Why It's a Really Bad Idea to Teach Your Spouse Your Language | Speaking of China

45 Responses

  1. Autumn
    Autumn March 23, 2015 at 8:06 am | | Reply

    My Chinese-American guy didn’t learn English until he was five and went to school. His dexterity with the English language far exceeds most U.S. citizens, but I’m an overeducated perfectionist, and I always catch him out on little things. He’ll say, “Too much beans,” and I’ll correct him: “Too MANY beans!”

    Imagine his delight when we went to his home state of Hawaii and I butchered the names of EVERY SINGLE town, street, and shop. He started messing with me: “Hey, honey, what’s that street up there?”

    “Um, that’s the Callanol Highway?”

    Uproarious laughter and snorting, followed by, “No, that’s the KAH-lah-NEE-ah-nah-oh-leh highway. How about that park over there?”

    “I’m not talking to you until we get back to Los Angeles.”

    1. D-Maybe
      D-Maybe March 23, 2015 at 11:00 am | | Reply

      Actually, it’s not necessarily wrong to say, “Too much beans.” If your boyfriend were, for example, referring to beans as a portion of food, he would in fact be correct.

      1. Autumn
        Autumn March 23, 2015 at 11:55 am | | Reply

        Going to have to disagree with you, D-Maybe. Here’s why: “many” is used to modify nouns that can be counted (i.e., beans). “Much” modifies mass nouns that can’t be counted (i.e., coffee). Even as a portion of food on a plate, beans can still be counted. Even as mashed-up refried beans, the correct usage would still be “Don’t give me too many beans!”

        However, English is a mighty morphing language. It may be that at some point the vernacular becomes “much beans” instead of “many beans.” My Chinese-American Guy is certainly making every effort to introduce “much beans” as an accepted !

        Take “versus.” I grew up thinking of it as a preposition — “the Cowboys versus the Broncos.” Yet kids in California today are attempting to turn it into a verb: “Which baseball team are we versing today?” Every time I hear “versing”, I want to ask these kids if they are going to be reciting poetry in the outfield! I suspect “versus” will be fully transformed into a verb in another generation.

        1. D-Maybe
          D-Maybe March 23, 2015 at 1:04 pm | | Reply

          The grammatical distinction between countable and non-countable nouns in practical usage is not clear-cut as you suggest. To illustrate this point, consider the word “noodles”. Now, technically, it is a countable noun in the sense that each individual strand of noodle can be accounted for. But when we conceive of it as a quantity of food, it is usually thought of as a mass rather than a collection of individual strands. One would not ask, for example, “How many noodles do you want?” and then proceed to serve an exact number of noodle strands.

          It’s the same with the word “beans”.

          1. Autumn
            Autumn March 24, 2015 at 12:48 am |

            You are correct that no one is likely to count out individual noodles, unless, perhaps, they have an eating disorder or the noodles in question are the styrofoam noodles children use in pools. However, as noodles are still individual items that can, in fact, be counted, it would nonetheless be grammatically incorrect to ask, “How much noodles?” just as it is grammatically incorrect to ask, “How much beans?”

            Instead, English gets around this portion issue — especially with food — by responding with, “Oh, just one spoonful/ serving of noodles/ beans, please.”

          2. D-Maybe
            D-Maybe March 24, 2015 at 9:44 am |

            So, you would actually say, “How many noodles do you want?”

            A more common strategy with which people get around the ambiguity is to insert the words “of the”: e.g., “How much of the noodles do you want?”

  2. R Zhao
    R Zhao March 23, 2015 at 8:24 am | | Reply

    This is something I’ve given some thought to, mostly because people back home assume that my Chinese and Ming’s English are now perfect! And many Chinese friends assume we teach each other. Ha, yeah, right! I tried that once and it was a nightmare.

    Learning a second language is not a very natural thing for most people. Even for my step-daughter, who I’ve been with since she was 4, has not picked up on English very well. We speak both English and Mandarin at home so I thought it would just happen. It doesn’t. It takes a lot of work. But it’s also very frustrating to sit down and teach a friend or family member something that requires the dedication, commitment, and concentration that a new language does. I’ve tried playing teacher and failed.

