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What if living abroad is the norm?: Framing our research paradigm

A view from the other side of the valley

A view from the other side of the valley

In her blog “The effects of monolingualism” Madalena Cruz-Ferreira reflects on how the debate starts from the point of view that monolingualism is the norm making its ‘opposite’, multilingualism, an aberration. (

From this paradigm, research asks ‘what are the effects of multilingualism on language development?’ But, says Cruz-Ferreira, the opposite question is equally valid: “What are the effects of monolingualism on language development?”

“As far as I can tell,’ says Cruz-Ferreira in an earlier post, ‘multilinguals are quite ordinary human beings: they’re many and they’re ancient. There are more multilinguals than monolinguals the world over, and the use of several languages by the same individuals has been documented as far back in time as historical sources allow us to peer into our linguistic habits.”

Cruz-Ferreira’s blog makes us aware of the bias from which research was unintentionally based on. Then she reminds us that both these questions are pointless without taking into account the context in which they are asked. For instance, a more useful question may be ‘what is the effect of growing up in a multilingual family in a monolingual society?’

When my eldest daughter was 6 years old, we returned to the Netherlands where she started the equivalent of 1st grade in a Dutch school. We spoke French and Dutch at home and she had been in a French pre-school before our arrival. Everything I had read up to that point had said that in a bilingual family, each parent should speak their native language to their children, consistently. My daughter spoke French to me and Dutch to her father; both my husband and I speak each other’s language.

Upon our very first meeting, the school counsellor lectured me on the fact that I should stop speaking French. According to her, research in Holland pointed to the fact a second family language hindered the learning of Dutch. I am embarrassed to admit that my reply was rather rude. I informed her that I would not stop speaking in French to my children and I felt that her understanding of language acquisition was rather narrow and old-fashioned. As it came to pass, my daughter had no trouble perfecting the Dutch language but I never managed to bridge the difference between my multilingual experiences and the counsellor’s monolingual expectations.

The ensuing 15 years has seen a shift in approach to multilingualism and language learning. Cruz-Ferreira talks about how globalisation and current research has made multilingualism a hype: being multilingual makes us more flexible and creative, and keeps our brains younger… In the Netherlands nuance has been introduced into research on language acquisition. For instance, studies now recognise the effects of parental education levels and socio-economic and cultural backgrounds on a child’s language learning abilities.

How this applies to global nomads

Just as in the study of multilingualism, much research on the effects of living abroad assumes that the norm is to live one’s whole life in one place (country or city or neighbourhood…) However, human beings were nomadic long before groups began to settle. And, given the increasing mobility in today’s globalising world, the quaint security of being uni-national or uni-cultural may soon be a thing of the past. Therefore, perhaps in our research into the effects of being a globally mobile we shouldn’t be asking what is the impact of living abroad, but rather what is the effect of staying in one place throughout your your life.

Let’s just take the topic of identity, for example. We could be asking:

  • What does not living abroad do to the process of identity formation when you have no alternatives to chose from?
  • How do non-TCKs cope in a world that increasingly values flexibility, multilingualism and an ability to deal with people from other cultures?
  • Are there differences in non-mobile societies in terms of their openness to ‘others’ in general and TCKs specifically? Are societies that are more open also more ‘successful’ (however you want to define success)? Or is the criteria of uni-nationalisms or insularism a key to success?
  •  Is there a difference in the identity issues faced by TCKs who live in Europe (where multiculturalism is much more predominant) as compared to those who return to the US where living abroad is far less common?

A paradigm shift opens up and expands our way of understanding any given issue. It is like jumping from the peak on one side of the valley to the peak on the other side. From this new vantage point we can see that what we thought was a steep and dark gully is actually a deep rich forest.

From my TCK vantage point, research into mobility has often not reflected the world as I see it. For example I have heard the statement: Mobility is a high stress factor in a marriage and therefore there is a high rate of divorce among expats.’ In my personal (and therefore admittedly narrow) experience, I see far higher rates of divorce within my non-mobile network than in my mobile one.

Perhaps the question then is NOT ‘how does mobility affect marriages?’, but ‘would these marriages have worked even if the couples had never moved?’ My gut feeling is that global mobility is not so much a factor in divorce rates as the expectations, desires and dreams of the individuals in the marriage – just like with couples who stay put.

As far as I can tell, mobile individuals are quite ordinary human beings. Looking at our lives from the point of view of being normal may shed light on the human condition – for mobile and non-mobile communities. What do you think?


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