When people talk about how to learn a foreign language, they always say that you just need to have a relationship with someone who speaks that language. Does it work ? Sure. And nothing is sexier than a cute accent at the start of a relationship, but after a few years you discover that there are some challenges that you just didn’t anticipate.
1. Despite the fact that you could speak two languages, you ONLY speak 1 with your partner.
Much like the first few weeks of marriage are dedicated to assigning certain tasks to each partner for life, for example who takes out the trash, the first few weeks of a bilingual relationship are dedicated to deciding which language you will use… FOREVER…
Even if you eventually learn your partner’s language. Perhaps by living in the country or speaking with friends or family, you will ALWAYS speak to your partner in the original language.
Speaking to your partner in any other language becomes weird…. like putting on a cold wet t-shirt….
2. You and your partner speak a combined 2 or more languages, yet neither of you can remember how to say “[Insert expression/object]” in any of them.
3. Each conversation includes some aspect of taboo, pictionary, or charades. And you are always the loser.
You would think this is an advantage for game night with friends (fantastic movie, go see it), but in reality no; you are constantly spending your time gesturing, explaining, and getting frustrated that your partner doesn’t understand you or that you can’t understand them.
Partner : Can you hand me the laces pasta?
You : Sorry, the ‘laces’ pasta?
Partner : Yeah, you know.. *gestures like tying a shoe*
You : *thinking over the options, tying shoe and laces… must be long and string like*… Ok, *hands over spaghetti*
Partner : No! Not that one! *comes over and takes farfalle/bow tie pasta*
You : OH! Tying a shoe… like bowtie… Well…FML.
4. Your partner continues to make small mistakes in your language, but they’re so cute that you refuse to correct them even after many years.
This one is actually fantastic. It’s cute, it’s a reminder of when you first met and everything was just so damn COOL! It makes even the most mundane daily task like grocery shopping a little bit more exciting.
Partner : Can you go get a chariot?
You : Yeah, sure *grinning like an idiot*
When you see on the shopping list “napkings“
5. The only things you can say in your partner’s language are : “I’m fine”, “This is delicious”, “I love you” and about 25 different curse words and swears.
The first three you learned at the start of the relationship. When you had visions of both of you becoming completely bilingual. You were eating dinner and felt like adding “this is delicious” in their language just to remind yourself that yes, your partner is foreign and thus 10 times cooler than any of your friend’s partners.
But your learning stopped there. The only other things you will learn in their language over the next 6 months to forever are the 25 different curse words that your partner will use when :
– Their computer doesn’t work
– They’re in traffic with you
– Your cat intentionally knocks the glass off the table
– You forget to put the top on the toothpaste tube the ‘correct’ way
6. Every visit to your partner’s family includes the same conversation.
Their family member (in their language) : Hello
You (in their language) : Hello
Their family member (in their language) : How are you?
You (in their language) : Fine, and you?
Their family member (in their language) : Fine… How is the food?
You (in their language) : Delicious…
Their family member (in their language) : How is your [their language]?
You : *Fuming because you want to explain that you’re not an idiot, that you just don’t have time, that your partner refuses to speak their language with you because it’s like putting on a cold wet t-shirt, and that you HAVE learned something, but that it’s only swear words so you can’t repeat that to them*….
You (in their language) : Meh… *gestures with hand so-so*
7. Your partner can never appreciate your super cool cultural references and/or sense of humor and you can never appreciate theirs.
Yes finally the bilingual relationship is not as easy as we thought, but despite all the difficulties your partner is still your better half and you wouldn’t have it any other way. Happy Valentine’s Day!
I so recognize this. I am Dutch and I married my American spouse 23 years ago. My advantage was that I had learned English at school so could talk it freely, but with mistakes. However, working in the US really expanded my vocabulary. So we speak English at home, not Dutch. We bought Rosetta Stone for my husband to learn Dutch( not a cheap program) but he never was getting far with it. Then, from 2012 -2017 we went to the Netherlands to help my mother who was very ill. There my husband had to learn to speak some Dutch, because often I was not around. It still was difficult for him because most people in the Netherlands speak English also. Now we are back in the US and my husband totally lost his Dutch vocabulary, even when I try speaking with him in that language. I have to say here that my husband has ADD/ADHD, so learning is cumbersome for him. The part of the article I really can relate to is the last point: cultural references, man those are still not my forte. Especially when it is humor or f.i tv- history related. Thanks for the article, it was a very pleasant read
I’m an unwilling ‘victim’ of number 4, but I can also relate to the last part too, it’s always a shame when you can’t share cultural references with your loved one.
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Great post! Very funny about *chariot” and “napkings”; essentially how my Portuguese partner (of 2.5 years) and I manage to do grocery shopping. I swore I would never code switch when I came to Portugal 14 years ago but now do so frequently. I know I speak much better Portuguese outside of our relationship than I do within it, and the same is true of my mother-tongue English. I was secretly thrilled the other day when I used the word “duplicitous” (in English) and he understood it. I have resolved to use complex words more often, particularly if I am sure of the corresponding Portuguese equivalent if there is a failure of comprehension.
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