Cross-linguistic romance
February 9, 2010 11:57 AM   Subscribe

I think I'm in love. Problem is, my beloved speaks a different language -- a language I can understand much of and speak some of, but with little nuance, sophistication, or precision, thus doing no justice to what I mean, or indeed even to what he means. Yet of my language he speaks far, far less, so we stay with his. And we don't live on the same continent, so phoning/Skyping/emailing -- language-dependent communication -- will have to do for the times we can't rely on the tacit, graceful understandings that happen in person. I can be miserable about this, but my heart is full of ardor and my gut, even, actually feels a strong sense of hope.

But yes, there's a touch of misery, since expressing myself through language is pretty much my life. (And yet non-verbal modes of affinity are crucial to me, too, and we have that -- be it physically or philosophically. Philosophically in that he makes art and talks about it and the world in a way I understand... most the time. And for the rest Google Translate has been quite the convenience.) I should probably just invest some time everyday into improving my language skills -- right? Or, what? I'd like to hear from others who've gone through something similar. Did it work? How'd you make it work? This is someone I feel I may want to spend a lifetime with (in which case I'd move to his country, as I've an interest in and a possible future in that country anyway). And I'm a happily independent person who wasn't even looking. But naysayers, too, bring it on.

(This is being submitted to the writing & language rather than relationship category because I seek wisdom on the language more than the love part.)
posted by taramosalata to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I trust you read the answers to a somewhat thematically similar question from about a year ago?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:06 PM on February 9, 2010

My future husband and I started out with crappy skills in each other's native language. Overcoming the problem was in itself something great, and we showed each other how much we cared by working together towards that common goal. It also showed me that using language in the overly flowery way you do is much less important than communicating for meaning and being clear.

On a practical level, I recommend moving there, since the words we actually use only comprise a small percentage of communication. And if it's the real thing, you'll do that anyway, right?
posted by blazingunicorn at 12:13 PM on February 9, 2010

You haven't mentioned what his native language is, so I'm going to make some assumptions. If he speaks a language that is relatively common in your country (U.S.?) then you might seek out others who speak it and see if you can join them in a sort of Foreign Exchange program. I'll help you with your conversational English if you'll help me with my conversational XXXXX. You might be able to do this by searching for affinity clubs in your area. Google German American Social Club Detroit as an example. This might even work for languages that are not "common" in the U.S.

Also, try your local adult education department to see if there are any ESL classes for people who speak your target language. See if you can help tutor one or more of those students in exchange for better understanding their language.

My son learned most of his Spanish by sitting in the fields with strawberry pickers after school and asking them to talk to him. He is now trilingual and living in Japan, teaching in a foreign language elementary school.
posted by Old Geezer at 12:17 PM on February 9, 2010

My friend dated a woman who didn't speak English that well and complained about how she never got his jokes and he was frustrated. Now they are married, her English is great and his Spanish is pretty good too. They were long distance for a while...I think it was frustrating.
posted by sully75 at 12:26 PM on February 9, 2010

This might come across as a little snarky but if it's sophistication you're looking for, you can never go wrong with opting for elegant simplicity. In my opinion, this post is unnecessarily wordy to the point of loftiness and ends up achieving the opposite of that which I am guessing you set out to achieve.
posted by Zé Pequeno at 12:30 PM on February 9, 2010

Zé Pequeno--it might surprise you to find that in non-English-speaking countries (where the person teaching English might not be a native English speaker and there is very little general experience with conversational English) you frequently end up with speech patterns similar to those from taramosalata. The language is very flowerly and even seems a bit obtuse to native speakers, simply because language classes tend to reward complex prose as a sign of competence. Without someone around to vet proper English habits, the language gets skewed.
posted by Phyltre at 12:48 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is a fantastic way to learn a language. Seriously, having an external motivation that is directly tied to your internal states (wants and desires)...and wanting to grow and learn so that you can expand your identity to allow for forging a deeper connection with another human. That's recipe for super fast language learning right there! Embrace it. You'll blow your own mind and it'll be really fun, for both of you.

And the icing on the cake? You'll learn how to speak another language!
posted by iamkimiam at 12:53 PM on February 9, 2010

Yep I'm in the same boat when it comes to languages between my partner and I, and you know what? At times it can be a little frustrating for both of us. But its also incredibly exciting.

For example, we drove past a vetenarians office whose name was "Heavy Petting". With someone who spoke native English, it would get maybe a chuckle at most. With me and my partner, we spent 30 minutes discussing the nuances of this phrase.

She has opened my mind to new ways of expressing my language, made me think about WHY we say things, and brings out joy and delight in the smallest things. I can only hope she would say the same things about me and her language.

