By Dean A W Marriott, Director of the World Language Learning Centre at GEMS World Academy, Etoy
A decision to relocate to another country is one that demands careful consideration. The excitement of starting a new life abroad could soon become an uncomfortable reality if your ability to integrate locally isn’t as straightforward as expected.
The integration of migrants is a major challenge to countries and has been high on political agendas for many years, especially more recently. The Swiss Mass Immigration Referendum of 9th February 2014 highlighted this all too clearly.
The fourth edition of the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) was published in 2015 and is a tool which measures policies to integrate migrants in all EU Member States, Australia, Canada, Iceland, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey and the USA. It is a collaboration between CIDOB (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs), MPG (Migration Policy Group) and the national partners with co-funding from the European Commission.
In MIPEX 2015, Switzerland was ranked 21 out of 38 countries, Sweden was placed in first position, the USA 9th and the UK 15th. The study focuses on eight policy areas: Labour Market Mobility, Family Reunion, Education, Political Participation, Long-term Residence, Access to Nationality, Anti- discrimination and Health. Unsurprisingly, language competency is mentioned on numerous occasions throughout this report.
When looking at factors which explain whether immigrants find skilled and well-paid jobs in Switzerland, language was a key consideration: 23% of non-EU men and women, both low- and high- educated, do not speak one of the national languages (and few speak 2-3)
Some targeted support exists to ensure that immigrants have equal rights and opportunities to access jobs and improve their skills. However, this varies from canton to canton. Initiatives aimed at increasing work-related language courses have been established to help immigrants find jobs. In addition, basic language courses aimed at helping immigrants better integrate in their daily lives are also plentiful for the most vulnerable.
Organisations in Vaud such as Français en Jeu, Lire et Ecrire and Caritas offer free French classes to adults finding themselves in situations of economic and/or social hardship. These organisations work predominantly on the basis of volunteer teachers, who not only equip students with the necessary linguistic skills to gain autonomy in their daily or professional lives, but also give an insight into the local Swiss culture and customs.
One of my adult English students, Monique Polla, who is a Swiss national, has been a volunteer at Français en Jeu since May 2015. She works with a variety of immigrants from diverse backgrounds in small groups. She explained to me, “The classes are tailored to the needs of the students, who can select the most relevant topics from a menu of scenarios which extend from making a doctor’s appointment to applying for a job”. These organisations aim to encourage cultural exchanges and promote integration through linguistic independence and mutual understanding.
The Swiss education system is also very accommodating to immigrant children. Compulsory pre- primary education is available for all children from age 4, irrespective of their parents’ immigration status. MIPEX 2015 highlights that often this ‘includes targeted family outreach and support to learn the local and family’s languages. Since 2010, cantons get financial support for projects increasing immigrant pupils’ national and mother tongue language skills (e.g. teacher materials, training and extra courses)’.
The study concludes with policy recommendations from the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies. One of these relates directly to education ‘Increase uptake of adult education and training for all groups, including migrants’. I would personally like to see languages playing a key role here.
Before continuing, I’d like to pose a question: how do you refer to yourself in your new country of residence? According to the Oxford English dictionary, an immigrant is one who lives permanently in a foreign country, whereas an expatriate is simply a person who lives outside their native country. The inference being that expatriate signifies a less permanent status. Attitudes towards integration may, therefore, differ significantly as a result.
Having looked at the approach to integration and the importance of languages for immigrants, I want to redirect my focus somewhat by looking at the more transient expatriate.
Between March and May 2015, research company YouGov questioned nearly 22,000 expats based in over 100 countries for the eighth Expat Explorer survey commissioned by HSBC Expat, which is one of the largest global expat surveys.
The report states that a minimum sample of 100 expat respondents, including at least 30 expat parents, is required for a country to be included in the league tables. As a result, 39 countries qualified for inclusion in the report.
The survey examined 3 keys areas: economic, experience and family. In each of these areas 9 issues were questioned and an average score calculated. Switzerland’s overall ranking was 10th out of 39 countries.
It is interesting to break this down further and examine the rankings in the 3 key areas. Switzerland came top in the Economic league table, which looks at personal finances, the local economy and working life. However, once you look beyond the economic appeal of living in Switzerland, the ranking drops significantly. In the Experience league table, Switzerland ranked 26th out of 39, with little difference in the Family league table, where it took the 25th position.
