Language schools and the persistence of boundaries inside the expatriate community

5 November 2019

Mathilde Bernard was an intern at the Expatriate Archive Centre from February through April 2019. She recently earned her master’s degree from Erasmus University of Rotterdam in Global History and International Relations. This is her second in a series of articles covering Dutch expatriates living in mid-19th-century Nigeria; read the first article in the series here

By Mathilde Bernard

In this article, I look at a public institution of the expatriate camp — the language school — and what it can show us about the relations among expatriates inside the camp. This article derives from my thesis about Shell expatriates’ identity in Nigeria between 1955 and 1960.

Expatriates that moved abroad were generally accompanied by their families. When children were old enough, they were often sent to boarding schools, which were paid by the company. However, before they were old enough, they often went to kindergarten and primary school in the expatriate camps. The language school seems to be one of the necessary institutions you had to have on a proper expatriate camp. As Cohen wrote in ‘Expatriate Communities’, the fact that the curriculum was taught in the native language of the family was primarily important for two reasons. The first one is because it maintained a relationship with the home country.1 In this regard, studies about the transmission of the parent’s language in migrant communities have shown that language was often considered as “a means of transmitting their culture and traditions, thus encouraging the maintenance of the children’s ethnic identity”.2 Language is often viewed as an introduction of the parent’s culture for the children. The second reason is more specific to the expatriate situation. As noted, children that were old enough were then sent to boarding schools, most of the time in the native country of their parents. It was thus particularly important for expatriates that the children had an education as close as possible to the one they will have received at home.3 This is why, as most expatriates either came from the Netherlands or the United Kingdom, there were, on the Shell camp in Nigeria, an English school and a Dutch school. In a little paper note, a child wrote the following extract about what he remembered from his time in Nigeria:

“I don’t remember very much about when I was very small. But I do remember about Nigeria. Then I was in nursery school. In front of our Dutch nursery school there was an English nursery school. We were collected by the same bus. The English children sat on the left-hand side and the Dutch children on the right side. It happened sometimes that a Dutch kid had to sit on the English side because the Dutch side was full. Then we always sang ‘Jij bent lekker een Engelse’ [Now you’re English]. The English didn’t understand this and when they were angry with a Dutch child they would say (They thought this was a swear word): ‘Jij bent lekker een Engelse’.”4

Besides from being a good illustration of the fact that there were English and Dutch schools in the camp, this quote also highlights a certain persistence of national boundaries inside the Shell expatriate community.

Other expatriates around the world have a tendency, when possible, to stay with other expatriates of the same nationality.5 If, as the example shows, there was a distinction present between the children, the case for adults inside the Shell community is a bit different. When I asked the expatriate wife I interviewed about this, she told me that between the adults there were no real distinctions between who was Dutch and who was English and that everybody interacted with each other.6 This shows that the Shell expatriate community differed from other expatriate communities to the extent that instead of being organised around national barriers, people tend to share a common identity, which is the Shell identity. However, if the community was not organised around national affiliation, national links continued to be often relevant. The following extract of a British woman that had to stay with a Dutch family before she had to give birth highlights this:

“I was staying with a Dutch family, who, you know, I don’t want to (sighed and laughed), I am sure Dutch people have proper cooked meals, but every meal was, was bread and, and bits sausage and, and cheese.”7

This extract that may seem anecdotal demonstrates that despite the fact that Shell expatriates often felt like they were part of a bigger “Shell family”, as the same woman explained in her interview,8 there were still some unconscious and implicit distinctions between the Dutch and the English Shell expatriates.

Sometimes small notes can reveal more than we might think. In this case, the anecdote of the child shows the persistence of national boundaries inside the expatriate camp. Despite the strong Shell identity, which will be further discussed in a following article on expatriates’ wives, there was still an at least tacit distinction between the two main nationalities of the camp, namely, the Dutch expatriates and the English expatriates.


Cohen Erik. ‘Expatriate Communities’. Current Sociology 24, no. 3 (1977).

Fechter Anne-Meike, Transnational lives: expatriates in Indonesia (Aldershot, Hants, England ; Ashgate, 2007).

Nesteruk Olena, ‘Heritage Language Maintenance and Loss among the Children of Eastern European Immigrants in the USA’, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 31, no. 3 (2010).

Pollock David C., Van Reken Ruth E., and Pollock Michael V., Third culture kids: growing up among worlds, Third edition. (Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2017).



  • Mathilde Bernard

    Intern at the Expatriate Archive Centre from February through April 2019. She earned her master’s degree from Erasmus University of Rotterdam in Global History and International Relations.


  1. Erik Cohen, ‘Expatriate Communities’, 45.
  2. Olena Nesteruk, ‘Heritage Language Maintenance and Loss among the Children of Eastern European Immigrants in the USA’, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 31, no. 3 (2010): 278.
  3. Erik Cohen, ‘Expatriate Communities’, 45.
  4. Expatriate Archive Centre: EAC 1.0048., p.1, Mijn herinnering. Translated by me, Original in Dutch: “Van toen ik heel klein was weet ik niet veel meer. Wel nog van Nigeria. Toen zat ik op de kleuterschool. Voor onze Nederlandse kleuterschool was een Engelse kleuterschool. We werden met dezelfde bus opgehaald. Aan de linkerkant zaten de Engelse kinderen, aan de rechter de Nederlandse. Nou gebeurde het soms dat een Nederlands kind aan de kant van de Engelsen moest zitten, omdat de Nederlandse kant vol was. Dan zongen wij altijd “Jij bent lekker een Engelse”. De Engelsen verstonden dat niet en als ze kwaad op een Nederlander waren, zeiden ze (ze dachten dat dat een scheldwoord was): “Jij bent lekker een Engelse”.”
  5. Erik Cohen, ‘Expatriate Communities’, 10; Fechter, Transnational lives, 9.
  6. Interview of an expatriate wife, by Mathilde Bernard, March 29, 2019.
  7. EAC 1.0068.2.03, p. 2.
  8. Ibid., p. 1.