Ask the Yangxifu: He Won't Speak Chinese With Me? | Speaking of China

31 Responses

  1. Michelle
    Michelle May 4, 2012 at 4:02 am | | Reply

    It’s interesting because I have the opposite problem with my fiance…he won’t speak English with me. I speak to him in English and he responds in Chinese. In his case, he says it’s because I have a Chinese face so it’s weird to speak English with me. It could be the same for the guy you’re dating. Maybe, like Jocelyn said, he sees your foreign face and it’s more natural for him to speak English (or strange to speak Chinese with a foreigner). Don’t take it personally, though. I think a likely reason could just be that he wants to practice his English. I agree with Jocelyn though that it should be give and take. Sometimes it just takes some pushing. Maybe he needs to be constantly reminded to speak Chinese with you. With my fiance, when he responds in Chinese, I tell him, “Say it again in English.”

    1. Amy aka Late response
      Amy aka Late response August 11, 2014 at 3:09 pm | | Reply

      Hi Jocelyn, Lana, and everyone. To those who mentioned “foreign face” as perceived by the Chinese guy in your answers, do you mean a face that doesn’t look typically Chinese (e.g., a white face), or simply the face of any person who the Chinese guy knows is not a Chinese national? If Lana (the questioner) is, for example, an American of Chinese (or Japanese, etc.) descent, she may not look “foreign” in China even though she is.

      In fact, judging from the grammar peculiarity in the question (unnecessarily using “would” to describe a situation that’s happening currently, e.g. “he doesn’t really want to speak Chinese with me. Whenever I would try to talk w/ him in Chinese he would answer back in English” should be “he doesn’t really want to speak Chinese with me. Whenever I try to talk w/ him in Chinese he answers back in English”) which is a peculiarity I’ve seen Americans of Chinese descent use – I would hazard a guess that Lana is of Chinese descent (sorry if I’m wrong – just guessing).

  2. jackie
    jackie May 4, 2012 at 4:18 am | | Reply

    My husband never speaks Chinese with me either, and I speak fluent Mandarin. It can be frustrating at times, but my advice would be to just be patient with him. Echoing what the previous comment said, he says he looks at my foreign face and just feels weird speaking Chinese to me. Interestingly, he also said that it is easier for him to express his true feelings in English, because that is more acceptable in Western culture but sometimes a bit odd in Chinese culture (i.e. saying “我爱你“–I love you is not common). So it could be a case of his special feelings for you make using English more desirable in his eyes.
    We’ve been married for over 3 years now, and while he still hesitates to speak Chinese with me when we’re alone at home, at least he speaks Chinese to me when we are with Chinese friends who don’t understand English, and when I ask him for help with some Chinese character I’ve never seen before or some other language question he does seem to feel useful and doesn’t mind helping as long as I ask him in a kind way and when he is not busy with something more important. So, in my experience, patience and understanding has helped a lot. It doesn’t necessarily mean he is a bad guy or purposely disregarding your feelings.

  3. ordinary malaysian
    ordinary malaysian May 4, 2012 at 6:00 am | | Reply

    I think all of you have a point. But maybe he feels exotic speaking in English rather than in his native tongue and feels more comfortable this way. At least for now. Language is not only a means of communication but also a pathway to one’s inner mind. When he is ready, I think he would enjoy speaking Mandarin to his gf.

  4. Taiwanxifu
    Taiwanxifu May 4, 2012 at 6:46 am | | Reply

    I’ve been with my Taiwanese husband for 15 years, and he still prefers to speak to me in English. In part it is because we met and married in Australia and he really wanted to fit in and be ‘Aussie’. I, on the other hand, wanted to practice my Chinese and I just liked speaking in Chinese. So usually we had odd conversations where I spoke in Chinese and he answered in English. Now, we tend to mix things up a lot more with ‘Chinglish’ conversations. My advice is to just keep talking in whatever language YOU feel comfortable with — so long as you both understand each other.