    When my husband and I met, neither of us really spoke each other’s language. At first we used English because we figured we’d ultimately live in the US. Overtime, my Chinese vocabulary and grasp of the language has improved and surpassed my husband’s English so I began using more Mandarin. But it wasn’t something forced. I agree that it can feel incredibly awkward to try to use a language with someone that you don’t normally use.

  3. robert
    robert March 23, 2015 at 10:18 am | | Reply

    Me and my girlfriend speak English with each other, which is neither her nor my native language. I like it that way, because it’s neutral territory. Nobody gets a linguistic advantage 🙂
    I think we both would love to learn more about each others’ language, but we’re both working professionals and German and Mandarin seem to be quite at odds; i.e. the other side will just have a hard time learning it. I took some classes next to work when I came to China – I know some phrases, words and characters and I can get around on my own, but that’s it. I heard that some people have success with intensive courses (bootcamps?), but neither of us can afford so much time off.

    I feel I will end up like so many of my former colleagues in Norway (Norwegian ain’t easy either because there are so many dialects), who had Norwegian spouses. They spoke English with each other and the kids ended up being little translators when the native partner wasn’t around 😉

  4. Susan
    Susan March 23, 2015 at 10:31 am | | Reply

    My husband teaches Chinese at our local University fo4 a living. While he can apparently teach it to any young person wbo enters his class (at least to some degree), his many attempts with his 47 year old girlfriend then bride have failed utterly sometimes ending in laughter, other times tears. Fortunately after 20 years here in the US his English is excellent.

  5. La Renarde
    La Renarde March 23, 2015 at 10:46 am | | Reply

    My parents also have a bilingual marriage. And the funniest part is that my father (which is French), is the one usually speaking Chinese, when my mother (which is Chinese), is usually the one speaking French.

    Actually, I heard them say that they like to argue in the other one’s language, like htis, if it gets too heated, they can always have the excuse of language and misunderstanding to retreat.

    As for my brother and I, because of this environment, we just jump from one language to another. At home, we quite often even start a sentence in one language and finish it in another. Without forgetting English of course. So our conversations are usually a mix of three languages. It’s normal for us, but I guess it’s quite hard for people to follow us in our conversations.

    Just last week, a colleague noticed my capacity to jump from one language to another in a snap. Until then, I never thought about it, but according to him, even people who usually master several languages like him need some time to switch from one to another. I’d love to hear others opinion on this subject. I suppose it must be easier for us kids who lived in this multi-language environment than for adults who learned the languages later.

  6. Sandeep
    Sandeep March 23, 2015 at 2:50 pm | | Reply

    Strange blog.Only constant followers keep responding all the time.Anyway, journey to a woman’s heart can be tough.This blog proves that.They have so many issues.

  7. Monica
    Monica March 23, 2015 at 6:26 pm | | Reply

    When my boyfriend and I met, neither of us knew much of each other’s language. We both took it upon ourselves to separately study each day, him English and me Korean, and now we are both able to converse in either, though his English is better so if we really need to clarify something, we use that. I never really ask him to teach me since I’m an excellent self-studier, especially when it comes to languages, but I love to tell him what I’ve learned each day and he will give me notes on how to improve, say something more naturally or in a different way. We both help each other out and teach each other English and Korean, and I like it that way. My language learning doesn’t hinge on him 100% but I like knowing that I have someone to talk to in Korean everyday. Since I live in Japan at the moment, he’s usually the only native speaker I can converse with. Every time I travel to Korea, I get excited seeing how my level has improved and how much more I can say when we are out with his friends and family. I think it’s great that we can encourage each other. I did read Anna’s article, and I think if she feels silly, she should try it more because eventually the strangeness will wear off. I felt strange speaking in Korean to my boyfriend and sometimes still do because I often try out what I’ve learned on him first, so I get nervous that I’m saying something wrong, but really to learn a language you have to get over that anxiety and embrace mistakes. He’s such a good supporter so I don’t feel afraid of getting made fun of if I say something wrong.

