It’s easy to fall in love, even without words. But sadly, learning a language doesn’t become easier even if you’re in love. Just like good relationships, learning a language is a long-term game. It takes compromise, commitment, and a bit of hard work.
The easiest way to communicate as a couple is to stay in the language you were using when you met. Most couples settle on a common “official language”. For me and my partner, it’s English. English is my everyday language, and I don’t have the habit of switching into German with my partner. As for him, he didn’t come out of school with remarkable knowledge or confidence when it comes to foreign languages.
Most of the time, our life together works just fine. But I do wonder:
- “Do we have to move to Germany before my husband has the opportunity to become a German speaker?”
- “How can I walk the line between forcing him to pick up my language, and encouraging him to discover the culture of my home country?”
- “How can I help him learn German without becoming his teacher?”
We are facing that classic native English dilemma: If everyone else speaks English already, where’s the urgency and pressure to learn another language?
Love is a Deep Motivator
No matter where your partner is from, you’re likely to spend a lifetime trying to figure out what exactly goes on in their head. As Carol Madfouh puts it in this lovely article on language learning for love:
“For us and any other couple from a mixed marriage you are having to work that wee bit harder the whole time to understand the mentality (…) I’m never quite certain whether I am pissed off with him because he’s Tunisian, because he’s French, because he’s a man… or whether just because he’s old!”
If you are the partner who is learning a new language for love, I want to thank you and congratulate you. I know it’s not easy, but you’re doing something amazing. Your desire for a deeper connection has a lot of value. It serves as your Vision Goal, the consistent motivation that keeps you committed to the problem.
Tips for Sharing Your Language With Your Partner
If you are the partner who wishes you could share more of your own language and culture in your relationship, I’m with you. It can be tough to walk the line between sharing your language and nagging someone to learn it.
Here are the things you can try for keeping your sweetheart motivated without putting too much pressure on them.
1) Talk to Third Parties
Every language learner knows that it feels bad to understand nothing, especially when you care about the person who is speaking to you. Introducing your native language into the household becomes a lot easier when there’s a third party around. Adding bilingualism to the home is common when you have a child (try Bilingual Avenue for more tips). But even if you don’t have kids, it helps to have your partner hear simple dialogues in another language.
If you are an expat yourself, your sweetheart likely won’t hear a lot of your native language outside the home. But what about your own circle of friends? Try and see if you can invite a fellow native speaker around the home, giving you more occasion to throw in a few words of vocabulary now and then.
At the Polyglot Gathering in Bratislava, one fellow expat wife told me she switched to talking to her pet in another language. What a great idea! This way you can keep your native language active in the home without putting the pressure on way high.
2) Let Them Know What To Expect
One of the trickiest parts of switching into your native language with your partner is that you can never be sure what mood they are in. They may respond with curiosity and enthusiasm one day, only to roll their eyes and ask to be left alone the next. So it’s helpful to make your non-English moments a little more predictable.
- Try setting up an English-free zone in your house, where your partner knows they will be able to practice. I can’t decide if I would suggest the bedroom for this, or tell you to avoid that at all costs..
- Have a regular date night with your native language where you spend time experiencing something new like a restaurant, dance lesson, or language meet up
- Set language times or days, so you know that both of you have agreed to switch languages once a week
3) Treat Language as an In-Joke
In an animated discussion on language learning, Idahosa Ness from the Mimic Method shared that a past girlfriend and he would speak her native language to each other as a sign of closeness. Learning the language came more easily to him as he felt he was in on a private joke with his sweetheart.
Just like nicknames, sharing a second language can make any couple feel more deeply connected. If you want to build your own private language together, try starting with a few loving phrases, or learning the words related to something you love to do together.
4) Share Your Background Without The Language Barrier
If your partner lacks confidence when it comes to learning your native language, you can still offer many fun ways of engaging with your background. Bring in foods or music from home, or discuss the politics of your home country. As long as the topic is interesting to your partner, it will serve as an inspiration for both of you to connect to each other’s cultures.
Sharing traditions of your home country is what makes you special as a couple. It can also create memories that last for life. At my wedding in Germany, my husband asked for us to act out the German tradition of sawing a log together as the couple. My parents happily obliged…with a pretty blunt saw! The experience of my neighbour running in to “rescue the couple” with his chainsaw won’t be forgotten any time soon.
5) Learn a third language together
The biggest problem with teaching your native language to your sweetheart is that it can create a power imbalance. You don’t want them to feel like the stupid one, right? Some couples have reported that learning a third language together became a great leveller and hobby. Go for something that you both consider relatively neutral and easy, such as Esperanto. This way, it’s their chance to flex those study muscles without feeling any pressure.
Respect Your Partner’s Learning Style
Allow your partner to determine the pace and learning style that they prefer. Even if you are a polyglot who swears by using Anki cards, their own preference might be for starting out in an adult class at the local college. Keep them accountable to their own goals, but never to demand unreasonable efforts. It may help to discuss their language learning goals together and to keep easy accountability through something like the Language Habit Toolkit. Like a good tutor, your job is to inspire motivation and excitement and to refrain from judgement.
Have you ever been in a relationship with someone from a different country? How did you go about language learning? Tell me more in the comments below. I’m excited to hear those stories.