Posted by: thelocaldialect | January 16, 2009

Speaking the Language

One of the bloggers I’ve been reading recently, Jessica over atCoffee and Tea, made a post about learning her husband’s language, Hindi. I’m not sure if I’ve ever talked specifically about language on this blog, but after reading Jessica’s thoughts, and being interrogated on the subject by my co-workers yesterday, I thought I’d share my thoughts.

Between my husband and I we have quite a few languages. I speak English, Chinese, and still retain some leftover Spanish and Japanese from my school days. My husband speaks Mandarin and the Yunnanese local dialect (which just happens to be this blog’s namesake!), and whatever English he’s retained from his school days. Most Chinese people who don’t know my husband assume he must have superb English skills, but actually his English is pretty poor. We speak Mandarin Chinese together all of the time, without fail. We chat in Chinese, we joke in Chinese, we fight in Chinese. While I’ve made some half-hearted attempts at teaching my son English using OPOL (one parent one language), about 80-90% of my communications with even him are in Chinese.

I’m confident in my Chinese skills, and I can pretty much communicate what I want when I want, but still, Chinese will always be my second language, and there will always be certain things that I cannot share with my non-English speaking husband. We can watch my favorite films together, but he won’t understand how delicious the dialogue is. He can read the books I like in translation, but he won’t understand the plays on words. I can play my favorite bands for him, but he won’t understand how the lyrics affect me. What’s more, I’m not able to joke with him in the ironic way that I prefer, and when we fight, I’m often at a disadvantage, unable to be as quick-witted as I would be in my own native tongue.

Not speaking English is a sacrifice, one that my husband, sadly, cannot really understand. Every so often I remind him, gently, that he gets to speak his language. It seems so simple, but of course, for me, it isn’t. Wang Yao tries to be conscientious about the lack of English in my life. He doesn’t complain when I spend loads of money on imported books, or when I surf the web for hours on end soaking up my language and culture. While there are many compromises that have to be made in an international relationship, perhaps the biggest one is that most often one partner must give up their language, or if not give it up entirely, at least put it on the back burner.

Which isn’t to say I’m entirely gloom and doom about the whole thing. While I don’t get to use English with my husband, I have gained another language, which is something many people spend lifetimes trying to achieve. All of those things that I can’t share with my husband in English, he can share with me in Chinese, which means a whole new world has opened up for me. I have options. I’m not limited to movies with subtitles or expensive imported magazines. I get two cultures, two traditions, two languages, and that’s pretty cool.

After Chinese friends and co-workers get over their utter shock and horror over my husband’s lack of English skills, their next question is inevitably “well why don’t you teach him?” Well, I can think of a few reasons. For one, he’s my husband, not my student. Teaching English is my job. I do it for the better part of each day. When I get done teaching English the last thing I want to do is come home and teach more English. But more importantly, even if I did somehow manage to teach my husband English, I doubt we’d use it anyhow. Language habits are incredibly hard to break. I have a good friend, my first Chinese friend, and when we first met, I couldn’t speak much Chinese and her English was excellent. To this day, her and I still communicate in English. In the same vein, speaking English with my husband just doesn’t feel right. Our relationship started in Chinese. We had our first date in Chinese, he proposed in Chinese, and we were married in Chinese. For all my talk about sacrifice, I wouldn’t change things, not even if I had the chance.


  1. I can relate to many things in this post! My husband doesn’t speak much English either so we use Japanese in our house. My Japanese isn’t perfect, but my husband is a good communicator and knows how to speak so I understand and how to understand what I want to say even if I butcher the sentence. Sometimes it is frustrating when I can’t quite convey my thoughts to him. But even more frustrating for me is that he is unable to communicate with my family and many of my friends.

  2. The language thing is a continually evolving and changing issue isn’t it? I speak to my husband in Japanese for the same reasons you do. But, as my family only speak English I speak to my girls in English so they can communicate with my family. My 5yo has way more English than her dad which is already making me uneasy with the power issues. It’s so hard isn’t it?

    And my favourite stereotype? DH was asked to interpret for some Italian clients at work. Why? Because his wife is Australian. Ehh?? :S

  3. My situation is very similar to yours as well. Actually I pretty much could have written it. (lol) My DH does know some English but… cutting the modesty… my Japanese in much much better than his English and so communication naturally takes place in the language that is most easily facilitated.

