Ask the Yangxifu: Language Barriers in Love | Speaking of China

13 Responses

  1. Nathalie
    Nathalie September 9, 2011 at 5:26 am | | Reply

    Thank you Sara for writing about your experience. It’s amazing how love – and a dose of patience – can conquer anything, including language barriers. I agree that a dictionary shouldn’t come between your relationship; it would drive me crazy if I had to rely on it to speak with my Chinese boyfriend – I am lucky we can both communicate with each other in English even though it’s not his first language nor mine. Wishing you all the best in your learning process. Jia you!

  2. Eileen
    Eileen September 9, 2011 at 7:24 am | | Reply

    Love this. Great advice.

    My husband is starting to teach me a Taiwanese word/phrase per day. Now I say “I’m hungry!” in Taiwanese. It’s always good to make it fun between the couple, you know? Other than that, I will be learning in school.

  3. ordinary malaysian
    ordinary malaysian September 9, 2011 at 10:56 am | | Reply

    Sara, you have written wonderful advice on how to handle a relationship between two people who can’t communicate in the other’s language and have no common language to help out. I myself would’t know what to do in such a situation. I had a Malay girlfriend once, but we were able to communicate because I can speak Malay and she could speak a little English. Even then it wasn’t always easy. But I guess love and patience help. Chinese is an even more difficult language to master, so I can imagine your relationship with your Chinese boyfriend. But I agree with you that at least one of you would have to make an effort to learn the other’s language if the relationship is to progress and become meaningful.

  4. Sveta
    Sveta September 9, 2011 at 4:27 pm | | Reply

    I agree with Sara’s post. The guy and I have sort of opposite problem, (English is our main language,) when we began to speak, I had to ask him multiple times to repeat what he said, or else tried to help him. He did get better, though now I wonder if he truly understands what he tells me. He knows the definition of words, but does he know or understand the ideas and emotional attachment behind the words? Meanwhile I will try to learn some Mandarin phrases and how to pronounce them correctly.

  5. Sara
    Sara September 10, 2011 at 1:18 am | | Reply

    First of all thank you everyone for reading my guest post and for leaving a comment!

    Nathalie, I haven’t been in a relationship in English, but I can imagine that even it’s easier it still isn’t the same as being able to use your native language.

    Eileen, My boyfriend always says that what’s the point to live if there’s no fun in life 🙂

    Ordinary Malaysian, Yes, it isn’t easy, but we can’t help it because we just happen to fall in love. I have so many reasons to study Chinese and our relationship is one of them. Good motivation for my studies! It’s also fun to hear my boyfriend speak Finnish even though he only knows few phrases.

    Sveta, Language difficulties in a relationship is a challenging thing. Like you said, even though the communication becomes easier, there’s still a possibility for misunderstanding each other. How long have you two been together?

  6. Sveta
    Sveta September 10, 2011 at 1:26 am | | Reply

    @ Sara *feels embarrassed* I met him earlier this year in January, but we didn’t start getting close until late April…and we still talk. So that would be well, almost six months. I’ve seen him once in person, the rest of the time is spent on Internet. (He’ll start teaching in England next week)

  7. Sara
    Sara September 10, 2011 at 2:32 am | | Reply

    @ Sveta, No need to feel embarrassed. It just mean that your just in the beginning of the relationship and you have lot of time to improve your communication with each other. Me and my boyfriend have been together just a year and three months. It’s not a long time either.

  8. brandi
    brandi September 14, 2011 at 8:00 pm | | Reply

    Hello Sara and Jocelyn! First of all, this is a wonderful post for anyone facing language barriers, not just in relationships like ours (I’m engaged to a Cantonese guy myself) but in any relationship!

    My fiance Hao and I speak primarily English. We’ve been together for 7 years, and for the first few years I found myself constantly wondering if we spoke the “same” English. I’m originally from Midwestern America, and he learned English in Brooklyn – and the regional language differences combined with our cultural differences came together to make communication, even in a language we were both fluent and could understand each other in, incredibly difficult. We still only communicate at a basic level in Cantonese, but Hao is a great teacher so I’m sure I’ll learn before long.

    Good communication in English took a long time and a LOT of patience and forgiveness (because let’s face it, who can be patient ALL the time?) but we now understand each other, as equals, on a very deep level. Through the exploration of language, we were able to teach each other the intricacies of both of our cultures, which has benefited both of us in every possible way. Even our inside jokes are based on past frustrations we had with language and cultural differences.