  5. Sara
    Sara May 4, 2012 at 8:21 am | | Reply

    Thanks for the post and for the comments! It’s an interesting problem that someone doesn’t want to speak in a language that is their native language or in a one they are very good at. I can understand if someone didn’t want to speak because of poor language skills, but this is new to me.

    For me and my boyfriend Chinese is the only language we can communicate in, so I don’t have experience in changing between languages. Luckily other commenters have shared their experiences and wisdom!

  6. David
    David May 4, 2012 at 8:27 am | | Reply

    I saw a few Irish (white) women-Chinese (Hong Kong and Singapore) men couples in Ireland during my visit there last week. With their heavy Irish and Singaporean/Hong Kong accents I wonder how they communicate with each other even in English! Perhaps love does conquer all.

  7. Jessica
    Jessica May 4, 2012 at 10:51 am | | Reply

    I don’t think it’s really fair to say “this guy isn’t pulling his weight in this relationship.” I mean one line you say it’s about give and take and the next you say that HE is wrong and SHE is right.

    I love you Jocelyn haha I don’t mean to be rude at all, just don’t think this is being fair.

  8. Henry Yeh
    Henry Yeh May 4, 2012 at 11:24 am | | Reply

    Seriously, if my GF starts to speak Chinese to me, I’ll probably flip out.

  9. Sveta
    Sveta May 4, 2012 at 2:51 pm | | Reply

    When I dated my Korean ex, he refused to speak Korean with me, although he knew I was interested in Korean culture and whatnot. (I even taught myself a little on how to read Korean :D) His explanation was that its America and not Korea. He did tell me a lot of things about Korea, and I learned few words from him as well. I guess he also wanted to be good at English, maybe that’s the reason?

  10. Tiffany
    Tiffany May 4, 2012 at 3:21 pm | | Reply

    What’s your goal in wanting to speak Chinese? Just to practice or you really want to know what your BF thinks? It really shouldn’t bother you that much if one language is more in use between you so that you can mitigate any misunderstandings… if you want to practice Chinese, your better bet may be his family members..

  11. Li Lan
    Li Lan May 4, 2012 at 6:11 pm | | Reply

    I don’t know how I could have a relationship like that, being used for English practice and/or being seen as an English-only face. I would flip out.

  12. jenna cody
    jenna cody May 4, 2012 at 9:59 pm | | Reply

    I don’t have a Chinese or Taiwanese boyfriend (my husband is an American and his Chinese is worse than mine by a wide margin) but I have also noticed this among my friends in Taiwan. I speak fairly good Chinese, but they will usually switch to English with me. Often, despite my good Chinese, their English is as good or better.

    With some, it’s because they’re my former students and just used to speaking English with me. With some, I’ve had to work hard to convince them that I do, in fact, speak Chinese. There is still an assumption that “foreign face” = “can’t possibly speak Chinese well” and “Asian face” = “probably speaks passable Chinese” (even if the Asian person is not of Chinese descent). It takes work to kill this assumption, but it deserves to be stabbed repeatedly in the face and then killed with fire so it’s worth the effort.

    I’ve only been fortunate in recent years, after a very long period of not having much luck, to make local friends who will speak Chinese with me. Some speak good English, others do not. One speaks great English but his wife does not, so when we hang out, we speak Chinese. It’s taken five years of effort to get there, but it’s finally happening.

    It would be great to practice at home, but deep down I know it’s not really feasible. Of course I would not trade my amazing husband for anything, but on another level, in Fantasy Land, having a husband who was a native speaker of Chinese would be awesome if I could get him to practice with me. As two native English speakers with very disparate Chinese levels, it just feels weird to speak Chinese to each other. I’m patient with students and local friends in English, but as a learner of Chinese, I am not that patient with those at a lower level, even my husband.

  13. SBC
    SBC May 5, 2012 at 3:33 am | | Reply

    Have you tried telling him that this is how you feel? Maybe you reply in mandarin but assume that he knows that the reason for that is that you also want to improve your mandarin/get to understand him better.

