Dating Across a Language Barrier
October 7, 2009 8:44 AM   Subscribe

Dating Across a Language Barrier: Can you share success stories and advice about relationships where you and your partner primarily spoke different languages?

I've just started dating an incredible woman: she's funny as hell, considerate, really intelligent and she's gorgeous, too.

Something that is completely new to me, though, relationship-wise, is that we don't really speak the same language. Although I am an Asian guy (we're both in our 20's), I don't speak a word of Mandarin nor Cantonese (I've just started learning Mandarin, but it'll be a long time before I'm fluent). Her English, while good, means that sometimes it's hard for us to have the sort of free-flowing conversation I'm used to.

To be honest, until I met her, I thought that conversational ease was a prerequisite for a romantic connection, but somehow we really enjoy just hanging out with each other.

It must sound like it's just a sexual connection, but that's not it. This is all still new to me, but our attraction isn't very sexual at all.

I'm actually very surprised by how much we enjoy one another's company, even in the absence of her being able to tell me the nuances of what she's thinking and feeling, and me feeling like all of the things I'm talking about require so much explanation of cultural context.

We've only been out once, but we talk on the phone, and I'll be seeing her again this weekend.

Sometimes when we're talking, the conversation goes great and we're both laughing and having a great time. Then there are brief moments when it feels like language and cultural differences make our conversation drop out or stumble.

We both like each other so much that we both make a huge effort to get past the stumbles, but it'd be good to hear some advice from people who have been through similar things.

To people who have had relationships across language barriers: do you have any tips? Success stories and insights? What did you do when the conversation drops out?

I've setup a throwaway account:

Thanks in advance!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Previously (and recently).
posted by Madamina at 9:04 AM on October 7, 2009

posted by arnicae at 9:06 AM on October 7, 2009

It's not much of a barrier. Try not to get offended too easily.

By which I mean, if either of you ever thinks "(S)he can't possibly have meant it that way!", you're probably right, (s)he didn't, and you should move forward assuming that the slight wasn't intentional.
posted by rokusan at 9:12 AM on October 7, 2009

All I can say is check your assumptions. I once had an argument drag on for an extra half-hour because of the difference between "defer" and "differ".
posted by jon_kill at 9:34 AM on October 7, 2009

My situation is spookily similar to yours, except I'm nearly two years in. Our different cultural backgrounds and occasional communication stumbles have been worrying at times, but it all seems to be working out pretty well.

We found that, if your partner is making a point or a reference that you don't understand or you think the reverse is happening, it's often tempting to just nod along with it and hope you've got the gist. This seems very common among the people I know who don't share a first language. Promise each other that you'll avoid doing this, even though asking for clarification might break the flow. So explicity acknowledge that communication -- whether important relationship stuff or silly jokes -- is going to take more work than usual.

You should each be confident that the other will feel comfortable asking for clarification if they suspect that they're missing a point. This way you can both just go straight for more nuanced expressions and language without too much worry about miscommunication. In my relationship we still have to double-check meanings occasionally. This breaks up the flow a bit, but is far better than limiting conversations to stuff that can be expressed easliy, or worrying that some of the stuff you're saying isn't being understood.

Also, language learning can be good fun together. I'm working on spoken Cantonese; for me it's an interesting challenge because I've always sucked at languages, and for my partner it's fun because she finds my accent hilarious.
posted by metaBugs at 9:59 AM on October 7, 2009

Make an effort to use her language at least a little, and keep working on it. (It's not clear from your question whether her language is Mandarin or Cantonese; I assume the former, since you say you're learning it.) I was once romantically involved with a Russian woman whose English was much better than my Russian, so we wound up speaking English all the time until she complained about it, at which point I realized I was being lazy and inconsiderate and started forcing myself to use my rusty Russian—which, not surprisingly, improved amazingly.
posted by languagehat at 10:42 AM on October 7, 2009

I know a married couple, a Japanese man and a German woman, who met in a beginners' French class in Paris. They dated while living in Paris for a couple of years and eventually married and moved to London where they had a daughter. The parents are now fluent in English, but they still speak to each other in French. The mother speaks to the daughter in German, her father speaks to her in Japanese, and the daughter answers everyone in English.

