You say potato, I say ジャガイモ.
December 21, 2008 9:48 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I speak different languages. Is this gonna be a problem?

She's a native Japanese, while I'm British. We live in Japan, and have been married for just over a year. We both speak the other's language at a least a basic level, as is the case with my Japanese, and my wife's English is even better. When we meet friends, and the conversations are predominately one language over another, one of us will feel a bit left out. And when we visit our respective in-laws, i.e. when she visits my home in England, she feels really embarrassed with her English ability, and vice-versa for me when we visit her parents.

I know that we both need to study more and learn each other's language, but the way we communicate at home together (a kind of hybrid of both languages, though predominately English) has become de rigeur for several years now.

Does anyone have the same situation with a wife/husband? What would you recommend we do? And ultimately, are there any studies/statistics/evidence that marriages like this will run into trouble down the road because of this language difference?
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It oughtn't be a problem if hasn't been already.
posted by Electrius at 9:57 AM on December 21, 2008

I'd be surprised if there were any studies which said speaking two languages was detrimental. Personally, I always found it a bit of an advantage: because you're speaking another language you tend to make allowances for the other person, and not niggle about small things. That can only be a good thing in a relationship.
posted by dydecker at 10:00 AM on December 21, 2008

Just continue to learn each others' languages. My mother tongue is English, my wife's is French. My French was terrible when we first met (her English was very good, but not perfect). I've put a lot of time and effort into improving my French. Much of her family is unilingual. It was difficult at first (often I would have to excuse myself from family functions for a few minutes so I could give my brain a rest). I'm quite bilingual now and it's wonderful to be at ease in more than one language.

The biggest stress we've had is with our children. The 2 1/2 year old speaks in English much more than French (though he understands French perfectly well). We plan to remedy the situation by sending both children (we also have a 6 month old) to French school.

I don't know about any studies but I live in Quebec and there are many families that are bilingual or even trilingual because of the political realities. As far as I'm concerned it's an advantage.
posted by Cuke at 10:06 AM on December 21, 2008

Anecdotally, having your own private mix of the two (or three, or four) languages that you speak is actually pretty common, at least among the mixed couples that I know. My partner and I speak in three langages, English (my first language), French (country's official language), and Fon (his first language).

It sounds like communication between the two of you is fine. We've found that there are really just a few keys to making the non-native speaker feel included in any situation.

1) The native partner has to make an effort to ask the non-native partner soft-ball questions and encourage them to join the conversation.

2) The non-native partner MUST jump in and do their best to hold up their end of conversations. It's hard and it's exhausting, but there's a HUGE difference between being comfortable speaking (necessary) and actually speaking well (who cares?). Unless the in-laws and friends are jerks, they're probably pretty happy with any real attempts at communication.

3) Prep the in-laws to be patient. Someone should be ready to be "wing man" and draw the non-native partner out while his/her native partner is chatting up a storm elsewhere. We've found that many of our friends do this for us anyway, but occasionally it helps to give a firm hint to friends and family members beforehand. And the non-native speaker can also make this happen by following step #2. :)

Seriously, this doesn't have to be a problem. There are many many many many mixed couples around the world who struggle with each others' languages. Although I'm sure you already know this, as with any difficulty in marriage, the solution is communication, communication, and more communication.
posted by asnowballschance at 10:16 AM on December 21, 2008

I'm one of those bilingual Quebec people Cuke is referring to. After spending extensive time operating in a second language I found that the only real pitfall was that some of my subtle wit and humour in my native tongue didn't quite carry over to the second language. I also noticed that unless I made the effort to read books and newspapers in my second language that I could easily fall in a language rut where I run out of original phrasing. So in short, keep working at your second languages and you'll both benefit from it in the long run.
posted by furtive at 10:19 AM on December 21, 2008

I have no personal experience with this, but I was a nanny for a couple with a somewhat similar situation. The husband was Turkish, the wife Slovakian. They met and fell in love in the US. He doesn't speak any appreciable amount of Slovak, she doesn't speak any appreciable amount of Turkish. So they communicate in (pretty fluent, but definitely non-native) English.

Other than inevitable in-law stuff, the main problem they ran into was when their baby was born. It felt odd for them to speak to her in English and not their native languages. So, individually, she got Turkish and Slovak, when the whole family was together she got accented English, and with me she got native-speaker English- a big reason why they hired me. She'll grow up to be trilingual, which is great.

I don't think this would have worked out as well if they had returned to either Turkey or Slovakia, because of the unavoidable "power" / "advantage" that one of them would have had. (Emphasis on the as well, I don't want to be too pessimistic here. Love finds a way.

Have you considered moving to a country with a completely different language? That would be a very big step to take, but the process of acclimating to a place that is equally foreign to both of you might draw you closer.
posted by charmcityblues at 11:06 AM on December 21, 2008

My mother is Japanese, and my father is American. And, my parents passed the 50 year anniversary mark recently, despite the language barrier!

