dating a person who speaks a different language...
September 3, 2011 10:11 AM   Subscribe

Dating someone whose native language is different than yours - can it work? Ever dated a latin american man? Are the cultural differences too great?

I've been seeing someone I met salsa dancing a few months ago. We've only been dating about two months. He's very different from me. He's originally born and raised in latin america, much shorter and darker than I. He speaks english, but not perfectly, even though he has been in this country for 20+ years (came in his mid 20s and he is now in his early 40s, he is now a US citizen, btw). We're about 6 years difference. I am very cerebral, intellectual with a solid command and love of the english language. Past relationships thrived on witty banter, repartee and it has always been important to me in relationships to understand subtle context or words, and double meanings, etc. This man is the sweetest man I've dated in a long time. He adores me and wants to take care of me. He does understand me most of the time, though not all of the time and I have to ask him to repeat himself a lot. A lot of the time I just don't understand how he pronounces the words. He has the word right, but not the pronunciation. Honestly, it drives me insane when he writes me emails full of mistakes. Most of the time I think its laziness on his part. He doesn't use part participle. When I was studying french and in a relatioship with a french guy, I totally understood the challenge of writing and speaking correctly, its a total challenge. But he is lazy in that department.

He and I look at things a little differently. He doesn't kiss the way I do (do men from latin america not like to French kiss? He acts as if its the weirdest thing, he pretends he likes it but I always have to initiate that, is that a deal breaker?) and when he tries to do it himself, he just doesn't do it right. Its akward and not really that enjoyable. i'm very perplexed about that.

But he has all these great characteristics that I have not found in american men in the area I am living. He has a wonderful garden, decent home that he owns, a nice cat that he cares for (I have a cat too) and a nice set of friends. His mother lives in the house behind him and he helps her a lot (yes this could also be a red flag, no?!? she has been married three times and does not like his past girlfriends). He is a triathelete. - major points there, for I am active too. He can dance pretty well, though not as well as a lot of other salsa dancers. We both like to stay in shape and I think he eventually wants a family, like I do.

When I weigh plusses and minuses on paper he comes out winning but in my heart I am weighed down by this gap in communication, his height bothers me a lot!!!, he's soo dark, i never thought that would bother me but it does (does that make me a racist?!? yikesorama). He is also really active in a very conservative church and I am liberal. We have different views on things and he thinks we can get past that but deep down i think it could be a real problem (for example, he believes the bible literally, and i certainly do not). I'm not so certain that my family would accept him. But am conflicted, I mean does that really matter if he is really a good person? My family can be pretty judgmental and plain suck at times.

Mefites - I'm in my late 30s and really want to settle down and have a family - and he does too. Do I settle for this guy, given all of these reservations? I'd appreciate your guidance ;) Have any of you dated latin men and what has been your experience? Thanks.
posted by BlueMartini7 to Human Relations (35 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

I think that you're doing a lot of comparing this guy to past guy you've dated.

Judge him on his own merits.

If he makes you happy, who cares that in the past you've enjoyed more cerebral relationships?

Is his kissing style or error-full emails or good-but-not-awesome salsa dancing or his height a deal breaker for you? You need to really decide what you're willing to "put up with." The differences in values might be more of a challenge -- but can you talk to him about this?

You're in your late 30s and looking to settle down. Some of the things that are 'minuses' for him, IMHO, are a little ridiculous. But then again, I'm not you.
posted by k8t at 10:16 AM on September 3, 2011

Do you really love this guy? I think many of the issues you raised can be overcome, but not if you don't want to. Some red flags I'm seeing: you possibly aren't that attracted to him (he's too short and his skin is too dark for you and you don't like kissing him) and you get irritated by his emails because you think he's not trying hard enough. These aren't even cultural issues.

It's good to think rationally about relationships and make deliberate choices, but the fact that you think pursuing a relationship with this guy is "settling" is a huge problem. You sound like you are trying to talk yourself into it.

It also seems like you are embarrassed by him a little bit? Not a great sign. Never mind your family not accepting him--if you can't really accept him for who he is, it's time to move on.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:22 AM on September 3, 2011 [15 favorites]

It sounds like his plusses are "he's settled down and I want to be too" and his minuses are "almost everything else."