Also, my best friend is Japanese and was learning English when we met. I don't speak any Japanese. Conversation is still a little slower than normal but we have an amazing connection and have never let language stand in our way. Good luck!
posted by defreckled at 11:19 AM on October 7, 2009 [4 favorites]

The hardest thing for me was adjusting my jokes so he would get them. I do love my puns. Oh, and cultural jokes too can sometimes fall flat. My advice is to grow thick skin and be prepared to laugh by yourself at times.

But, it's great being in a relationship with someone who has such different experience and perception of the world (I really do think the language you grow up with affects your worldview to a certain extent). The biggest plus was that we were forced to communicate more (the old 'asking for clarification' that metaBugs mentions), which I think has made our relationship stronger.
posted by brambory at 11:19 AM on October 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

One thing to be aware of, from a non-language standpoint: You both come from pretty different backgrounds. Aside from language, cultural/pop-cultural touchstones will be totally different for the two of you. A thing that you might casually reference (and that most of your friends would easily pick up on) possibly has little to no meaning to someone from another culture. In other words, movie quotes, if they are your thing, probably won't fly.

It can be liberating in a way, though. Rather than having "conversation" that is essentially made of reminiscing about past experiences of watching TV, you'll need to constantly create new, fresh conversations that the two of you can equally grasp.
posted by Ghidorah at 12:51 PM on October 7, 2009

My partner's Chinese and doesn't speak English (well, actually she does a bit but only very basic and a lot of that colourful swearing picked up from me) so we communicate in Chinese. I suspect I'm a bit like your partner in that my spoken Chinese is very good but inevitably there's subtle things or even chit-chat that sometimes leaves you tongue-tied. Anyway, although that does mean a few avoidable misunderstandings and frustrations it's not seemed to stop us communicating pretty well and we've been together years now very happily.
I might add that in some ways it's actually been good for me in the relationship as I'm a bit of a silver-tongued expert bullshitter in English and have probably got away with things in past relationships due to being able to put a good spin on my side of the argument.
On preview: we even seem to have no problem with the jokes. Also, like in defreckled's story, many years ago while a student I had a great relationship with another non-Chinese person through the medium of our then extremely basic Mandarin.
posted by Abiezer at 1:12 PM on October 7, 2009

Depending on how often/well she speaks English: when she's tired or stressed she may find it more difficult to convey in English accurately what she means, especially about emotions/feelings.

I found it useful when having an important discussion to use a dictionary to pick out a few synonyms and say "I mean this or possibly this or maybe even this: understand?".

Learning a bit of Mandarin will help a lot, even if she's the only one who can understand the particular way you, initially, mangle the language.

You could end up talking, in one sentence, Mandarin with a few English words thrown in (that you haven't learnt yet) and I don't think that's a bad way to pick up new words for both of you.
posted by selton at 1:46 PM on October 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can say in my experience, when dating cross culturally I missed the cultural familiarity and in jokes, and ease of communication.

Afterwards, when dating someone from my own culture, I BADLY missed being able to try out another language, learn intimately about another culture, and the long discussions about little cultural assumptions.

do you have any tips? Success stories and insights? What did you do when the conversation drops out?

Be sensitive to the fact that it can be exhausting to translate in your head. For instance, my current girlfriend speaks English well, and I am learning her native language, so for an hour a day we speak only that language, no matter how awkward, slow etc the conversation is. Its great practice, but very tiring mentally so I can appreciate what its like for her to use English all day long every day.

Not sure about conversation drop outs ... that doesn't happen to me much. I find the cross cultural aspect gives MORE to talk about. Pick an interesting facet of the language, culture, ask about what they think of it.

Also, when it comes to problems in the relationship that need to be talked out, i found this takes a lot longer and requires more patience.

Good luck!
posted by Admira at 4:47 PM on October 7, 2009

I think it's possible that you two could become so fluent in each other's non-verbal language, I'm almost jealous! What beautiful potential!
posted by lucky25 at 10:51 PM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

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