The JGM BitBlog: Who am I here? Self-initiated expatriation and identity - the role of host country language proficiency

Journal of Global Mobility

Juan Miguel Rosa González, Michelle Barker & Dhara Shah, Griffith University, Australia

Self-concept and identity are what comes to mind when we think of ourselves. Our sense of self and the identities that sustain it are negotiated and constructed daily through social interaction in a context of familiar cultural cues. Expatriation entails a disruption to familiar sociocultural environments and diminished access to sources of social validation in a context of cultural novelty. This raises the question of how expatriation affects self-concept and identity. Building on identity theory (IT) and social identity theory (SIT), the study sheds light on this issue by exploring, through semi-structured interviews, the experiences of 30 Spanish nurses who relocated to Germany to work.

The results show that low proficiency in German, the host country language (HCL), was the major challenge to the nurses’ positive self-conceptions and professional identity. The Spanish nurses experienced foreign language anxiety (FLA), and the language barrier strained workplace interactions. Many developed negative self-views, and believed that their overall competence was questioned, due to their language limitations. Furthermore, the sensitive environment of healthcare, where communication breakdowns can have life-threatening consequences, added to the stressful experiences of the nurses. They coped with identity challenges by relying heavily on social networks of fellow co-nationals, mostly other nurses, who provided the necessary social validation. This, however, reinforced the salience of their Spanish cultural identity, and their perceptions of cultural differences between home and host countries. The nurses often resorted to cultural stereotypes in their depictions of host country nationals (HCNs), and used a predominantly monocultural lens when making sense of cultural novelty.

Increased proficiency in German over time, together with positive feedback, enabled the Spanish nurses to rebuild positive self-conceptions at the workplace, where interactions with HCNs became more satisfactory. They continued, nevertheless, to rely strongly on their social groups of fellow Spaniards, which hindered their embeddedness within the host country culture. Some nurses, however, had a more integrative approach to cultural differences, a cultural learning mindset that facilitated the preservation of positive self-conceptions despite communication difficulties.

The study has implications for both theory and practice. It contributes to theory building on identity challenges during expatriation through an enhanced understanding of the effects of HCL proficiency on SIEs’ self-conceptions. Moreover, it highlights how a cultural learning mindset can help overcome the barriers of cultural and language differences between the home and host countries. Implications for organisations include the need to ensure SIEs receive adequate language training. Further, organisations need to provide training for their multinational teams, including HCNs, focused on understanding how culture can manifest during workplace interactions and how best to increase cultural awareness at work.

To read the full article, please see the Journal of Global Mobility publication:

Rosa González, J.M., Barker, M. and Shah, D. (2021), "Host country language proficiency and identity: Spanish self-initiated expatriate nurses in Germany", Journal of Global Mobility, Vol. 9 No. 2, pp. 217-240.