If your beliefs are so different, what is the plan for raising the children you want so much? Are you prepared to have your mother-in-law very, very involved in that?
posted by olinerd at 10:24 AM on September 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

I can't tell you what to do, but from what you've written you don't sound very fond of this guy. You know dark skin color isn't a cultural difference right? In fact nothing you've written seems like it can be put down to culture-- if he doesn't kiss the way you like, you can gently suggest a change? Everyone kisses differently, even amongst white American men. If his emails annoy you and you want to call out that he's not as good at salsa as other people, this doesn't sound like a great basis for a relationship, not to even mention a relationship with children and marriage in the future. Let him go.
posted by sweetkid at 10:32 AM on September 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm going to recommend the same book I always do for intercultural relationships:

Intercultural Marriage: Promises & Pitfalls (ignore the terrible cover design)

There's a lot of things to consider for the long run - religion is huge, but attitudes about money, sex, family are just as (potentially) difficult. They *all* need to be talked about before making a commitment. For example, I didn't know my ex-husband's thoughts on naming children until I brought up something I'd read in this book, and was surprised to hear, "Oh yes, I decide on their names. That's the way it's done here." That's a small thing, but just the tip of the iceberg.
posted by HopperFan at 10:33 AM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are two answers to two questions here.

First the answer to your specific question: "Can a relationship work with someone whose first language is different to yours?". Yes, obviously - there are innumerable examples I can think of.

Then the answer to the question in your specific case, which seems to have little to do with the first question: "Can a relationship between me and this guy work out?". I'd have to say it really doesn't sound like it. Not because English isn't his first language, but because you fundamentally don't seem to connect with him, or apparently find him attractive, or indeed seem to have any chemistry with him. You seem merely think he is a fairly decent guy. That, as they say, "bodes", in the bad sense.
posted by inbetweener at 10:36 AM on September 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Sounds like a time bomb
posted by Patbon at 10:37 AM on September 3, 2011

Yes, these differences, on their face, are differences that can be overcome sometimes.


You don't sound like you're that into this guy. You're asking if you should "settle for this guy." The answer to that is always no - you should hold out for someone you're excited about.
posted by J. Wilson at 10:37 AM on September 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't know if you realise this, but your post is riddled with language errors. Basic capitalisation and its/it's problems, strange sentence structures -- it takes longer to read than it should. This is only noteworthy given how odd that is next to "it drives me insane when he writes me emails full of mistakes" and the accusation of "laziness."

But even without that perspective -- should you 'settle'? No. Future children will not appreciate a half-hearted relationship with Dad. He sounds like a nice man, but it also sounds like you aren't very attracted to him.

It is odd that you view his helping his mother as a potential 'red flag,' and at the same time are concerned over whether or not your own family would accept him. Is family a good thing or a bad thing for you?
posted by kmennie at 10:37 AM on September 3, 2011 [41 favorites]

As far as communication breakdown goes, I can say that I previously dated a profoundly deaf man, and while the relationship had a lot of passion, our eventual inability to communicate, both in my struggle with ASL and his self-conciousness with vocalization, forced us apart through countless resentment.

If you have these large of doubts now, drop the relationship, getting married and having children will only add to the load of stress and doubts, not secure them.
posted by banannafish at 10:38 AM on September 3, 2011

Yes, a relationship can work with someone whose first language is different than yours. But it doesn't sound like you're actually interested in this guy.
posted by hungrytiger at 10:39 AM on September 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think you should cut him loose, because you seem to see only "OMG he's from latin america! dark skin! !! bilingaul! different!" more than you actually see him as a person.
posted by Houstonian at 10:41 AM on September 3, 2011 [11 favorites]

Do I settle for this guy
This is the key -- if you feel like you're settling, then it probably isn't the right relationship for you. Communication is very important in a relationship, and if you aren't able to communicate with each other effectively, this could be a time bomb. That said, does he want to improve his English? There are ESL courses, and English phonetics courses that could drastically improve that. My roommate has only lived in the US for 6 years -- she's from El Salvador -- and she speaks fantastic English, with only a tiny accent.