The only area where you might feel the difference is when you fight. I've noticed that when people get emotional, they have a harder time expressing themselves. This becomes even more difficult with the language barrier. I'd suggest you and your wife lay down some pre-conflict ground rules (like having a "safe word" to designate a time out when you can't find the right words [perhaps "potato" could be your safe word?], or when fights escalate, having a time out where you escape to private quarters and hand-write out your feelings, with a Japanese/English dictionary nearby).

And when you have kids, definitely raise them to be bilingual. :)
posted by polyester.lumberjack at 11:20 AM on December 21, 2008

I would concentrate on your third paragraph. You guys are comfortable communicating together, just not when other people are around. You do need practice, so you should make a practice of helping each other do so. Make, say, one day a week an English only day, and another Japanese only. Keep it lighthearted with mock punishments and rewards. Especially before a family visit or trip, devote more and more time to the language practice necessary, so that the non-native speaker is more in the part of the mind that houses that language. Sort of like immersion.

These rules, especially in the latter case, could apply to reading materials and entertainment as well.

In relation to the marriage question, I think how you deal with this problem will be the true indicator of how well your marriage will last.
posted by dhartung at 11:53 AM on December 21, 2008

My girlfriend is Spanish, I am American, and we communicate in German (we live in Berlin). It's kind of annoying, because neither one of is really enjoys speaking German, although we communicately entirely adequately. We keep making resolutions to speak our native languages, but she has little active ability in English and my Spanish doesn't exist yet. I would much rather be able to speak English to her -- I would make a lot more jokes and generally say a lot more, I think. Maybe one of these days we'll get around to changing languages.
posted by creasy boy at 12:53 PM on December 21, 2008

My experience (over 15 years now) is that navigating the cultural differences will far outweigh the language differences. As for the get-togethers where only a single language is being spoken, if including the non-native partner is desired, then it's up to the native partner to make the excluded partner feel comfortable (which may include translation).
posted by forforf at 1:53 PM on December 21, 2008

Yes, dhartung speaks truth. Not speaking the same language doesn't necessarily have to be an issue if you are able to communicate with each other. But it can exacerbate other issues, like making minor in-law stress into a self-esteem-crushing big deal. So you really should work on it.

At the very least you need to get yourselves into the position where any combination of friends and/or family can be accommodated without anyone feeling bad about themselves. (Exhausted, sure; inconvenienced, maybe; annoyed about in-law stuff, go crazy; but not "my $LANGUAGE is bad and I should feel bad".) Whether that means becoming better at each other's languages, becoming better at including each other, or just changing your mindset is entirely your concern (although personally, I think that it would be crazy to live here non-term and not make learning the language your #1 priority)... and of course how you communicate at home doesn't have to change, if you like the current system.
posted by No-sword at 2:19 PM on December 21, 2008

Nthing the upthread assurances that all will be well. I, an English Canadian, married a Latvian; English was my first language and Latvian hers; French my second and Russian hers; German was our third language in both cases, and we both had had several years in school or time spent living in Germany. We mostly spoke German at first, and ultimately had conversations that would occasionally meander through five languages as we picked and chose whichever word worked best.

As dydecker suggests above, you make allowances. I have seen a lot of unilingual romances -- some of my own included -- founder on a difference of interpretation of a word or phrase. Not so much when you don't share a first language.

I can offer you no studies on the longevity of these marriages, but anecdotally I know quite a few people whose parents (without a first language in common) are happily married decades on. And by all means, if you have children, raise them bilingual. I imagine that learning early on that the word is not the thing helps immensely with a growing child's grasp of abstraction.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:44 PM on December 21, 2008

Uh, I hate to rain on parades, but being in much the same boat, I have to say, yes, there could well be significant problems. I've just recently married a Japanese woman whose English isn't the best, and I've in all likelihood just failed the 2kyu test. One of the largest issues between us is that my wife no longer has any desire to study English, regardless of what that means for us (from refusal to say happy birthday on the phone to my family because of inability to maintain a two minute phone conversation, up to and including my decision to essentially stay in Japan, since I know I can do it, but I don't think she could handle living in the States).

What I would say is this: Study your ass off. You're here, in Japan, it's her native land, her language. If she works hard at English, that's great, but you should study Japanese because it will always be a benefit to you, and someday, your wife might grow frustrated, either at studying, or at you, for not being able to speak with her.

Further down the road, when problems arise, you'll find there is added stress in not being able to adequately communicate. Raising kids bilingual is great, and I hope to do so myself, but keep in mind that when they live and learn every day in a non-English environment, they're learning how to say things that they haven't learned in your language. If you can't speak to them at their age level in English, there can be emotional distance between you and your kids.

