This is a central question for most long-term expats. Language learning is difficult, time consuming, frustrating, and confidence-draining. It impedes interactions while I search for the right words; it impairs connection when I am reduced to expressing only simple ideas using a poor accent. There are just so many important things that have to be set aside to make room for hours of practice
But on the Yes, Absolutely side, it’s central to residency and immigration, to awareness of what’ going on in the community, to participation in social conversations. It help me to appreciate nuanced meaning in ideas and differences between cultures. It drives integration and acceptance, even if only for being seen to ‘make the effort’.
So, I was intrigued when NPR’s This American Life recently explored the relationship between language fluency and cultural integration among American expatriates living in China. The program is fascinating, revealing both the benefits and limitations of learning to speak the language.
One aspect is how native speakers view foreign speakers of their own language. The first portion of the program explores experiences of Americans drawn into Chinese media appearances. The feeling is that they have, first,they are being presented for their novelty value and, second, that they are being made fun of. A “performing monkey’ is the recurring characterization. But long-term expats fluent in the language discover that the situation is more complicated, tangled in perceptions of race and class. Benji comments Foreigners are considered cute and adorable. ‘Look, he's trying to speak Chinese.’ It's kind of like a baby who can't take care of himself and needs to be loved.
Will fluency enhance feelings of participation if it also brings clear realization of how others perceive you?
A second segment explores integration through Kaiser Kuo’s experiences. Kaiser runs an expat news service and weekly podcast through his Sinica blog and podcast. Fluency facilitates both broader and deeper awareness of the Chinese community around him. But it comes with a cost. Living here as an expatriate, you're going to see things that will cause your blood to boil… To make it day-by-day in China, most people try to keep a narrow focus on the world in front of them. Improve what they can, without getting overwhelmed by the bigger picture.
And this cuts both ways: Kaiser talks about the chasm that opens up during periods of misunderstanding between Chinese and US governments. When the US accidently bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, he suddenly felt his American-ness acutely: That was a moment of incredible realization for me, that there's still a chasm that I'll probably never actually be able to cross.
Does fluency actually enhance integration if the existential fact of being non-native remains a barrier?
Participation brings realization: integration has its limits. And, beneath it all, fluency both promotes and hinder the process.
I thought the program was fascinating, although many of the direct Chinese issues don’t have Dutch counterparts (or maybe I’m not far enough along to fully realize it yet). It’s a relevant and thoughtful hour’s listening (or reading) for long-term expats putting their experiences into context.
You get over these moments as an expat here. You go back to living with the knowledge that most of the time you'll be welcomed, treated with grace. But in the back of your mind, you know there will be another day, someday, when you suddenly find yourself an outsider.