rougher in Ireland than they are here. But Ireland is a fully developed country? Yes, I'm well-educated and white but my succeeding here does still hinge very much on my learning Dutch.

    As my Belgian boyfriend sarcastically and grimly says, "You're okay here. Belgian media really hates immigrants but you're okay. You're the right colour of immigrant."
  • 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 ♥