If I had 5p every time I read someone telling someone else that the best way to learn a language is to "get a native speaking girlfriend", I think I could retire at 35.
Today, you'll hear from Nick Vance, who is in the lucky position of having one of those handy "native speaker girlfriends". So, how's it working out?
In this article, Nick will share 7 useful tips to help you understand how to learn a language with your sweetheart.
Learning German from My Girlfriend
As an American living in Berlin with my German girlfriend, Natalie, people constantly ask me the same questions.
Where did you two meet? In Costa Rica - surprising, but true!
Did you move to Berlin to be with her? Nope - it took us many years to finally fall in love.
Is she the reason you speak German fluently? Jein - a combination of the German words “ja” and “nein” (“yes” and “no”).
Natalie did indeed play a huge role in helping me reach fluency in German. However, she didn’t actually teach me very many things about the language. She “just” talked with me for thousands of hours, giving me the opportunity to practice. I learned German grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation in a language school, through self-study online, and in private one-on-one lessons.
Your partner can be a big help in you learning their native language, but it’s important to be careful about expecting too much from them. Today I’m going to share some concrete tips for how you and your partner can work together to learn each other’s languages.
Speaking Practice with Your Partner
Once you’ve reached about B1 level, you can start having real conversations about real topics. Awesome! This is the area where your partner can really help you, and you can start making lots of progress really quickly.
Set Up Some Rules
There’s no right or wrong way to set up your plan on how and when you speak which language, but they need to be agreed upon by both people. For a long time Natalie and I would alternate weeks. Every Sunday night at midnight, we would switch from English to German, or the other way around. Yes, I would sometimes look at the clock and switch at exactly 12:01 am, mostly just because I thought it was funny. Other people might agree to always speak Spanish at the dinner table, or to speak French on weekends, or whatever. My advice: the simpler the plan, the better.
Focus on What You Say (Not How You Say It)
This part of your language practice should be fun and focused on improving your ability to quickly form sentences and communicate them. Avoid correcting the other person during this time. If you BOTH agree, take some time maybe once a week for the native speaker to share some feedback on what you can improve.
But what if you’re still at level A1 or A2?
Honestly, your conversations aren’t going to be that interesting. However, you can still have some short conversations to get used to the idea of speaking in that language. For example, speak in the language for the first 5 minutes when you see each other in the evening. Depending on your relationship, that’s often how your day was and what you did. You’ll quickly get used to this vocabulary and be able to feel more comfortable in the language.
Your Partner Isn’t the Perfect Teacher
Teaching Is a Skill
I’ve heard lots of stories from friends in similar relationships who were frustrated that their partner wasn’t able or willing to teach them their native language. Some of them even blamed their partner, calling them lazy, uninterested, or simply unhelpful. The more likely explanation is that teaching is a skill that not everyone has.
If you’re just starting out in a language (A1 / A2 level), your partner probably doesn’t understand pedagogically how to teach a language. Should you first focus on learning all of the tenses and their uses? How important is learning vocabulary compared to improving your pronunciation? What books are appropriate for your level? These are questions that a normal person just doesn’t know about their language.
Additionally, your partner might not know exactly how their language works, even if they speak and write it perfectly. For example, what’s the difference between “while” and “during” in English? I only learned this when I became an English teacher. Before then I always used the correct word, but it was just because it “felt” right.
In your relationship, you and your partner have specific roles. Perhaps you make vacation plans while your partner just shows up at the airport and follows your lead. But that’s made up for by your partner cooking dinner every night for the both of you. Everything is great as long as both sides are comfortable with the arrangement.
Teacher-student is a very special role that comes with lots of built-in assumptions. If your partner (acting as the teacher) tells you to work on your pronunciation of “th,” and you don’t practice it, what happens? If the person is just a teacher, that disappointment, frustration, or embarrassment is left in the classroom. If that person is also your partner, it can bleed into the rest of your relationship and cause bigger problems.
Give It a Shot!
This all is not to say it’s impossible. If you both are willing, give it a shot. Maybe your partner is actually quite good at explaining when to use what tense, and you develop a teacher-student relationship that doesn’t does lead to any other issues. Learning the language from your partner could then be a great way to spend time together and strengthen your bond.
But if it feels like a struggle, don’t force it. Accepting this limitation is important for preventing feelings of resentment.
Their inability to teach you about subordinate clauses shouldn’t be seen as a lack of love for you, but only their inability to teach subordinate clauses.
It’s not language learning, but I recently learned how to drive in Germany - both the rules of the road and how to drive stick shift. I’d been driving automatic cars in the US for 15 years, but had never needed to drive stick.
Once again, I hoped to profit from Natalie’s knowledge. We decided that she’d try to teach me a couple of times, and if it didn’t work out, I’d pay for driving lessons from a professional. Even though she had no experience as a driving instructor, she was an amazing, patient teacher, and it was a fun experience. And now I can drive in Germany!!!
No More Borders
No more borders - Nick (from the US) and Natalie (from the former East Germany) on a bridge that once marked the border between East Germany and West Germany.
Being a Supportive Language Helper
If your partner is trying to learn your language, you have a unique responsibility. Even if you don’t act as their teacher or even speak the language with them, there are things you can do to help or hurt their progress. Here are some things that you should definitely avoid.
Don’t Make Fun of Their Language Ability
I’m sure you don’t intend it to be mean, but little comments or jokes can make your partner feel self-conscious and kill their desire to speak. This doesn’t mean you can’t laugh about the language, but just be extra careful you’re laughing with them. Like when I asked Natalie if she had used the helicopter to clean our apartment (I meant vacuum cleaner but had somehow mixed up the words Hubschrauber and Staubsauger… they still sound similar in my head, but apparently in no one else’s).
Don’t Talk about How Difficult Your Language Is
This is usually meant in a helpful way, letting your partner know that they shouldn’t feel bad about struggling or to show them how impressed you are at the progress they’ve made. However, it often comes across as “why are you even bothering.” I can’t tell you how many people have told me that German is “so hard” and “impossible for foreigners to learn.” Yes, there are some things that take time to learn or do 100% perfectly, but there are millions of immigrants in Germany today proving them wrong. If you need help with this language in particular, Kerstin has some great German learning resources.
In the end, there are plenty of ways your partner can help or hurt your language learning. Find out what works best for the both of you, and don’t try to force something that isn’t working. They might be the love of your life, but that doesn’t mean they have to be your language teacher.
If you’d like some more tips, check out Kerstin’s article about helping your partner learn your native language. And I’d love to hear about your experiences.
Share with me in the comments your ups and downs about learning a language from or teaching a language to your partner. Especially if there were any hilarious misunderstandings!
Nick Vance is originally from the U.S. but has been living in Germany the last 6 years. For him, being able to speak German fluently has been a key to feeling at home in Berlin. Learning a language as an adult is much different than learning in school, and Nick uses his own personal language learning experience when he teaches English. You can find more information about his online English lessons at Skype Englisch (in German) or English with Nick (in English).