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Expat Life, Bilingualism and your Cultural Identity

Expat Life, Bilingualism and your Cultural Identity

Every expat guide, including our own, will tell you that adapting to the culture of your home abroad is important. But how does one do so without losing their cultural identity at the same time. InterNations member Mathew has some thoughts on that aspect of the expat experience.

Pluralization — Yet Who Am I?

The intensification of worldwide social relations with regards to ethnicity, nationality, language, religion and gender has led to an increase of societal pluralization. This piece of old news also reveals one of the main challenges expats have abroad: The search for your own cultural identity.

Adapting to New Surroundings, Keeping Your Cultural Identity

My wife and I define ourselves as German-Americans and expats in our respective countries.  Moving abroad for a lengthy period of time and being an expat has its advantages and disadvantages. It is an act of balance: learning a new language, adjusting to family life, meeting new friends, and the development of our own cultural identity. As expats know best, a person can adapt differently to their surroundings. But I must ask my fellow expats: how are you adapting and yet are still able to keep your past cultural identity?

Language — Our Means of Communication

An astounding 54% of Europeans can speak two or more languages fluently. On the other hand, only 9% of Americans can claim to do the same. Although language is our main medium for the transfer of messages, what is the motivation of an expat to learn a foreign language at a fluent level and do I need it to "belong"? The best place to learn a foreign language is by experiencing immersion abroad, which happens automatically when you are an expat. As I moved to and lived in Germany, it was my personal goal to make more German friends than Americans. As a result, I was able to attain the German language very quickly. I was able to become increasingly self-sufficient and gained a feeling of belonging. On the downside, my native language competence level decreased in the process. I was occasionally embarrassed when I was forced to ask my fellow Americans what a certain word was called - I even had to ask “Uncle Google” periodically. And I noticed that due to my bilingualism, biculturalism was becoming my reality, with all its advantages and disadvantages. As a result, my languages, my communication had become a mixture - a bicultural identity mixture that can only be defined as uniquely "mine".

Living with Bicultural Identity and Creating a "Third Chair"

Defining yourself as bicultural is a statement of self-perception and can be confusing for those around you. People like simplicity, and you are definitely making things complicated. An interesting phenomenon when having to "switch cultures" is noticing that you have a set of life competences that are useful for one culture and a different set of life competences that are necessary for the other culture. And this is where the "third chair" theory comes in. Successful bicultural individuals create an internal "Third culture" (Third chair), consisting of competences out of both cultures, to tackle life’s challenges. This is an act of balance. Not only that, you have opened up several doors of potential success in your world of employment.

Adapting While Still Keeping Your Past Cultural Identity

As we live abroad, we are constantly receiving input which forces us to question, develop and define our personal cultural identity. Before taking a step abroad, please be conscious of which direction you would like to go and don't be afraid to redefine yourself. Redefining yourself is a part of life itself. But I must remind myself and others of a story from my elementary school years, which has helped me along the way. My favorite t-shirt "back in the day" had a picture of Popeyes' face on it. Five words were printed on that shirt: "I y'am what I y'am" As for my wife and I, it took us several years to be able to define ourselves. Still, we are conscious of the fact that our cultural identities are continually changing and influenced by our surroundings, which is definitely "just fine with us."


Mathew Ziegler is a German-American teacher/ trainer, translator, and web designer living near Freiburg together with his wife. In his free time he blogs about the challenges and opportunities of bilingualism and biculturalism, as well as daily life in Germany.

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