    I’ve read that the most successful relationships are those in which each party continually has something to contribute, both parties keep learning from each other, and as a result both parties experience the best kind of personal growth, individually and as a couple. What better way to achieve this than to use language to learn about each other?

  9. Mary
    Mary February 24, 2012 at 8:05 pm | | Reply

    Hi there,
    I know it’s been a while since someone commented on this post… But there is another aspect on these language difficulties I am very interested in. I’m recently dating a Chinese guy how is actually speaking my native language (German) on an intermediate level, and I’m on my way to intermediate level in Chinese. So what’s the problem? Our experiences and believes seemed to be worlds apart. This is exciting and frightening at the same time, because we can learn a lot from each other, tolerance etc., but there are so many possible misunderstandings. I’m afraid of one thing… That we finally overcome our language barriers and discover that our thoughts, believes and personalities are just too different to be together. The speed of “getting to know” each other is so much slower than with a native speaker of your own language.

    How and when do you realize that you really match as a couple?

  10. Aileen
    Aileen April 23, 2012 at 5:04 am | | Reply

    Mary: “That we finally overcome our language barriers and discover that our thoughts, believes and personalities are just too different to be together. The speed of “getting to know” each other is so much slower than with a native speaker of your own language.

    How and when do you realize that you really match as a couple?”

    This is a very good question. Let me share my experience. I dated, fell in love and lived together with a Chinese guy for three years in my home country in Europe. Both of us could speak fluent English although it was not our mother tongue. So we had a slight language barrier I tried to fix by studying Chinese and he tried to learn my mother tongue. But as Sara wrote, a girlfriend and boyfriend are not supposed to be a teacher and a student, because in my opinion it just creates unnecessary arguments. Also since he was really westernized having lived years abroad, our cultural differences weren’t as big as they could have been but what ended up being too much of a difference were our personalities just like Mary you are afraid of. For us it took three years for the feelings to change and to build up enough courage to break up with the person we both loved and hated the most.

    Now it’s been almost three years since we broke up and both of us are still too hurt to become friends even though we both (I believe) wish for it. I think he is the greatest guy I’ve ever met, a really loving, honest and genuinely good (or at least trying hard to be one) person. I’m glad I met him 🙂

    So Mary, my advice is: jump, dive, go for it. I think you have the same chances in love with whoever you like. Isn’t it nice to get to know each other slowly? I don’t think in the end you will regret any of it.

  11. Laolei
    Laolei July 29, 2012 at 3:06 am | | Reply

    Hi Sara,
    What a great post! My situation is actually the reverse of yours, as I am a Western guy that moved to China and married a Chinese lady, but the challenges of communication you describe above are exactly the same as I once faced.

    Eight years ago when my wife and I first met she couldn’t speak any English at all, and I couldn’t speak any Chinese. For the first few months our conversations were more like sketches from comedy shows; we acted out the majority of what we wanted to say, with the occasional frantic flicking through the dictionary to search out the most important word in the sentence.

    For us this was very rarely a problem though, as we both quite enjoy playing the fool. When it did cause arguments though they always ended up with her shouting at me in Chinese, and me shouting at her in English. Seeing as neither of us understood what the other was saying though we’d just end up laughing at how ridiculous each other looked. Its a nice memory 🙂

    Like you we also decided not to have one partner teach the other their native language, which I think is definitely the way to go if you want to avoid unnecessary conflict at home. Seeing as we planned to stay in China for the long term the onus was on me to learn Chinese – which I duly did… until work commitments got in the way.

    So I think you have hit the nail on the head with your advice: Be patient with each other, and at least one of you has to make a serious commitment to learning the native tongue of your partner.

    Something I would add, which is something I have learned the hard way, is that this commitment to the language has to be maintained. I haven’t taken any further Chinese tuition since that first year, and although I have picked up a few things along the way, my Chinese is still pretty much the same as it was 6 or 7 years ago.

    The reason why my Chinese has stagnated I think is twofold. My work and social activities all use English, so I have not really practised my Chinese much with anyone other than my wife. My wife on the other hand knows what words I can understand, so our conversations more or less stay within the confines of that vocabulary. So unintentionally we have actually been decreasing our ability to communicate with each other… please don’t make the same mistake!

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