What no one tells you about marrying someone who doesn’t speak English

People are always curious about how long I’ve been in Florence and how I learned Italian. When they find out that my husband is Italian, most people assume that I learned the language because of him. That’s definitely not the case.

The long and short of it is that I studied Italian at University (shout out to Ohio State!) and then studied abroad in Siena so no, I didn’t learn it for Ivan. I actually already spoke Italian fairly well when we met. Communication in our marriage is about 98% Italian with a sassy splash of English.

Foolishly, I recall telling Ivan, “I could never fall in love with someone who doesn’t speak English”. Man am I paying for those words, but also I have to laugh and think that my life is richer because of it.

So what’s it like being married to someone who doesn’t speak English?

Well, recently, while we were sitting on the couch watching TV, I smelled something and said to him (in English), “EW! Did you fart again? Gross!” To which he responded, outraged “Ma CHE fart again!? Non ho fatto niente!” This is a typical scene in our house: Me accusing him of a fart and then him denying it. This is usually a mix of Italian and English he has picked up from hearing me say the same things over and over again.

Another time, we were sitting at the dinner table and he accused me of never teaching him anything useful. Clearly irritated, he said “CHRI, ma finora mi hai insegnato solo: SMELLY, BUTT, FART-FACE, BIG, FAT FART” He may have a point…

So, to anyone curious about a mixed-culture relationship, let me tell you in complete honesty that:

  1. Teaching your partner your native language is NOT as simple as speaking to them in that language all the time.

You still have to go grocery shopping, talk about money, work, bills, farts, the future etc. Living with someone who speaks a different language than you doesn’t mean you’ll “pick up” the other language. Anybody that tells you that has no clue and most likely they have never learned a second language as an adult. News flash! It’s not easy. We met speaking in Italian and fell in love in Italian and now we joke and laugh in Italian. By now, the relationship is built on more than the language we speak together.

2. Your partner might not care about learning your language as much as you’d like

Of course, I want him to learn English. My hope is that someday, we will communicate in a more even mix of the two languages. But the fact is, that’s going to take a while and I’m still coming to terms with this. We fight about how important it is to me that he learn English. We will always have to make an effort to improve his English. Both hard truths.

3. You will learn to fight in your second-language.

It’s not all bickering and miscommunication. But there have been several times when I’ve wondered what the hell I got myself into. When I can’t express myself, I want to stomp and have a fit like a child (not that I’ve ever done that or anything). When we fight, it is easy to shout at Ivan in English out of pure frustration. He definitely has the upper hand communication-wise 99% of the time. I want to be heard and understood. The easiest, most natural way possible for me to communicate will always be in my native language. But shouting never leads to anything good and only reinforces negativity around English.

4. Your partner might not be prepared to be your spokesperson.

I often feel like this is only my burden to bear, but he struggles with it too. I would say on an average day, I ask him “che significa” (what does that mean) about 5-10 times. He has had to call the gynecologist, speak to pharmacists, and deal with immigration officers, all on my behalf. That’s a lot to take on. He deals with electrical bills, change of residency, and the internet company, to name a few. He’s had to do it all on without much help from me. I would like to help, but usually, it comes down to the fact that I don’t know how things work here. It’s generally more efficient if he does it alone.

 5. You will have to reclaim your independence.

I’m gaining independence, but I’ve found that people take him more seriously than me. As soon as people can tell you’re a foreigner, they tend to treat you differently. Being a (white) foreigner in Italy is nothing compared to what I experienced in Korea: The Challenge of Change

Florence is a super touristic city and so people often assume you’re a traveler or a student. Of course, my Italian fluency has improved and living here full-time is not the same as when I went back to Italy the second time as an au pair Italy Round 2: Au Pair Summer 2015. I sometimes feel like I say the same things over and over again but can now say them faster. And it’s not only the language. Without a driver’s license or car, I’ve had to learn to navigate the city by bicycle for the most part. If I want to go somewhere by myself, I’m usually limited to going on foot, by tram, bus, or bicycle.

6. Your families will test the powers of your translation skills and your patience.

When you’re the only one who speaks both languages, it can be a bit like juggling 8 balls with only one hand. It is so beautiful when our whole family gets together, but it is also the mental workout of the century. I have the power to filter out things people tell me to translate (cue strong opinions about how soon we should have babies). Anyone who knows Italians knows that most conversations are multi-layered. At least two people are always talking at the same time. Imagine trying to keep up with that and then relaying it back to your American family. Meanwhile, the Americans are waiting for someone to take a breath so that they can get a word in! Never gonna happen.

So yeah, things can be a bit challenging. That’s life I guess, either way, it gets you. And I wouldn’t change this for anything in the world.

If you want to read more, check out my Italian Mother-In-Law, Part 1 or 5 Things I do that Piss off the Italians

Do you think it’s worth the trouble to be with someone who doesn’t speak English?

Let me know what you think by commenting.

7 thoughts on “What no one tells you about marrying someone who doesn’t speak English

  1. The reality of this! ❤ But my boyfriend speaks english, so it's half and half except when he is mad then I speak english and he speaks italian (i understand what he says) but his mom always finds it funny when we are annoyed or angry with eachother because we switch to our native languages with the other person's swear words mixed in.

    1. Hey Theresa! I’m glad to know I’m not the only one! We are working on improving his English, piano pianino 🙂 Do you guys teach each other your languages? / Does he teach you Italian?

  2. He’s more inclined to speak in broken english or in italian but he doesn’t like to be corrected. So I figured after multiple pleas of me trying to convince him that I am trying to help him, I gave up. Besides, my italian has improved alot because of it anyways, besides what I am learning at school! 😀 But sometimes my english comes out broken. I asked my friend here the other day (i am back in the US) if she wanted to “take” a coffee with me…

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