Lastly, not speaking the same language increases stress, friction, and all that fun stuff. Nearly, though not all of the seismic events in our newly-ish wed life have started, at some point, in misunderstanding. We do fight, and it's not pleasant, and to some extent, we fight because we don't know, or didn't know, what that person was saying.

Learn Japanese. Make it easier for her to learn English. Be aware of the tons of work you have ahead of you, and good luck, because marriage can be a wonderful, beautiful thing.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:55 PM on December 21, 2008

I have friends in this situation. While living in Japan, the English-speaker improved his Japanese (enough to become fluent) and spoke Japanese at home. When they moved to the English speaking country, she learnt English and they converse in English with fallback to Japanese where there are gaps.

They are raising their children to be bilingual, they go to an English school and speak to them in Japanese at home.

They are one of the happiest families I know.
posted by wingless_angel at 4:07 PM on December 21, 2008

I am in a very similar situation with my wife, and I actually find there are as many positive aspects to the situation as there are negative. We are both multilingual, but the language that we share the greatest overlap in skills is English (my native language), so we use that mixed with Korean (hers) about 60/40 most of the time at home.

But I find that imperfectly being able to speak each others' native tongues forces us to go more slowly, explain more carefully, listen harder, and all of that creates a more positive dynamic between us of working at communication rather than just taking it as a given. That's a good thing. Sure, there are misunderstandings and difficulties sometimes. It's not like that doesn't happen between couples who speak the same native tongue, though.

Neither of us are the most gregarious or talkative people though, so perhaps we are unusual in that.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:04 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Bonus: your kids will be bilingual.
Not necessarily. My Japanese husband was too lazy to teach my daughter, so at 15 she only knows a few phrases-- most of which I taught her.

I wish I could tell you it is all smooth sailing, but in my own case I got divorced after 18 years mainly because of the language barrier. I got tired of trying to share my fears, only to be laughed at. At not being able to tell my husband a joke. At not being able to share books or watch most movies together. At 22, it seemed as though no effort would be too great because I liked and loved him so much, but as 40 approached, I found myself lost and exhausted with the effort of trying to live with a man who was becoming more culturally entrenched as he aged.

Another disadvantage was that we could never travel any place but to Japan. I wanted to go to Europe and Africa, but he wanted to visit his family. Our budget could only withstand one expensive trip a year.

And finally you have to really love the other person's culture and frankly Japanese TV, music, art, food, etc. leaves me cold. I am so grateful that I never have to watch the New Year's Eve sing-off ever again or eat another rice ball.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 5:11 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Me: Swedish, Danish, English, Japanese. Wife: English, Russian, Japanese. Kids: Japanese, English (so far).

It is harder at first, for like family functions you can listen in for 20 mins, but after that you just tune out. That period gets longer and it gets easier and easier with time, until you don't even have to think about it.

Having had to learn both English and Japanese, I can tell you they are about the same level of difficulty to learn.
posted by lundman at 5:14 PM on December 21, 2008

My mother is Chinese and my father is Canadian. Language was never an issue for them, but there is a cultural communication gap between her and my father, and between her and I. Mostly it stems from our tendency to use sarcastic humor, which doesn't really translate to her culture, even if she is fluent in English. There have been many hurt feelings and confusing, frustrating misunderstandings over the year due to this. That being said, my parents will be celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary this June, and I feel that I have a better relationship with my parents than most of my friends do... so I don't think a language/culture barrier is necessarily going to end a marriage.
posted by kaudio at 5:44 PM on December 21, 2008

I am an American with a Japanese wife & 2 young daughters. We live in Tokyo. My wife and I are conversant and literate in each other's native tongue. I guess we speak a 50J-50E blend with each other, but nearly 100% English with our girls, whose day-to-day environment outside the home is 100% Japanese. We are happy, enjoy spending time together, and will celebrate our 10th anniversary next October.

I'm certain that our strong language skills help our relationship, but they wouldn't have taken us very far if we didn't already care deeply for each other. We haven't gone out of our way to "do" anything to make our marriage work, but I can say with certainty that my Japanese improved dramatically over our married lives mainly because I take great pride and enjoyment in being able to make my wife laugh. As my Japanese has improved, talking with my wife -- something I've enjoyed from the start -- has just gotten more fun and fulfilling.

If I have a specific recommendation for you, it is to let each other know when your brain is tired of trying to think in a foreign language. As others have said here, it gets easier with time, but conversing with your wife should be the most pleasant thing in the world. When it starts feeling like work, that just means your brain is tired and you should take a break.
posted by Bixby23 at 6:33 PM on December 21, 2008

This little doozy is one I've been thinking about a lot lately. I married a Beijinger, and she's a garrulous, feisty, talkative, sociable kind of girl. On top of that, god dammit, she's the most prodigious reader on the planet, edits with a withering rapier wit, and only knows the dirty words in English. My Mandarin is good enough to translate for a living, and what I don't know I'll learn, so our home language is Mandarin. We live in Beijing.