    I worry a bit about our baby to be – but hope that mostly I will speak English to him/her especially since I hope to go back to America for a year or two (most likely by myself) to let the kid have a chance to experience schools in America.

    I am happy that I have gained proficiency enough to read and write (using a cell phone/computer) sometime its hard to hand write things without a dictionary but apparently its the same with tons to Japanese kids/teens who rely on computer etc for most of their writting.

    I think if we weren’t planning on having kids this never would have been an issue for me and DH and I could have happily spoken Japanese to all eternity… I guess that opportunities for a pure Japanese speaker just seem much less than for a billingual so I really want my kid(s) to have the most options for the future.

    Well see how this works out in 20 years or so ;P
    Great post!!

  4. Thank you so much for this post – linguistic barriers in intimate relationships are something people rarely talk about.

    My situation is slightly different, but one that many expats face: When my (American) bf and I move back to China in a few months, I’ve been wondering what language we will/should speak – if we speak in English, we’ll hinder our reimmersion into the language and our progress towards the fluency we need for our work. But if we communicate in Chinese, how will we be able to be intimate with one another in the ways that we’re used to? We’ll just have to wait and see, I guess.

  5. This was me, but perhaps not so much now since we have been in Australia for a little while.

    Before coming back here Shun spoke very little English and we communicated in Japanese 95% of the time…now I would say we communicate 30% in English & 70% Japanese. Shun has gotten a lot better at communicating with my family, and others so this has been a relief for me I think as I am a lot less worried about the future when we have kids I think.

    Since been home though my Japanese has gone down hill.

    What you said about been an english teacher to your husband stuck a cord with me- mainly because people are surprised Shun`s English isn`t better I think and they wonder why I haven`t taught him. It is just not that easy…

  6. Christelle: Yes, the family and friends thing is a big one. My parents can barely communicate with my husband. He tries, with his limited English, for their sake, but their exchanges are very very basic. Still, my parents appreciate the effort, and that’s what really counts, I think.

    Fuka: The balance of power thing is a concern with me too. I remember growing up we had family friends who were a Swedish-American family. The mom spoke Swedish with the kids exclusively and the dad, not speaking Swedish, seemed to be at a disadvantage sometimes because he couldn’t understand, for example, how his wife was disciplining. Sometimes the kids used the Swedish to deliberately leave dad out of the loop. Of course, being bilingual is worth those hassles, but it is something to keep in mind!

    Sara: Having kids changes things a lot for sure. I know your Japanese is pretty good, since you’ve done translation and stuff, so I would definitely advise you to force yourself to speak English with your baby! For me, because (again, forgoing modesty here, hehe) my Chinese is more than functional, force of habit caused me to speak Chinese with my son and now the habit is hard to break. I want him to speak and understand English (well, for now, I just want him to speak! He hasn’t started talking yet, but that’s another post!), and it is totally my fault for being lazy and not doing more English with him from the start.

    Bird: I’ve honestly never met two foreigners who spoke Chinese with each other here. I don’t think I’d recommend it. Instead, make Chinese speaking friends who don’t speak English, and when you’re out and about in China, insist on Chinese. I think speaking Chinese with your American boyfriend would be ok just for kicks sometimes, but if you try to keep it up long term I think it would be extremely annoying.

    Lulu: People always say to me “why don’t you teach him?” After awhile the question gets annoying, doesn’t it? As you say, it isn’t that easy. Although here in China, a lot of the Chinese/foreign relationships started out as a language kind of thing (lots of Chinese people will try and befriend you just to learn English … um. no thanks. teaching English is a job, not a hobby), so people just assume we must have that dynamic. They also assume that my husband must have taught me Chinese, and while I have learned a lot since we have been together, my Chinese was fine before we got married. I don’t want my relationship with my husband to be a teacher/student thing, I’m just not interested in that. If he ever took it upon himself to learn English, sure I’d help him, but I’m not going to make teaching him my responsibility either.

  7. My husband is Spanish, but when we met I couldn’t speak his language at all so we only spoke English. Nine years later I am fluent in Spanish, and we speak a pretty equal mix of the two languages, sometimes mixing within sentences. Every now and then we mix in a little Mandarin, too. (Though we are both terrible at Mandarin.)