And don't worry about your reaction to his skin color. My ex-fiance was of Mexican ethnicity (though born in the US) and it was something that I felt weird about in a very small way, but only because it was different that what I was used to. It didn't affect our relationship and it wasn't something that was bad in any way.
posted by DoubleLune at 10:43 AM on September 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have a close friend who married a guy from a latin culture three years ago. He's the nicest guy ever and their marriage and friendship are strong. My friend didn't know a lick of Spanish. But since being married, instead of focusing on his lack of perfect English language skills, she's learning Spanish! And she's doing quite well. Not only that, she's traveled with him to his home country and even though there was a huge language barrier between her and her in-laws she loves those people like no other. She'll often write/email them to the best of her ability in Spanish.

My question is why don't you try to learn his language? Meet half-way. On the other hand, why bother, because frankly you don't sound into this guy. And that's okay. There are a lot of differences between the two of you. And it seems like you're not okay with those differences. Nothing wrong with that, but don't blame the differences on him. You're just not a good fit. Leave it at that.
posted by Sassyfras at 10:49 AM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

The general rule when complaining about the poor grammar of another person is to use proper grammar yourself. For instance: French and American should be capitalized. It is is shortened to it's.

Just thought I should comment on that small point because it really doesn't sound to me like this (i.e. his sub-optimal command of the English language and sending poorly composed emails out of "laziness") is the issue here.

Sounds like the issue is that you just don't like him that much. And maybe even feel a bit superior to him.

My boyfriend is shorter than me. My boyfriend is browner than me. Though he was born and raised in another country, his first language was not English and he didn't grow up speaking English in the home. Is he the kind of person, physically, that I pictured myself being in a relationship with? Not at all. Is he the kind of person, mentally and emotionally, that I pictured myself being in a relationship with? Hmm, well sort of...maybe. Is he the kind of person that I want to be in a relationship with? Absofreakinglutely. And that's all that really matters.

If you're not happy, for whatever reason, then you're not happy. If you're looking for permission to end the relationship, you have mine. He deserves to be in a relationship with someone who respects him for who he is.
posted by phunniemee at 10:53 AM on September 3, 2011 [9 favorites]

Nooooooooooooooooooooo. Just, no.

My husband (who I adore and is compatible with me on many many more levels than you cite here, including looks, religion and politics - which is a BIG one - and who comes first (me, not his mom or other family) - which is The Other Big One) ... Wait. Where was I?

Oh. Right.

My husband is from Egypt, he speaks and writes 4 languages. His English is so-so getting better, except if he is half asleep, or thinking about other things... And then he mumbles and the accent takes over and I sometimes feel ready to throw household items and scream at the top of my lungs. Sometimes we'll have big conversations about one thing, and weeks later I'll find out my husband thought we were talking about something else entirely!

If you can not love 99.9% of everything else about this man, believe me when I tell you that continually misunderstanding, being misunderstood, etc. will kill this relationship.

But really.

His mom lives on his property and hates all of his girlfriends?

Just NO.
posted by jbenben at 10:55 AM on September 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

He can dance pretty well, though not as well as a lot of other salsa dancers.

It sounds like you really don't like this guy. Do him a favor and cut him loose.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 10:57 AM on September 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I dated a Turkish girl for several years and I aways thought it was charming when she misspoke, it gave her character... words came in from unexpected angles. It was refreshing and adorable. Her written English was noticeably worse than her spoken English however, not sure what that was about.

I certainly never took the occasional incorrect word to be an indicator of her intelligence, as a matter of fact she is one of the smartest people I know. Her English was a fuck-ton better than my Turkish, or my German, or my Spanish I'll tell you that much. I always found it impressive that she could speak as well as she could and charming when she misspoke. We had no trouble carrying on elaborate and satisfying conversations about film, theater, art, politics as well as just shooting the shit. As far as cultural differences, I found them intriguing and stimulating rather than unnerving. And this includes some pretty heated conversations right after 9/11 and a number of intense arguments with Jewish friends about the Israeli/Palestine conflict. Which she always held her own in, in her second language, often after several drinks.

I guess what I'm saying is you being frustrated / having second thoughts is a very bad sign.
posted by nathancaswell at 10:58 AM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Though he was born and raised in another country...
Oops! Should be "though he was born and raised in THIS country," i.e. America.

posted by phunniemee at 11:01 AM on September 3, 2011

This has zero to do with him being Latin American. What you are describing aren't cultural issues; these are chemistry issues. And you simply don't have very good chemistry (on various levels, not just on the attraction/physicality level).