Now, when we fight, it's not about cultural stuff. Unlike a lot of mixed couples I think she and I both have an almost absolute degree of faith in the fact that culture is more groupthink than anything. Our arguments are couched in legal, ethical, and economic terms, and we hold some very unconventional attitudes that would be hard for any culture to stomach. For example, we've decided that we want a non-white, non-Asian kid when we adopt. No biological babies in this house. It's selfish when there are orphans and overpopulation going on. And we don't want parents saying, "Oh he looks so much like you!" or stupid things like, "Black people are so X!" Cars, well...for suckers. She, the 90 lb. Chinese girl, wants a big honking motorcycle and loves to work on engines. We're quirky and we like it that way.

Our language disputes skip over culture completely and land solidly in the reciprocity camp. She is monolingual. A huge part of my identity, my success, and my job depends on the fact that I'm not. Early in the relationship our problem was that neither of us was really used to accommodating non-native speakers. I'd either hang out with one language group or the other, and she's just monolingual and didn't even bother trying to spend time with people who don't know Mandarin. She outright refused to see my friends for about 6 months because they wouldn't initiate the conversation with her. We've found a happy medium, but that took a huge fight and making my monolingual friends uncomfortable for 3 months, as well as a lot of shifts in our expectations of our friends. I had a lot of friends who enjoyed practicing language with me, or who enjoyed geeking out over pop culture stuff, and our interactions had to change a bit. I had learned Chinese so that I wouldn't have to deal with accommodating bilingual conversations; I had to put that part of my ego and social agenda aside.

We've been together 1.5 years, and our latest iteration of the language debate is that she just won't learn English. She keeps saying she will, but she procrastinates, and wants "a better study plan". From what I've read here and elsewhere, that won't resolve itself until I kick her butt to a school and manage to convince her that I can't be her teacher because I don't have the emotional clout to motivate her through the uncomfortable periods. In fact, when you try to teach your spouse your language, what I've noticed is that they directly blame YOU when they don't understand. There's tons of evidence for this, and the only way around it is a third party tutor from what I know. We'll fix this eventually, but it will take time and a lot of patience.

She also (rarely) loses patience with me when I'm trying to explain issues she's not familiar with. I was trying to explain aging and why humans can't live to 300 years (telomeres). It took some effort for her to conceptualize it, and she started to get frustrated. The only way around that is to simplify. "Look, I know you've never heard of this thing, and I'm not pronouncing it wrong, but just trust me, there's a little thing on your genes that snaps a piece off every time your cells divide. And after so many divisions, it just signals cell death." Or "War and Peace is about the fact that nobody can control history, it just happens, not because of any one person or any idea. History is like the weather. The ideas that will come out will come out and that's that. So you take the 19th-mid-20th century, that was the time for communism. If not that name, it would have been something collective and dictatorial. That's what War and Peace says. It's so long because he spends a lot of time saying you can't fight the weather." Platitudes and summaries are your friends.

I guess if I've learned anything, it's that you have to have an acute awareness of what you're missing out on when you function in a stunted language environment. There are a lot of good conversations, a lot of jokes, a lot of media, and a lot of interesting new ways to express yourself that you miss out on if you aren't capable of communicating. It's a lot, and that you can't share it is a problem. It's nobody's fault though, it's just a goal that needs to be worked towards. Avoid blaming anybody while working on the problem and you'll get there faster than you think.
posted by saysthis at 5:08 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I also don't think this is going to be an issue. You've already managed a year of marriage like this, and presumably you dated before hand. Each of you are only going to get better at speaking the others language.
posted by chunking express at 9:03 AM on December 22, 2008

My first language is English, but I speak, read (and mostly) write Japanese at an "advanced" level. My wife's first language is Japanese. She speaks and reads English, but doesn't love it as much as I love Japanese. Our son is fluent in English and is functional in Japanese (we now live in Canada), and he reads and writes Japanese at his age level.

I would say that it's important in "international" or multicultural marriages for at least one spouse to speak the second language fluently, if only to develop some shared tastes and things to talk about. For example, my wife has no interest in Canadian culture, doesn't read English books, and rarely watches any English-language dvds that I bring home.

However, we're both on Mixi, we try to keep up with the Japanese entertainment world and politics, and when I buy Japanese books and magazines she reads them. One side of her family is pretty famous (locally) for calligraphy, so we can talk about kanji as well.

If I wasn't so interested in Japan (just as she isn't so interested in Canada), we wouldn't have much to talk about, and that would be boring.

Developing fluency in another language also allows you to develop a new persona. My "Japanese" persona is a little different than my English-speaking persona. This persona also helps me to better understand my wife's Japanese communication style. This is no small thing.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:40 AM on December 25, 2008

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