Expats and immigrants: How we talk about human migration


On Friday, the Guardian published an article by Mawuna Remarque Koutonin arguing that the word expat (short for “expatriate”) is a label “reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad”. According to Koutonin, the word immigrant is set aside for everyone else — those considered to be part of ‘inferior races’.

I’ve seen a few people question the accuracy of Koutonin’s central claim. It’s not hard to find apparent exceptions to it. White Europeans have often been labelled immigrants, especially in the context of immigration to the United States. Furthermore, it’s not impossible to find an example of the word expat (or especially the more formal expatriate) being used for someone originally from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, or Latin America. For example, writers in Ghana may refer to Ghanian expatriates.

But despite these exceptions, does Koutonin still have a point? I gathered some data from the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWbE) to examine tendencies in the use of these words. Looking at the words that tend to occur around expat and immigrant, it looks like Koutonin is pretty much spot on.

The graphic at the top of the page features the words that have the strongest tendency to occur around either immigrant (or immigrants) or expat (or expats). Specifically, this means that the words running down the middle of the graphic appear nine words to the left or to the right of either immigrant or expat at an unusually high rate. (I’ve discussed this type of analysis, collocation analysis, here and here. I also give some more details about my analysis below.)

In terms of race, the graphic reveals clear tendencies toward immigrant being applied more frequently toward people of color, including tellingly the word non-white. Of course, reducing the issue purely to race would be a mistake.

As a Wall Street Journal blog post that Koutonin quotes concludes, the distribution of the word expat “depends on social class, country of origin and economic status”. The words expat and immigrant clearly have tendencies toward applying more to certain social classes and countries of origin (which, by the way, are not unrelated to race).

In particular, when people move from less wealthy nations (for example, Bangladesh, Haiti, and Mexico) to more wealthy nations, they tend to be described as immigrants. When they move from more wealthy nations (for example, the US, the UK, and Australia or “The West” generally) to any other country, they are more likely to be labelled expats. Furthermore, people who move across borders without highly valued skill sets are labelled immigrants (and sometimes called low skill or unskilled immigrants), although there is discussion of high-skilled immigrants as well. In contrast, expats are generally assumed to have wealth and/or some type of highly valued skill set. In short, upon arrival, expats are often elites in their new homes.

What are the implications of this differential labeling? I believe that the use of two different words reveals two different sets of expectations for people who move to a new country, especially related to their obligations to their new homes. In particular, immigrants are often expected to sever ties with their countries of origin, to remain in the host country indefinitely (and not return to the country of origin), to discard their languages and cultures, and fully assimilate into the dominant host culture. When they instead remain isolated from the dominant culture, use their native languages, maintain their cultures, and travel back to their home countries, they are portrayed as not living up to their duties as immigrants, especially in wealthy countries like the US.

In contrast, expats are clearly not held to the same expectations. It is expected that expats will maintain ties with their countries of origin, often travelling back and forth between new and old homes. Many expats will not learn the language of the host country or at least not learn it well. They often avoid and remain ignorant of the foods, the traditions, and the people of the country they now live in. Instead, local governments and business people often have strong incentive to cater to elite expats’ desire for communities that are largely separate from the rest of the host country. All of this seems to be okay with everyone, since after all they’re expats, not immigrants.

It’s not that I believe expats should be expected to assimilate to their host countries’ norms. My point is simply that people who end up being called expats usually come from countries that have notoriously stringent standards for the behavior of those called immigrants. This is clearly a double standard, favoring people of privileged races, nationalities, or social classes. If it is acceptable for those we label expats to maintain their difference from their host countries, then it seems hypocritical to suggest that those we label immigrants should cast off their languages, cultures, and connections to their countries of origin.

Some notes on methods

The data I used for the graphic above is from the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWbE). Collecting it involved generating collocations for the two main words of interest. I examined collocates for variants of expat and immigrant (if you click on the links you can see the actual searches I did). For both words, I included the plural (i.e. expats and immigrants). I did not include the more formal expatriate or expatriates. I believe the more formal variants are used differently from the truncated expat.

For each word, I extracted the adjectives (or the words that were identified as adjectives by GloWbE) that occurred within nine words to the left or the right at an unusually high rate relative to their occurrence in other contexts. I limited the search to those adjectives that occurred near expat or immigrant at least 50 times. The adjective collocates are ranked in the graphic according to their mutual information scores.

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Posted in Language and race, Language and social class
12 comments on “Expats and immigrants: How we talk about human migration
  1. Aelish says:

    Well that’s some unsurprising, but really discouraging, data. It goes a long way towards demonstrating the bias we employ through these words.

    There’s a lot of defensiveness going around the discussions of ‘expat’, as is pretty normal for any discussion calling out (hopefully subconscious) discriminatory language. But with such clear cut data sets, it’s hard to brush such concerns aside.

  2. […] recent articles (and some shocking linguistic data) have called out the way we apply expat, and now, a bit shamefully, I’m convinced […]

  3. Progressive Paradox says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Paradox.

  4. Michael says:

    I think we should also consider the point of view these words express. ‘Expat’ and ‘immigrant’ are english words. English on the internet is mainly used by people living/born in the US or Great Britain. The language they use express their specific point of view.

    Now there are people moving in and out of these countries. Now my hypothesis would be that people moving into the community are likely labelled immigrants while people moving out to live somewhere else are called ‘expats’. Which is exactly what these words mean in an etymological sense.

    Now the english speaking countries – especially those with a great output when it comes to things published in written form and therefore prominent in the corpus – happen to be western countrys mainly populated/governed by white people. People moving into these countries are necessarily from the rest of the world. In the case of the US this means Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe (This is also the explanation for ‘european immigrants’ in the US).

    This also explains why writers in Ghana can use the word ‘expat’ for their fellow citizens living abroad.

    That the word ‘immigrant’ is likely to occur near words with ‘bad’ connotation as shown in the graphic reflects the empirical socio-economic status of people moving in and out of english speaking countries.

    So my point is ‘immigrant’ and ‘expat’ might be just words describing the direction of movement, while the ethnical/racist/connotational tendencies stem from the economical difference between the english speaking countries and the rest of the world. And there is no implicit judgement connected to those words which doesn’t exist independently in the view of society on people moving in or out of the country.

    [Please note that English is not my first language. It is always difficult to deal with discrimination in a foreign language, especially on the internet and even more in a language aware context. If I used a word out of place or connected to a concept you disagree with, please consider that I might have used it because I’m not fully aware of all the implications.]

  5. […] came across this post on another WordPress blog, which discusses the controversy pretty fairly. Basically, the author […]

  6. […] blogger made the point that expats have fewer expectations on them, because they may not live in their host country permanently (as opposed to an immigrant), and […]

  7. […] [4] Les résultats et la méthodologie disponibles ici : https://linguisticpulse.com/2015/03/15/expats-and-immigrants-how-we-talk-about-human-migration/ [5] Pour lire l’article de Libération : […]

  8. […] and many colonial connotations were automatically associated with the term. According to Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, expat is a label only for “western white people going to live and work”, whereas the term […]

  9. […] artikel dat ik net noemde, gebruikt een interessante grafiek van linguisticpulse.com, zie hieronder. Deze website heeft onderzoek gedaan naar bijvoeglijke naamwoorden die relatief vaak […]

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