    Some of my Japanese friends here have told me, “If I ever started dating someone who isn’t Japanese, I would make sure they knew Japanese or make them learn it. I don’t want to learn another language.” I think that kind of attitude is lazy and rude. I learn so much about my boyfriend and his culture by being able to converse with him in Korean. I think it’s a good idea for anyone dating someone of another culture or who speaks another language to learn about it and not be afraid to try.

  8. Holly Hollins
    Holly Hollins March 23, 2015 at 6:33 pm | | Reply

    I was just thinking about this the other day. When I first started talking to my boyfriend, we would text in Chinese. But now we only speak English to another.

    I tried to speak Chinese with him verbally, but sometimes he doesn’t understand. Maybe it’s just my tones haha. (still working on it.)

    But what’s funny is that he tends to listen to me more when I speak Chinese to him. 😉 I told him “等一下” when we were parked in a parking lot on our date because I didn’t feel like telling him where to go so I can use the GPS on my phone.

    Another great post! 🙂

  9. marghini
    marghini March 23, 2015 at 10:18 pm | | Reply

    Hi Jocelyn,
    a great post as usual! Mr. B and I speak English on a daily basis, with a tiny bit of Italian and Mandarin peeking in from time to time. In theory his family language is Cantonese, but I frankly have no intention to learn it (my monster-in-law may have something to do with this decision ehehe).

    For him English is a mother tongue, for me it is not but I am fairly fluent. I can’t really imagine speaking Italian to him, so I am quite happy about the situation as it is. We decided that when we will have a family, English will be our family language and we will try to separately teach Italian and Cantonese to our kids.

    However, considering that his Cantonese is not that strong at all and supposedly he makes a lot of mistakes when he speaks it, I have no idea how our plan will work out!

  10. Henry
    Henry March 24, 2015 at 12:57 am | | Reply

    Like any teacher-student interaction, some authority is needed from the teacher, but this is hardly the case for most modern couples.
    I’ve met many Mexican ladies who married Japanese or Korean men, & most of them learned Japanese/Korean after traveling to East Asia & interacting with their parents in-law.

  11. Mary
    Mary March 24, 2015 at 2:50 am | | Reply

    Wow Jocelyn, this is an excellent post!

    I totally agree with you, just because your partner is from another country/culture doesn’t mean they automatically have a duty or responsibility to teach you their language (or vice-versa).

    In most of my intercultural relationships (and friendships) the ‘communication language’ is usually set during the first few months of our relationship.

    My current boyfriend speaks Chinese (as do I), but we mainly communicate in English. This is the language we became acquainted in, so it’s weird to talk to each other in Mandarin–but it’s a useful tool, especially when we’re with his Chinese family 🙂

    A few years back I dated a Korean man in Japan, and our main language of communication was Japanese (although it was neither of our native languages). It was the most comfortable tool of communication, as well as the language we got to know each other in, so it was kind of our ‘set’ language. People always assumed we exchanged English/Korean, but that never happened.

  12. Timo
    Timo March 24, 2015 at 3:45 am | | Reply

    As I wrote on Anna’s post: my wife and I speak English with each other which is not the native language of any of us. My native languages are German and Finnish while hers Chinese.

    And it is true, it is kind of weird to try to teach your own language to your partner. We tried it and it failed. These days however we may very well speak English, Finnish, German or Chinese at home however each “foreign” language we didnt learn from each other but through language classes or self taught 🙂

  13. K.
    K. March 24, 2015 at 7:45 am | | Reply

    Hi Jocelyn,

    usually I don’t comment on blogs, but this is a topic I’m really interested in.
    My boyfriend and I are one of those multilingual couples who started in a third language (not English) as neither of us spoke the other’s first language. But for us it has always been a given that we would learn each other’s first language. We’re both graduate students, doing our research in the language-literature-field and it might be connected to this fact that we always felt that our respective mother tongue was such a big part of our identity and so we saw it as a way of getting to know your partner better.

    In teaching each other our first languages we encountered some of the difficulties which were already mentioned, but in the end we took some language courses and helped each other out on a daily basis (in very similar ways to what Monica mentioned). I think one of the most imporant things is that it should be fun for both, that you’re doing it without any pressure and that both of you want it. If you’re really into foreign languages (my mother tongue is his fourth language, his mother tongue is my fifth) and if you enjoy talking about different languages on a meta-level as well (as we both do) it can be a really positive experience. We were never embarrassed when we started, instead we were laughing a lot together, being silly together. I always tried to say something in his first language and he did the same with my language.