    My bf helps me with mandarin, and actually ensures that I practice my tones everyday (!..:D). But thats because he wants me to know the language. Language should be a way to grow stronger, agreed. But for that you need to clearly communicate your intent first.

  14. Caroline
    Caroline May 5, 2012 at 4:29 am | | Reply

    Do not take it too serious, it is just a habit problem. I think he is just used to speak English with you or he profers to speaking English with you.

  15. Samantha
    Samantha May 5, 2012 at 8:05 am | | Reply

    I’ve had the opposite problem with my husband in the past. We start a conversation about Chinese, and it becomes a lesson in Mandarin, complete with a student/teacher dynamic. He’s taught classes before, so his first impulse is to say, “Well, what do you think the answer is?” This gets me annoyed because I just wanted to know how to say “look” to his Grandma, and instead I’ve entered a classroom with Professor Liang.

  16. Mary
    Mary May 5, 2012 at 10:53 pm | | Reply

    I totally agree with Jocelyn when she writes, “he’s ignoring this entire dimension of who you are — the side of you that speaks Chinese”. At the same time, your boyfriend also holds back a part of himself, his “Chinese personality”.

    I have the same problem, except that my native language and my boyfriend’s foreign language is not English but German. He sometimes speaks Chinese with me since he’s not perfect in German, either, but he’d usually switch to German during a conversation. I noticed that he’s more relaxed and funny when he speaks Chinese and felt like he’s keeping this lovely part of his personality back from me.

    That’s why we made up a “rule”, which is, when I tell him something in Chinese he has to reply in Chinese. Of course I also answer in German when he wants to speak German with me. I don’t want to be like a teacher, constantly reminding him to “Speak Chinese!”, so I simply tell him in Chinese that I don’t understand any German when he starts mixing up the languages. It works out quite well, I guess because he’s willing but not used to speak Chinese to a foreigner.

  17. Mary
    Mary May 5, 2012 at 10:58 pm | | Reply

    Haha I forgot something… Of course it helps a lot when you tell him, “You’re so cute/sexy/funny/… when you speak Chinese” 😀

  18. Aorijia
    Aorijia May 6, 2012 at 1:40 am | | Reply

    Well, I always say that if you want your husband to help you learn/improve your Chinese, you’re probably end up frustrated. In fact, I think in-laws are much better language teachers 😀 (I owe my “nanjinghua” skills to my in laws, geez did I get headaches at the beginning!). If it is a matter of raw communication, the tendency, I guess, is to use more often the language in which both are more fluent.

    My husband has always been reluctant to speak Chinese with me, specially at the beginning (2004) when my Chinese was only taking baby steps. His reason: He was already fluent in Spanish and it was much easier for him to just speak Spanish than to try to communicate as I struggled with my Chinese. Nowadays we do speak Chinese, specially since our daughter was born.

  19. Becca
    Becca May 6, 2012 at 5:08 am | | Reply

    I think there is no intention from him of anything why he does not talking chinese with you. Why not ask him straight and try to honest with you.

  20. Cathy
    Cathy May 7, 2012 at 4:19 am | | Reply

    I’ve never really had this problem. From the first time I met him we spoke Chinese and this hasn’t changed afterwards. The probleme I have now is now that he lives in Belgium with me and he’s started to learn Dutch, we are unable to talk in Dutch. I really want to help him and speak Dutch to him, but after two years speaking Mandarin only it feels really weird and unnatural to speak Dutch to him. If we do try to start a conversation in Dutch it always ends up with silence and not knowing what to say next and then we change back to Chinese.

