A few years ago, I wrote about the fact that my husband and I happened to fall in love with each other in English and Chinese, facilitating the bilingual relationship we share to this day. We still delight in the joys of playing around with language together (both in English and Chinese) which has only strengthened our relationship (making me once wonder, does the couple that wordplays together stay together?).
Yet after years of meeting countless other international and intercultural couples like us, one thing has become very clear to me – John and I are kind of unusual in the language department. That’s right, most of the couples I’ve encountered usually share only one language amongst themselves, usually either his or her native language (or sometimes, unexpectedly, a second language, which can make for some of the most fascinating how-we-met stories I’ve ever heard).
I was reminded of this recently when Anna of the Lost Panda wrote:
When I met my husband a few years ago my Chinese was already fairly good, and his English was non-existent to be exact. So naturally our language choice to communicate was Chinese….
But there is a downside to this effortless comfort in our language choice. My husband really wants to improve his English. Over the past years he has learned quite a few words from friends, students, the TV, and even books. But I haven’t taught him a single word.
This phenomenon defies what you might think about being married to someone whose native language is not your own. Isn’t “pillow talk” supposed to be one of those secret language learning “hacks”? How could you not learn someone’s language when all of your most intimate moments at home are spent in his or her presence?
Naturally, this line of thinking would then lead you to admonish someone like Anna for having shirked what must surely be one of her most important marital duties. After all, shouldn’t an English speaking wife be teaching her husband, a guy so desperate to learn the language?
Of course, the supposed fault can fall both ways, even on the would-be learner’s shoulders. I should know because many years ago, I was the girlfriend to a local Chinese guy in Henan and our relationship thrived in the one language that was otherwise useless to me outside of his cozy little bedroom – English. Back then, my Chinese was so poor that I even stumbled when I attempted communicating with my phrasebook. I remember turning a shameful shade of red one evening when, in conversation with a friend at my local gym, I admitted that I had learned hardly a word of Mandarin from my boyfriend at the time – as if I should have innately understood that being his girlfriend also meant becoming his language student at the same time.
Or is it really anyone’s fault?
It’s ironic that we believe native speakers have this almost contractual responsibility to pass on their mother tongue on to their spouses – to the point where their “other half” speaks as perfectly as them — lest they create a breach that would even have Mother Nature up in arms.
Yet at the same time, we don’t demand the same of other skills in a relationship. For example, I’m reminded of the marriage between my stepsister Maria and her husband Josh. Josh dishes out such tantalizing meals from the kitchen – the kind of stuff that could give the Food Network chefs a run for their money – while Maria, who was never as gifted as him in the culinary department, happily lets him work his magic. I’ve never heard anyone pressure her to become his sous chef and learn all of his secrets for making gourmet flatbread pizzas or filet mignon. And as far as I know, she’s not keen on being his student either.
Of course not! When you think about it, a marriage is supposed to be a relationship between two equals. It’s about loving and supporting each other through life (at least, in my world it is).
Now that’s TOTALLY different from being a student and teacher, where there’s a power or skill differential involved. All of a sudden, you have one party as the polished expert and the other as the beginner waddling through their first steps and making tons of mistakes in the process. Trust me, this kind of dynamic will wreak havoc in your marriage – and I should know, because I once experienced it when I was forced to teach my husband to drive:
Anyone who has ever listened to the popular NPR show Car Talk knows that many a couple gets into an argument over something as simple as how to drive (and we’re talking about two adults who already have their license). There’s nothing more nervewracking than sitting shotgun as your sweetie is swerving in between lanes and on the verge of clipping someone else’s car – and it’s your job to yell at them and get the car under control.
In the end, I helped my husband successfully earn his US driver’s license. But ask me to do it all over again? Please…no!
Correcting your spouse when they’re starting out in anything – whether it’s driving or linguistic missteps – invariably leads to tension and uncomfortable feelings. Which is the polar opposite to the kind of contentment and love we’re looking for in our marriages.
Even worse, language is a tool for communication, the very tool we use to help foster that connection with our spouses. How can you connect with someone in a language when one of you is blundering his or her way through it? It’s not relaxing, not fun, and not at all the kind of thing you want when you’re in bed with your sweetheart late at night after a very exhausting day.
Can you see why it’s just completely crazy to expect that, say, a wife like Anna could teach her husband English? It’s not wonder that Anna reported in her post: “…I feel so awkward to speak in English with him…. every time I try to talk in English to my husband, the words just get stuck in my throat. I feel incredibly silly.”
Still, if you insist that spouses should teach each other a language, then I suggest sticking only to the most universal language of all – love.
What do you think?