    Although we still use our first “communication language” most of the time, we talk to each other in three languages everyday (and sometimes four, because for some particular purposes and with families/some friends we use English) and often switch around within a sentence.

    Of course I don’t think that anyone should feel as if it was “obligatory” to learn their partner’s first language and nobody should feel pressured to do it. I can see that this could cause a lot of unhappiness. But for us, learning each other’s language has always been part of supporting each other and improving our communication. But it might be different for other couples and I guess that you have to figure it out together.

  14. Marta
    Marta March 24, 2015 at 2:44 pm | | Reply

    Well I wouldn’t say if it’s a good or bad idea, but it is definitely difficult 😀 I bought Spanish learning books and a grammar but only once we had a “Spanish class” at home haha. We just can’t find the time! However my boyfriend looks for learning apps and stuff, he likes that more than using books.
    But he doesn’t really learn much, he only remembers the bad words!! Last weekend he found an app teaching sex vocabulary in Spanish! I told him, “Can you please learn something that you can actually say to my mom??”. Haha!

  15. Turner
    Turner March 25, 2015 at 12:36 am | | Reply

    Pretty well expounded, but I’d add this could apply to a girlfriend or boyfriend as well. My lady and I mainly speak in English, but I’m starting to learn Turkish for her benefit. She tosses a few phrases and corrections every so often, but if I asked her for a full-on lesson, I don’t think she’d take to it very well.

  16. Camila
    Camila March 25, 2015 at 8:02 am | | Reply

    I agree. We share a mother language (Spanish), but he speaks Shanghainese in his house and Mandarin outside. I study Chinese, and everybody says I should learn from him, he should teach me, and things like that. NO WAY. I asked him twice to teach me, and I felt so embarrassed, I couldn’t get the tones right, and really, it was a teacher-student relationship. No, way too embarrassing. I really would like to learn, but that will happen later (if it happens). Maybe if I ever live in Shanghai, maybe if one of my teachers is from there, but I won’t ask him to teach me. It’s one thing to have doubts about some words or phrases, but that’s not the same as not knowing the language at all. He teaches me a lot of things I want to learn, but language is on a complete different ground 😛

  17. Cat
    Cat March 25, 2015 at 3:47 pm | | Reply

    Great post! My fiance is Chinese and speaks 3 languages (Mandarin, Spanish and English) all at a native level. I only speak English and am learning Mandarin. EVERYONE always assumes that he would be my biggest help learning but he NEVER speaks to me in Mandarin. Frustratingly he offers to teach me Spanish as he gets less opportunities to use it but has no interest in helping me with my Mandarin.

  18. Kimberly
    Kimberly March 27, 2015 at 8:13 am | | Reply

    This post really made me think. For the past three years I’ve been encouraging K to teach me Tibetan, and every time I do he enthusiastically says he will and jumps right into a lesson, but it always fizzles out back into English.

    I always thought that as my husband, he would be the perfect teacher for me, but it has never worked out. Now we are far from his family and other Tibetan speakers. I figure my only hope is to pick things up as he teaches KL from scratch. We just don’t have time anymore to try and when we try it doesn’t work out. You are right, your partner isn’t the person to learn a language from. Now I regret that there isn’t anybody else I could ask to be my tutor/teacher here.

  19. Rix Moonshine
    Rix Moonshine March 29, 2015 at 3:59 pm | | Reply

    After reading the generally positive comments and content of this site, I feel that I need to present another perspective on chinese men that I am sure would resonate with many.

    Chinese men are dirty, ugly and uncivilised. Those who choose to marry them must be crazy or stupid. The only interaction between chinese and the west should be chinese women marrying men in the west, leave chinese men out of the equation. Chinese women are pretty, sweet and demure, so they are alright. How does that disgusting race even produce such contrasting genders?

    Chinese men are a pathetic excuse for their race. They lack everything. They can’t see well because their eyes are too small and the most important of all – a particular organ is minuscule too, how does that satisfy you?