So what is dragging Switzerland down in the ranking?
By dissecting these results further, it becomes evident that integration is a major issue. In the Experience league table lifestyle is examined. Although physical health and quality of life fares well, ranking 13th out of 39, when expats were questioned about the ease of integrating with the local people and forming friendships the results are radically different, with a ranking of 29th out of 39. The situation deteriorates further when looking at the Family league table where Switzerland secures its lowest ranking of 37th out of 39 in response to questions concerning social life, relationships and how welcoming the country is from a diversity point of view.
It is curious to note, however, that the situation does seem much more positive for the children of expats. In the Family league table, the impact of raising children abroad was considered: their health and wellbeing, ease of making friends and overall quality of life, which resulted in Switzerland being positioned 10th out of 39.
So, why do children apparently integrate more easily than adults when living abroad? It’s at this point that I would like to come back to the issue of languages. Language is not only in economic terms a barrier to entry, but also in a social context. For children, when put into a new environment and surrounded by a new language, they instinctively observe, listen, repeat and, more often than not, embrace their new environment. Naturally, some support is necessary, and, fortunately, the many educational systems in Switzerland facilitate this, whether state, private or international.
However, for the expat community, often relocating as a result of work opportunities where English is widely spoken, the desire to leave the expat bubble and acquire a local language is limited. Unlike their children, who often immediately encounter a need to do so, whether at school or as part of extra-curricular activities, and are able to see the direct benefits of this, the same need is not as apparent for adults. It’s a strange reality to see expat parents who don’t find time or effort to learn the language themselves, often acting as a major force to encourage their children to do so.
So, what is preventing these adults from learning a language when the opportunities are plentiful and the advantages abundant? Running a language centre gives me an insight into attitudes and the ability of being able to observe trends with regards to language learning. This is where it is necessary to revert to the early question about how you see yourself in your new country – expat or immigrant, as this appears to be a key motivational factor. Those who have relocated and see their residency as more permanent show a greater willingness to throw themselves into the local language and culture. It does require effort and is a long-term investment, but the benefits are there. And the more they learn, the more involved they become locally, the easier it gets and the faster the integration process develops.
For many expats, the effort of integration is too much. It is a long-term investment, and this is often in conflict with their short-term plans. Therefore, at an early stage, they determine that the initial costs of investment out-weigh the benefits. The appeal, and comfort, of the expat bubble may prove too hard to resist. However, even a basic knowledge of the local language, customs and culture can go a long way and open many doors. Language learning itself can be fun and help you to meet like- minded people from a variety of backgrounds. Learning a language is not simply learning lists of vocabulary. There are many avenues to acquire language skills: whether you learn through song, drama or sport, with languages, a little can go a long way.
Case study: Shinri Furuzawa’s story
I was born and brought up in England. My parents were Japanese, so I didn’t learn English until I started school when I was 5. At school, I studied French as my second language and did an A level in French literature. I also studied a language and civilisation course at the Sorbonne, and did a Paris Chamber of Commerce certificate in business French, when I lived in Paris. Having said that, my French has never been more than “passable”! I would hesitate to call myself fluent, but I get by in my daily life here in Switzerland.
I would say the knowledge of French I have has been very useful. It helped me get part-time work in Switzerland, as a volunteer at the local ludotheque, and at an Italian international school. I also have been able to handle the logistics of settling in here, dealing with doctors’ offices, insurance companies, banks, schools, garages etc. without great difficulty.
Despite some knowledge of French, however, I have found it difficult to integrate into Swiss society. I don’t blame local Swiss people for not wanting to invest time befriending someone who might leave within a few years. Fortunately, I find the large expat community here to be friendly and welcoming. I have met people with very exotic and varied backgrounds and such interesting stories to tell. I am quite happy in this social milieu. Perhaps if I had a different personality, I would be able to befriend more locals. I know some people who are fortunate enough to be able to make friends with anyone wherever they go. I am regretfully not one of these people, being shy and a bit introverted. Having children does force you to be more social, and I have always made an effort more for my children’s sake than my own!
Personally, I would advise anyone moving to another country to begin studying the language before they go. Even just mastering the very basics would give you a head start and make the transition easier. It’s the difference between not understanding a single word, which can be very intimidating and stressful, and being able to understand the general gist of what someone is saying to you. A willingness to communicate is key, as is respect for the local culture.