    I’ve been doing a lot of research on raising bilingual children and I really, really recommend you start speaking English with your baby! Almost exclusively if you can since he has no other source of English. In the long run it will be so beneficial! I’m no expert however, so just take that as friendly advice. I read a blog by an American mom who has children with her French husband, but they live in Lithuania (and several countries before that.) She talks a lot about the difficulties in raising multilingual kids, you might find it interesting!

  8. My brother’s wife is Spanish, but he and his wife primarily speak English together. His Spanish is good enough to have basic conversations with her parents and friends, but not to really get to know them. I’m really interested to see what they do when their first baby is born in just a few weeks.

    Great post!

  9. You never really say it one way or another, but do you wish your husband spoke English? Or, to ask a slightly different question, do you wish he would make efforts to learn English?

    For me, I think the biggest issue with languages, after both partners have fluency in some common language, is how it limits the family to a particular location. I know Aditya, my husband, would be quite upset if my language ability – or lack thereof – meant that moving back to his home country of India was not a possibility in the future. (Of course in India you can get by in the metro areas just fine with English, which is also the language of business, but that’s not true for all intercultural couples, or, I suspect, for you guys.)

  10. globalgal: Don’t worry, I do plan to teach him! I think part of it is the fact that he’s not speaking yet. Recently DH and I have been working really hard just to get him speaking Chinese, and English has fallen by the wayside. That said, I’ve stocked up on a lot of English kids books and have started using English more with him.

    Oz: being able to communicate with the grandparents is a big deal. Definitely part of the reason I’m getting more proactive about teaching Dylan English.

    GG: The only reason I really wish Wang Yao knew English is the reason you talked about, not knowing English hinders his chances of being able to live in America at some point. Of course, there are other things that hinder his chances of finding a real job in the States too — he’s a musician with only a high school diploma, but adding a lack of English onto that does me that probably if we moved to the States it would be entirely up to me to provide for us, at least for several years. That’s no small task. However, if we stay in China English has no real use for him outside of communicating with my parents. We wouldn’t speak English together even if he did speak it. Also, when I met Wang Yao he spoke no English, and I agreed to that and was ok with it, I spoke Chinese. He’s 36 this year and while learning another language isn’t impossible at any age, it certainly isn’t as easy for him to learn English as it was for me to learn Chinese … I had 5 semesters of college Chinese before I even came to the country, and since then I’ve been immersed in the language. So the long, drawn out answer to your question is that yes, I’d like him to make an effort to learn a bit (and he does still remember some from high school, so it isn’t like his english is nonexistant, just really bad!), but unless we plan on moving to the States, I’m not going to push the issue. I am sure he’ll pick up more if I speak English with our son, which I’m trying to do too!

  11. Sounds to me like your husband does understand your sacrifice (through his actions and lack of complaint, for example). 🙂

    I spoke French to my first-born for her first two years, and I now believe it caused some tension. Yes, even as a baby.

    I wouldn’t want to teach my husband a language, either. It would ruin us.

  12. I can definitely relate. I would consider myself fluent in Spanish, in the sense that I can get through almost all daily situations smoothly, read newspapers and novels, and understand most jokes. But it is never quite the same, particularly if you’re the sort of person who is sensitive to the nuances of language. I feel like I never know quite how I sound in another language, and it’s weird.

  13. Interesting conversation here. My husband and I have basically used English as our lingua franca in dating and marriage (four years total). However, we met in a French-speaking country and since both of us speak French well enough, I have suggested several times that we switch to French. Why? So that neither of us would be at an advantage. For me, I’m an English teacher in my mind and when my husband makes the same mistakes in English, I cringe (sometimes outwardly). And now that I’m pregnant and we’ll be raising our child bilingual, I would definitely prefer my hubbie and I speak French amongst us. It would be hard for me if our child spoke English the way his father does. My husband’s first language is Swiss German and I’ve not had the desire to learn it, mostly because I know how long it takes to really learn a language well; 2) there are so few Swiss German speakers and even amongst them there are several dialogues; and 3) most of the Swiss we know and interact with (except for the older ones) all speak either English or French. I’m so not motivated and I don’t think my hubby understands that. I am encouraging him to speak Swiss German with our child and I reckon in that process, I’ll pick up some more of the phrases.
    Anyway, just wanted to chime in.

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