It sounds like you are on the other side of the fence, in regards to speaking the language and maybe not understanding the nuances of it. But share this with him, talk to him, ask him questions, laugh about mistakes or even idioms that just don't make sense. For my partner and I, I feel closer to her than anyone because I feel like we share a secret language, a mix of our two languages, and also I know she has the patience and tenacity to both learn from me and teach me.

Best of luck.
posted by Admira at 1:04 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

if I was trying to learn a language so as to better communicate with someone I loved, I'd ask them what their favourite books are and work on reading them - it would be a way to learn the language, feel close to them, and have more stuff to talk about
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:39 PM on February 9, 2010

I met my wife at university, she spoke almost no english, I spoke very little Spanish. We both took the effort to learn each other's language. She memorized our wedding vows phonetically. Two kids and ten years later, we're still together.

I remember when we were dating I said she was being silly, in a very teasing way and she when home and looked it up. In the spanish english dictionary it was translated as tonto, meaning stupid or dumb. The next day, she said, "Why you call me silly!" And I said, "'Cause you're silly, silly." To which she promptly walked away. A harmless jibe in English was basically me calling her stupid in spanish. But after a loooooong phone call with lots of babblefish help, we worked through it.
posted by ExitPursuedByBear at 1:54 PM on February 9, 2010

Mod note: few comments removed - please no more snarky, thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:42 PM on February 9, 2010

If "language is your life", then you stand a very good chance of becoming sufficiently fluent in the not-too-distant future such that you no longer feel stiffed by communicating in his language. The more opportunities you can find to practice, the quicker this process will unfold. In addition to skyping/emailing/IM, read books and newspapers in his language, including reading them out loud.

As far as my personal experience, when I met my ex-husband I spoke/understood Spanish at a rudimentary functional level, but through necessity and opportunity eventually (about 2 years) became totally comfortable in the language. And a great number of my fellow professional translators also got their start, or a major impetus, toward their eventual careers as a result of inter-lingual relationships. He was, for what it's worth, much slower to pick up English, even when he was living in the U.S., but he was not and never will be a "language" person.
posted by drlith at 3:41 PM on February 9, 2010

Look, I've made much of a living writing, but that still doesn't mean it means anything when it comes to issues of the heart.

Just look at him when you are saying things that are important. Not glance, but really look.

And if he still doesn't understand, look longer.

Words are overrated.
posted by rokusan at 4:03 PM on February 9, 2010

Best answer: It's got to be a joint effort. What are you doing to learn his language? What is he doing to learn yours? Just the two of you chatting on Skype isn't really going to create dramatic level increases.

In a lot of ways, I'm in the same boat. I love the English language, and I've had friends and coworkers tell me that they've been impressed with how persuasive/funny/interesting I can be in both written and spoken English. My wife, though, doesn't speak it very well, and promises to the contrary, doesn't seem all that interested in studying. I would say that 80-90% of our conversation is in her language, Japanese. While this does help me get better at Japanese, it's incredibly frustrating, because I don't live my whole life in that language. Unless I'm studying, talking with her (or more likely, watching TV with her), I spend my time with English, and I'm unable (or she's unwilling) to share it with her.

I'm not trying to poo-poo anything, but I do want you to be aware of what can happen when there are language difficulties, and one partner doesn't put forth the effort. If both of you are committed to learning each other's language, then it shouldn't be a problem. If that committment isn't there, you could be setting yourself up for a life of frustration.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:26 PM on February 9, 2010

As iamkimiam says, this is a great way to learn a language... second-best only to being born to it. (I'm married to a Spanish speaker.) With one caveat: you both have to be patient with it. If he is willing to put up with your struggles and questions, and to point out errors in a helpful way, great. You will eventually be able to communicate very well.

It can be frustrating at times, but on the other hand you get the opportunity to be each other's guide in a new culture and language.

I don't think both partners have to learn the other's language equally, but I think there should be some attempt. In my case it's my Spanish that's weaker... but it's good enough to (say) spend an evening with monolingual in-laws and Latin American friends. If he's not willing to speak your language to this point, that might be a bad sign.

Trying to do it all long distance will be a stressor, though... good luck.
posted by zompist at 7:43 PM on February 9, 2010

Best answer: For heaven's sakes, just learn the language. There's no down side to it - even if the relationship doesn't work out, every new language you speak is a great skill, on both a practical and conceptual level.

If you don't speak each other's first languages, there's an important part of who the other person is and who they have been and how they are in the world that will always be closed off with you. Not everybody minds that, and maybe you wouldn't or he wouldn't, but it's something to consider. For myself I'm pretty sure that if I were with someone whose first language wasn't English, even if they spoke English super well, I would still want to know and be able to communicate with them in their first language(s).

There are a ton of resources for learning a language. Maybe next week ask again, tell Metafilter what his language is and where you are, and people can help with practical suggestions.
posted by Salamandrous at 8:19 AM on February 10, 2010

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