Ask the Yangxifu: Language Barriers in Love

An English Dictionary
Sara Jaaksola offers insight from her own relationship with a Chinese man on what to do when language barriers get in the way of your love.

Over a month ago, Jin Feng asked me if I could share some advice on a special kind of relationship between Chinese men and Western women — where language poses a problem. 

I said “sure, I’ll do it.” But then faced a problem of my own. How could I write about this? After all, the closest I came to this happened in my relationship with Frank — but even then, I spoke decent enough Chinese that communication didn’t really get in the way.

So I decided to turn to Sara Jaaksola at Living a Dream in China, who you might call an “expert” in this — she and her Chinese boyfriend literally have trouble speaking the same language. Many thanks to Sara for stepping in to help out! Read on for her advice.

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“How do you communicate with your Chinese boyfriend when your Chinese is not fluent?” I have been asked this question many times — by friends, acquaintances and now by Jocelyn.  I want to share what it’s like to have language challenges in your relationship, and offer some tips that helped me and my boyfriend during our first year together.

Imagine for a while that you didn’t know how to say ‘to fall down’ and instead would have to demonstrate it. Imagine that you forgot how to say ‘remote control’ and have to say ‘the thing that you use to turn on the TV’ instead. Imagine yourself arguing or joking in a foreign language that you only know in an elementary level.

That’s my daily life. My Cantonese boyfriend and I have been together for over a year, and we are forced to use Mandarin to communicate with each other. Even though I have studied Chinese for a while, I’m still far from fluent.

In the beginning, it was very difficult because my Chinese was even worse than it is now. I was asking “Shenme? Shenme?” (“What? What?”) all the time. I wasn’t used to his southern accent either. When we started dating, I was never sure if he was saying hot (re) or hungry (e). My Mandarin has improved a lot since then, but I still have situations every day when I don’t find the correct word.

Then how can you make a relationship work when the daily communication is a challenge? Patience.

You have to be patient and explain things with the little vocabulary you have. He needs patience to speak slower and make an effort to understand your limited Chinese. During our time together, my boyfriend learned to use words I know to make understanding him a lot easier. You might say we developed our own language, where we use words in a grammatically incorrect way that still makes sense to us.

Other couples might choose to teach each other their languages, but we have decided to keep my Chinese studies out of our relationship. I don’t want a dictionary to come between us, and only check it if absolutely necessary. My boyfriend did learn a little Finnish. But, still, we are a girlfriend and a boyfriend — not a teacher and a student.

Speaking of studying — it’s something at least one of you must do. You don’t want to face the language difficulties for the rest of your relationship (which is hopefully for life). One of you has to “hit the books” in order to deepen your communication. By having a relationship with a Chinese man, I noticed I improved my spoken Chinese up to an elementary level. But I need to do more work to improve it further. It’s easy to continue using the odd words you learned in the beginning, but at some point you want to be able to talk fluently with him.

Maintaining a relationship with someone from a totally different culture isn’t always easy — especially if you have language difficulties. But with patience and love, you can overcome any difficulties. And later — when your Chinese is perfect — you two can laugh at those funny moments you had together when you gave him a newspaper (baozhi) when he was asking for a steamed bun (baozi).

A lifelong sinophile and student at Sun Yat-sen University, Sara Jaaksola shares her thoughts on studying Mandarin, dating Chinese men, Chinese culture and more at her blog, Living a Dream in China.

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What do you think? What advice do you have on this?

Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China/Chinese culture (or Western culture)? Every Friday, I answer questions on my blog. Send me your question today.

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13 thoughts on “Ask the Yangxifu: Language Barriers in Love

  • Pingback:Language difficulties in a relationship | Living A Dream In China

  • September 9, 2011 at 5:26 am
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    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!

    Reply
  • September 9, 2011 at 7:24 am
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    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.

    Reply
  • September 9, 2011 at 10:56 am
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    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.

    Reply
  • September 9, 2011 at 4:27 pm
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    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.

    Reply
  • September 10, 2011 at 1:18 am
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    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?

    Reply
  • September 10, 2011 at 1:26 am
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    @ 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)

    Reply
  • September 10, 2011 at 2:32 am
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    @ 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.

    Reply
  • September 14, 2011 at 8:00 pm
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    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?

    Reply
  • February 24, 2012 at 8:05 pm
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    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?

    Reply
  • April 23, 2012 at 5:04 am
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    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.

    Reply
  • Pingback:Western girl and Chinese guy – Multicultural relationship challenges | Living A Dream In China

  • July 29, 2012 at 3:06 am
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    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!

    Reply

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