I did, almost seven years ago. My personal knowledge is limited to my 2016 move from the U.S. to Spain, but I’ll dare to parlay that experience into guesses about expatriatism elsewhere. My opinion feels stable.
This post is slanted toward those contemplating long-term or lifetime moves, and not toward those who intend only to keep house in a new land short-term. It also errs on the side of pessimism, assumes a half-empty glass. I assume that you already see the ‘pros,’ need to consider ‘cons.’
EXPAT OR IMMIGRANT?
Plug this subhead into a search engine and you’ll see that many already have pondered the difference. My personal line-drawing between the two, boldly drafted by consulting the transitophile pants seat:
(♦) Money. Expats have at least enough of it to jump frontiers without leaning on the social services of the countries they enter. Immigrants sometimes have money, too, sometimes have lots of it, but also may arrive penniless.
(♦) Cachet. Our Yankee fore bearers missed the Welcome, expats! sign at Ellis Island and Castle Gardens.
(♦) Permanence. The ‘nomad’ part of ‘digital nomad‘ means that digital nomads are always expats.
(♦) Assimilation. Or, involvement with and commitment to the culture and norms of the country entered, particularly as regards language.
Many British retirees on Spain’s south coast make little or no effort to learn Spanish. Customers started conversations in English in a Marbella bookstore, a former employee told me, assumed that they would be understood and answered.
I see myself more as immigrant than expat, which makes the title of this post a bit disingenuous. I’ll use both words from here on in.
CHALLENGES, ALL EXPATS
(♦) Bureaucracy. Red tape.
The heft and formidability of the red tape will depend on your particular ‘to’ and ‘from.’ But there will be red tape, likely lots of it. Forms, proofs, copies, verifications, permissions, appointments; lines to shuffle feet in, web pages to pore over. You’ll suffer less if you work with a qualified professional, but it’s still going to be a slog.
The red tape ordeal is likely finite. I now have the equivalent of permanent residence, only have to renew the residency card every five years, and not the underlying permission. But I still have to file yearly tax declarations in two countries, although I now pay taxes only in Spain.
(♦) Your stuff.
I brought everything with me to Spain, as detailed in a 2016 post. That’s expensive, and requires a conviction that the move is for keeps.
The expats I’ve met haven’t been ready for this magnitude of knot-tying. That means living long haul without whatever won’t fit into suitcases and, inevitably, buying new replacements for the perfectly good furniture, clothes, appliances left behind.
The expat is a citizen of one country while living long-term in a second. One or the other country can change rules to make that arrangement less palatable, and may do so deliberately, if the expat belongs to a trend that one or the other country wants to curtail. Malaysia offers an extreme example.
ARE YOU JUMPING LANGUAGE SPHERES?
(Or language kingdoms, maybe. Or perhaps crossing language barriers. Language domains is already taken.)
I see this question as crucial, pivotal, the great divide between expat wannabes. If your answer is ‘no’ — in a monolingual English speaker’s move from the U.S. to Australia, say — then you may face only the challenges listed above. If your answer is ‘yes,’ as mine was, then your outlook also may hinge on your answer to a second question:
WHAT KIND OF EXPAT/IMMIGRANT ARE YOU?
I’ll never forget the candor of a former student who explained her reason for ditching the adult night class I then taught in remedial English. The class hours, she said, conflicted with her schedule of favorite soap operas. English could wait … as it already had waited during her more than two decades in Spanish-speaking East Los Angeles.
An extreme example of indifference toward assimilation, certainly, but she’s not alone. Madrid is much poorer turf for a monolingual angloparlante expat than Marbella, but I once met a Brit here who has learned only a few dozen Spanish words after two decades in Spain’s capital.
The language learning refusenik exists in a kind of corral, a limbo, may fear travel outside of a narrow-walled language ghetto, may regularly have to enlist help for chores that only can be managed in the unlearned tongue. But: lots of people live that way. Some also live with expired visas or no visas, although any casual encounter with the police could become a life-transforming black swan event, and even though many could become fully legal residents with reasonable effort.
The monolingual English refusenik can get by much more easily than native speakers of other tongues. English is high value, high prestige. Many Spaniards would be delighted to practice their English all day with an angloparlante, and likely would barter informal help in Spanish errands and chores for the privilege. The situation may be even more agreeable in northern European countries that rate higher in English proficiency. An expat in Scandinavia and Germany can count on being surrounded by English-speaking locals.
But, I doubt these locals regularly use their English with each other. The monolingual English speaker’s language ghetto may be large, accommodating, but it’s still a ghetto. If you won’t settle for life in that ghetto, if you’re determined to both have and eat your figurative cake by jumping language spheres and communicating in French, German, Spanish or Bhojpuri in your new land about as you comfortably as you do in your native tongue, then …
YET ANOTHER MEDITATION ON FLUENCY
… know what you’re getting into.
In a 2018 post, I lamented my past illusions about a mythical “Fluency Kingdom” that would lower its drawbridge to me if I kept slugging my way through irregular verb conjugations. Some day, some how, a previously elusive lingual puzzle piece would >>CLICK<< into place, and I’d be a made man, would thereafter gab as breezily at Rodilla as a native speaker.
Hogwash! In place of the drawbridge, imagine a steady, never-ending slope, that extends from your first ¡Hola! to the moon, or Pluto, or maybe Andromeda. Progress will depend on effort, aptitude and your age when you started the climb. I was nearly forty when I started, and have learned most of my Spanish after arriving in Madrid as a retiree. I expect to still be hoisting my dogs on that slope when I meet my maker, and won’t ever be as fluent in Spanish as I am in English.
I fear sounding too pessimistic. I have assimilated, did successfully cross language spheres. I have Spanish friends, participate in all-Spanish activities, even occasionally dare now to host some Spanish events, and the participating Madrileños don’t snicker or throw stuff at me when I do. (Yet.) I like it here. I’m glad I moved.
But: it’s only a toro pasado that I realize how huge the undertaking has been, that my years-long struggle with Spanish qualifies as one of the largest undertakings of my life. And I still don’t, and won’t, speak, listen, read or write in Spanish as I do in English.
My accent remains strong. I consistently trip over the pronunciation of some Spanish words, as actor Antonio Banderas reportedly suffers to say the word ‘animals,’ may litter sentences with fruity preposition choices and gender errors, can’t tell a joke or anecdote in Spanish as I can in English. I rarely write in Spanish on this blog because I don’t trust my Spanish grammar choices. And finally: I still don’t always understand everything that’s said to me, despite those bulging DVD binders of Spanish movies.
An example: Three days before posting this entry, after all the efforts described in this blog, a Spanish friend caught me in three blunders: I had said Me atreví ir … instead of Me atreví a ir …, had confused día siguiente with próximo día and, more embarrassingly, had said Había muy común … instead of Era muy común …
Minor errors, by expat standards. He understood me. Others would have, too. But I don’t make such mistakes in English, yet now plan to spend my remaining days in a land where I do make them. In the U.S., I was an old bald guy who could talk. Now I’m an old bald guy who talks like, well … an immigrant.
I continue to see a special niche for some children of Latino immigrants to the U.S., who may be fully fluent in Spanish and English before puberty.