    Finally, chinese men belong to a backward race, they are unable to comprehend human rights (which shows how dumb they are), and they are unable to argue intelligently, all they know is to study hard and they expect to get somewhere in life? You must be kidding me. Go to any forum, you will see that Chinese people are unable to accept constructive criticism, they rant on to defend their race, which shows that they clearly are not smart.

    In summary, we are clearly the superior race and only Chinese women should be allowed to join us. Chinese women are quick to embrace our men because they can see that we are better than them.

  20. Lena
    Lena March 30, 2015 at 4:51 pm | | Reply

    When reading your post, it started to make sense to me too. My last flirt is from Beijing and we started out in English, until he realized that my Chinese wasn’t that bad. Now he’s turning every conversation into Chinese. I’ve been both happy and tired of it. Happy because I practice my language with a person I like to hang with, this is a relaxed way of learning, but on the negative side, I get embarrassed or angry with him if he’s laughing at me when I keep saying the wrong thing. Anyway, this was in the beginning. He’s being better at not telling me my mistakes all the time and I’m better at accepting him laughing. How fun would it be if he said something silly in my language, right?

    Anyway, really like your post. It’s fine to help each other but don’t get started in the teacher position. It’s too much authority for an equal relationship 🙂

  21. Cindy Hoffman
    Cindy Hoffman January 28, 2016 at 4:06 pm | | Reply

    I have learned Chinese but it was one of my hardest languages to learn, that’s why I usually treasure it and don’t want to forget a single word. At times go shopping specifically for a Chinese version of a movie to help remind me and polish it even more. And its also a good thing that I have the support of my spouse who loves it too. We often speak it when we choose to, although we usually find ourselves speaking English as a default 🙂 Thanks a lot for sharing this story Jocelyn, it was interesting.


  22. scaro
    scaro March 3, 2016 at 11:31 pm | | Reply

    I did a few lessons in Mandarin in 2004 in Australia, and at the end of that course I knew a very little.

    Then I moved to Cambridge in the UK with a Mandarin speaking partner. Starting in 2012, I spent a solid year studying evening classes, with a good teacher, and I was v. diligent, going to every class, really trying to learn the writing etc. I was always weak on speaking, the embarrassment factor was something I never got past 100%, though I struggled a lot with it and thought I was somewhere I could ‘manage it’. After moving to London, I did another course at the University of Westminster, with a slovenly teacher who it seemed, just wanted to run through the lesson and get home. I did diligently do all the study, though I lacked confidence in her.

    However, with this 15 months of study, at the end of it I could not utter even one sentence my Mandarin-speaking in-laws could understand.

    I realised paying for courses was just throwing money away. It occurred to me that if you want to learn a language, paying £100 to join 20 other people who also don’t speak it, possibly wasn’t the smartest thing I could do. Possibly, there’s a way through this, but none of the glib sounding ‘speak fluently in three months’ courses I see looks anything like it would assist, particularly in getting over the spoken/embarrassment hurdle.

    I learnt also from this that because someone is your partner, it doesn’t mean they are going to be able to teach you. In fact, rather the reverse.

    We’d use some of the sentences I’d learnt on the course in our day-to-day talk. But only at a very basic level, eg’ ‘Do you want an orange?’ type questions. My partner thought it was ‘helpful’ for him to utter the occasional ‘interesting’ Chinese word for me. He’d maybe come out with one or two of these every day. But while the word may have been interesting to him, it had no context, I couldn’t use it in conversation, so each one was forgotten a few minutes after he said it. He would not write them down, either, so each word was a transient thing that appeared momentarily and vanished. I tried to explain this, but he is a stubborn sort of person and would not change tack, though I explained a number of times why it wasn’t working.

    I also tried to get us to speak Chinese an hour each day while just doing household things, so i had some sort of concrete thing to ‘attach’ phrases and sequences to, but he wasn’t up for that.

    Eventually I asked him to stop spitting out the random words. It had become a bone of contention.

    Now, I’m in the paradoxical position of having a Mandarin speaking partner and the results of 15 months of study is I’ve forgotten not only everything I learnt in that 15 months – but I probably understand even less than when I finished the Australian course in 2004.

    The result of our journey toward Mandarin is that we now converse entirely in English.

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