Being mutually ready to settle down and have kids is NOT a good enough reason to be in a relationship with someone when there's obviously so much else lacking. Please kindly and respectfully move on -- for both your sakes.
posted by scody at 11:03 AM on September 3, 2011 [9 favorites]

He is also really active in a very conservative church and I am liberal.

I find this more problematic than any of the cultural differences.
posted by cazoo at 11:21 AM on September 3, 2011 [6 favorites]

My honest first reaction to this AskMe was that the relationship wouldn't work, not because of language issues, but because things like how well he salsa danced and how tall he was or the way he kissed (he kisses wrong? To my thinking, there's not just one "right" way) really seem to matter to you. When I saw the "yikeserama," I chalked it up to your being very young yet and not realizing how shallow all that stuff is when evaluating a potential partner.

And then I re-read the question and saw you were in your mid- to late-thirties, and, well, I still think you need to grow up and get over yourself.

You come across as feeling quite superior to your partner. You're judgmental and base your judgments on the most superficial qualities--his height, his dancing skills, the occasional grammatical errors he makes in a language that is not even his native one (and, as others have already pointed out, your skills are not perfect).

On the plus side, he has a nice garden and likes cats! Seriously? That's what you're going with?

I'd see him treating his Mother with respect as a good sign. I'd consider the fact that the height difference doesn't bother him a sign of his own self-confidence and maturity. I'd think that his willingness to try to kiss the way you think is right shows he is willing to work on the relationship. He has loyal friends and takes care of himself, all good things. So I would probably consider him a keeper.

But the two of you together? NO, this is not going to work.
posted by misha at 11:29 AM on September 3, 2011 [31 favorites]

When I weigh plusses and minuses on paper he comes out winning but in my heart I am weighed down by this gap in communication, his height bothers me a lot!!!, he's soo dark, i never thought that would bother me but it does

Please. Let him go. He deserves to be with someone who isn't freaked out by his skin color.
posted by Ashen at 11:37 AM on September 3, 2011 [16 favorites]

Yeah, I agree with many others that you are judging him. I mean really judging him - for example, his second language ability means "laziness" to you? It's not like that.

His mother living on his property is not a red flag. I would say that is very likely a cultural difference, and on the contrary, it likely means he is a dedicated, responsable son who respects his mother and takes care of her. Although "latin" is a very general term, here in Mexico I have learned all about how community and family comes first, and while it is different, it's NOT a bad thing at all.

He may not be getting all crazy tongue kissing out of respect for you.

If you can let go of seeing him as exotic, and start seeing him as a man, you may have a chance. If you can't stop listing the things that you are not sure about, break up with him so that he can date someone who genuinely appreciates all of him.
posted by Locochona at 11:38 AM on September 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

On preview, misha has said everything.
posted by Ashen at 11:38 AM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you were to settle down and have a family with this guy, what would you do if your children are as dark-skinned as he is? How will you react when someone asks or assumes your children are adopted because they might not look like you?

"Settling" for this guy because you want to start a family is cruel enough to him, but if you have reservations about his appearance, I would think very hard about how you would feel towards your possible children.
posted by nakedmolerats at 11:55 AM on September 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

But he is lazy in that department

You are already judgemental in your question. Its better perhaps to let this relationship go. He learnt english as an adult. Not every one is a linguist.

Cross cultural relationship building and maintenance takes tons of generosity of spirit and willingness to stretch beyond one's own perspective of the world (and the way it should be.) You cannot take one frame of reference (culture) and hold that up by which to evaluate someone who is from another culture.
posted by infini at 11:56 AM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Misha nailed it.

I've dated men whose first language ranged from French to Amharic to Romanian to Russian, among others. I've never run into a language barrier, but then, I've tried to meet halfway and found humor and shared jokes in the missteps. Cultural differences can be.... interesting but nothing close to impossible (except for Eastern European men -- probably just my personal experience), and not terribly difficult to work through.

The man you're speaking of in a way that honestly hurts my heart sounds like a decent, honest, responsible, loving man. Let him find someone who appreciates him for who he is.