    To us it seems like we have a lot to say to each other in Chinese but nothing if we talk in Dutch.
    I would really like to change this habit of mine (and his also, he’s also reluctant to talk in Dutch because he doesn’t want to make mistakes and only wants to talk ‘perfect’ Dutch) because I want him to become more fluent in Dutch.
    Does anyone also have this problem now or before? And maybe some tips to try to change this pattern (I do love to speak Chinese with him, but would rather speak Dutch with him so he can improve his Dutch and will make friends here more easily, find a job easily, …)

  21. yue
    yue May 7, 2012 at 11:49 am | | Reply

    I have the same problem with two of my language partners here in germany. they both speak very good english, but their german is very very bad. so we ended up talking english the first time we met. but now we have been meeting for a long time and became friends, but every time i try to speak chinese, they answer in english. it is very discouraging and I start talking english too. at the end they don’t really learn any german and I don’t really learn any chinese. and my chinese is sufficient enough to keep up a conversation. I don’t understand why they don’t speak chinese with me which is the whole purpose of tandem

  22. Dan
    Dan May 7, 2012 at 1:09 pm | | Reply

    It would be easier if you pick a very Chinese topic – ancient history, classic literature-to talk about. Your Chinese partner will find it is much easier for them to talk about such topics in Chinese.

  23. Victor Ng
    Victor Ng May 7, 2012 at 7:53 pm | | Reply

    Dan made avery good poinT!

  24. Salma
    Salma May 12, 2012 at 7:27 pm | | Reply

    It always amazes me when I find people with a lack of interest in speaking and or learning other languages. The most interesting people are always those who speak multiple languages!

    1. Richard
      Richard April 15, 2014 at 8:33 am | | Reply

      I have a burning desire to learn Chinese, but only when I think about it. When it comes to actually buckling down and studying, my willpower dries up. I have ADHD so the first six months of learning Chinese were a blast and I was completely engrossed, but the subsequent six months were a never ending hell (the grammar classes were most bearable oddly enough).

      Every day I have a timer on my phone set to 10am to remind me to study Chinese… Every day I pretend I didn’t see it…

  25. Sarah
    Sarah May 13, 2012 at 2:57 am | | Reply

    I think it all starts with the first time you met your Chinese boyfriend, If the conversation started with you guys both speaking English then I think thats the way the relationship is going to steer. When I met my boyfriend I didn’t know any Chinese, recently I started taking classes, but we find it very awkward to speak Chinese together, because theres only so much to say, because my vocabulary isn’t good enough yet. This just takes time

  26. loll
    loll May 13, 2012 at 1:25 pm | | Reply

    he might be be gay….

  27. Bond
    Bond May 20, 2012 at 8:16 pm | | Reply

    set a schedule….example:
    MWF = English
    TuThSa = Chinese
    Su = whatever

  28. Guilherme
    Guilherme December 23, 2013 at 1:04 pm | | Reply

    This language wars are very common in China.
    I would love to know the reason WHY most of chinese people DO think all non asian looking people are native english speakers. They don’t really think there are other very spoken languages, like Russian, Spanish, Portuguese.. and so on.

    I find it extremely offensive when a chinese person in China refuses to speak chinese to me and changes to english, I get angry and tell them in chinese thats rude and english is not every laowais language.

    I guess you have to be honest to him and tell that, and make him speak chinese, maybe with a chinese friend together, and join the conversation in mandarin.

    My opinion for this behavior is that in general the chinese have a difficult about putting themselves on the place of the others, for example, if you come to my country (Brazil) and I speak to you in Japanese because you look asian how would you feel ?

  29. Coll
    Coll April 15, 2014 at 2:04 pm | | Reply

    China and Chinese people are still very closed when it comes to communicating to their souls.
    A chinese may feel “threatened” if you don’t take your time and patience and just address to him/her in his/her native language. That is, if you are a stranger. He/she won’t even use his/her chinese name due to the same reason mentioned above.
    If you are a spouse and non-chinese, you are even closer so even “more threatening”, you should be patient before being able to “invade” his/her soul.
    If the circumstances are “good”, a stranger will be fully accepted in the “group” and communication in chinese will be easy, fluid and natural.
    Chinese people do feel “threat” on different levels, like social, romantic, sexual and so on. You will “hit a wall” if any of these “threats” is present.

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