A blog post written by Sydney Baker, Master student at the University of Luxembourg. Photo Credit: Sydney Baker

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These days, many of us move far from home, but that doesn’t always come with the need to learn a new language. Many of us are able to stay in our expat bubbles and not fully integrate into our new locations.

If you’re monolingual and live in a place where a language other than your native one is spoken, I’m sure you’ve likely said at least one of the following statements:

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand, do you speak [insert language here]?”

“Yes I speak [insert language here], but not very well.”

“Sorry I’m American/French/etc.”

However, all of the above have huge implications for how your life plays out in your new environment. The term for what you express through these statements, “monolingual cringe”, describes the mix of embarrassment and privilege monolingual speakers have with regards to language skills (or lack thereof).

Native English speakers are the typical example, however anyone for whom a native language is deemed “important” by society can experience the phenomena. This creates a dilemma for you. As an advantaged migrant, you may feel a bit of discomfort confronting your advantageous position, particularly when compared to other immigrants who speak “less desirable” (as deemed by capitalism and globalization) languages.

Globalization has, for better or worse, made some languages (namely English as well as certain Western European and East Asian) more important in the eyes of the world. These languages are largely viewed as tickets to more high-paying jobs and opportunities. If you speak one of these languages, you will likely be excused for not speaking others. You may debate the point of learning the language of your new locale, especially if it is not a commonly spoken one that you may never use again.

The privilege your mother tongue affords you allows you to avoid learning the local language in a way that speakers of “less popular” languages would not. Awareness of this fact is an important first step in overcoming what is called “monolingual cringe”, or the self-consciousness that stems from the feeling that you “should” be able to communicate fully in the local speech, yet.

Thus, to speak or not to speak, is both a question regarding your mother tongue and your host country’s language(s). What follows are the downsides to only speaking “your” language and positives to learning that of your new home!

Imagine the following scenarios (that make one resent the new home):
  1. You’re standing outside your child’s school, unable to engage in small talk with the other parents because you don’t speak the community’s language. Even if your language is widely understood, the local one is likely preferred for social situations.
  2. The neighbor comes by to invite you to a book club, but it’s held in a language you don’t speak. So you must decline and give up a potential opportunity to integrate into the area.
  3. Your child comes home and says “kéis” and “hibou”. You struggle to find a translation before realizing they’re two different languages.
Now imagine the following alternative scenarios:
  1. Throughout the first week of school, you make plenty of new connections by overcoming your fear of speaking a different language and chatting with other parents.
  2. After months (or longer) of complaining how difficult it is to make friends, you are able to join a neighborhood book club where you’re able to meet people and further develop language skills.
  3. Your child brings home new words from school, you flip through a dictionary, both expanding local vocabulary and sharing the experience of a new language.

All of the alternatives above make you feel good about yourself and your decision to move abroad! While it can be uncomfortable to confront your privilege and the inadequacy you likely feel as a monolingual expat, it is absolutely worth it! By making a bit of an effort to venture out of your “internationally renowned” mother tongue and integrate into your new home, you’ll feel a stronger sense of belonging.

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Further reading:

The article is part of the initiative Student Ambassadors of the Multilingual Experience. Our students have prepared some interesting topics for you – just scroll down the project page to the section "News“ – you will find more blog posts to enjoy!