“Why don’t you understand me!” I cried on many an occasion.
Being with someone who doesn’t speak your native language might sound unimaginable. In fact, I once said, “I could never fall in love with someone who doesn’t speak English.” Never say never. Having a husband who doesn’t speak English has never been better for my Italian. But that’s not to say it isn’t difficult too. It can be isolating. I often feel like he doesn’t understand my most intimate emotions and experiences. It can also be harder to make friends as a couple: will everyone be able to communicate with each other? It is definitely more difficult for your partner to get to know your family and vice versa. Read about how challenging it can be here: What no one tells you about marrying someone who doesn’t speak English
People on the outside of the situation have a lot of opinions and advice, but I’ve never found it to be that helpful. Ivan’s parents are convinced the only way he will learn is if I speak to him completely in English. Great, but how will we live together? We have to make decisions together and function in the world. Have you ever watched a film in a foreign language? If you watched it without subtitles over and over again, would you eventually learn that language? I’m betting no…
For these reasons and more, it is important to me that Ivan learn at least a basic level of my native language. But it’s not something that will happen overnight. I may be an English teacher, but, I’ve found that teaching your partner is easier said than done.
Here are some of my tips for mixed-cultural couples trying to teach their native language:
1. Resist the temptation to shout at the other person in the language they don’t speak. It only reinforces negativity and is an ineffective way to stop a fight.
2. Don’t take it personally if the other person shows no interest in learning your language at first. You can’t equate their love for you with a love for studying grammar.
3. Give it time. Your first years together, you’re establishing your relationship in general. Everyday life tasks will have to come first; don’t rush it.
4. Be consistent. Establish a set time and place for focused lessons together. You have to treat language lessons as a booked appointment or else it will get put off and forgotten about.
5. Involve other people. It is challenging to keep a healthy teacher-student rapport at home. Try having mini group lessons with another family member or friend. This takes the pressure off and creates a better dynamic for learning. Since we’ve started having lessons with Ivan and my sister-in-law, he is much more motivated and I am much less impatient.
6. Choose to see the endearing element in language mixups. It can be frustrating to feel like you’re always reaching for the dictionary. But don’t fret about it. Life is short and every relationship is hard work (even mono-lingual ones). It takes a lot of patience, cooperation, and commitment to make any marriage work. This added element of language can be positive or negative, you have the power to decide.
7. Accept that your partner might not have the same learning style as you. You can try to force them to take notes or listen to podcasts, but everyone is different. And adults learn differently than children do, so have patience. It’s not an automatic process.
8. Focus on communicative competency over accuracy. Don’t be obsessive about perfect grammar. Is your partner understandable? Fine for now. Take things one day at a time.
9. Don’t translate everything. Make your partner use a dictionary or ask questions or make guesses. If only I had a personal Italian-English translator on call that could answer my every question. When I don’t know a word, I have to do the work for myself to learn it.
10. Always make peace. Everybody fights, but think about why you love the other person. No one wants to be unhappy and everyone wants to be heard and understood.
One of the keys in our relationship to not killing each other has been our peace phrase, “stessa squadra” (which means same team). We lock pinky fingers almost like a pinky promise. It’s a reminder that we need to stop fighting each other and remember that we are on the same team. That’s love for ya.
Have you ever dated someone who spoke a different language than you? Have you ever taught someone your native language? Tell me more in the comments.