Something to think about: "If you love something (someone), you learn everything you can about it (him/her)."
posted by vers at 11:57 AM on September 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

thank you all. i needed to have my ridiculous fears vetted and told that they are ridiculous and unfair. i agree that he deserves someone who adores him. and not sure that is me.
posted by BlueMartini7 at 1:09 PM on September 3, 2011

Doesn't sound like it's you.

FWIW, I totally disagree with vers - cultural differences can be very challenging to work through when you're in it for the long haul, and they sometimes manifest themselves in totally strange and unexpected ways (like the naming of children or how gift giving is handled). I love my husband deeply and know his culture reasonably well and am still challenged by some of the issues that come up.

Cross-cultural marriages require love, sensitivity, and sometimes, careful and thoughtful negotiation. If you've 'settled', you have little chance of making it work.
posted by scrute at 2:23 PM on September 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

scrute: What I said was, "Cultural differences can be.... interesting but nothing close to impossible." Perhaps you read that phrase a different way, but in that I am admitting it can be challenging and sometimes very challenging. Just not nearly impossible. I agree with you that love, sensitivity, kindness, teamwork et al are key -- that was in fact my main point.
posted by vers at 3:42 PM on September 3, 2011

Honestly, it drives me insane when he writes me emails full of mistakes. Most of the time I think its laziness on his part. He doesn't use part participle. [...]But he is lazy in that department.

My mother is from a foreign country, and English is her second language. She speaks it amazingly well - fluently - especially when you consider that you can have any conversation with her on any topic (including complex, technical ones with jargon) and she can converse along, with no problem.

Still, to this day, her emails contain many grammar and syntax errors that sometimes make me giggle. I don't know what it is about writing English that was harder for her to pick up, but I can guarantee you that it is NOT due to her laziness, and, honestly, if I found out that one of her suitors had described her writing in terms similar to yours, I would tell her to bounce, post haste.

His mother lives in the house behind him and he helps her a lot (yes this could also be a red flag, no?!? she has been married three times and does not like his past girlfriends).

Many individuals from other countries, especially many in Latin America, would be puzzled as to why one would consider the act of caring for a family member to be a red flag. Then they might point to how we in the US tend to stick our elderly parents into care homes so that we can cruelly forget them, instead of coming together as a family to, you know, take care of family.

Some of these "red flags" and concerns of yours indicate to me that you are, indeed, unfamiliar with certain cultural differences, and are a little insensitive to how people operate differently from different countries/cultures/contexts.

Now, I can totally understand how intercultural differences here can be difficult to navigate (lord knows it explains some of the arguments I've had with my mother, for example), but not a lot of what I hear here seems to indicate a willingness on your part to do so. Maybe you're overwhelmed by them. Maybe you think there will be more than there are (it happens that some of the big, scary differences end up being amusing whatevers that can be negotiated easily). I can see how that can be intimidating, but one can indeed make a decision to be open, to make an effort and try.

he's soo dark, i never thought that would bother me but it does (does that make me a racist?!? yikesorama).

Wow. Yeah.
You should probably do him a favor and break up with him.
If he were my friend, I would tell him to dump you, like, yesterday.
posted by vivid postcard at 3:56 PM on September 3, 2011 [7 favorites]

Please for the love of god do not have children with a man who's skin colour makes you uncomfortable. Just don't even entertain that thought.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:06 PM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

My father is from Puerto Rico. English is his second language. He is one of the most intelligent men I know. He sometimes makes the silliest spelling errors. He has even spelled my name wrong on occasion. I have done editing work for some great, expressive people who have a penchant for run-on sentences and missing commas.

You pick your battles.

But yeah, this guy deserves to be with someone who is in the relationship completely and attracted to him as well.
posted by cmgonzalez at 10:17 PM on September 3, 2011

My wife's native language is different than mine. The culture she was born and raised in is very different than mine and how I was raised. There has been some misunderstandings because of language, but our differences have brought more good to our marriage than bad.

That being said, it seems like you don't even like the guy. The problem isn't that he's from a different culture. The problem is that you can't accept him because he's from a different culture.
posted by BurnChao at 1:03 AM on September 4, 2011

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