3 Fun Things About Learning Your Partner’s Obscure Language or Dialect

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about deciding whether or not to learn the dialect when your family doesn’t speak Mandarin Chinese.

Well, I chose to learn my husband’s local dialect, and now I can proudly say I’m proficient in many of the common conversational phrases. It’s amazing to finally connect with my husband’s family and friends in the local dialect.

But more than that, learning your partner’s obscure language or dialect can also be a LOT of fun, as I’ve discovered.

Here are 3 reasons why:

IMG_190448#1: Being able to talk privately when you travel with your partner

My husband’s entire home county has a population of only 400,000 people. Most folks there are also homebodies, preferring to stay close to family.

So when we travel outside the county, the chances of actually running into someone from there – especially if we go abroad – are practically nil.

That makes speaking my husband’s local dialect our go-to language to express anything we’d rather keep private. You know, like the fact that I find my husband’s butt very sexy… 😉

IMG_2151#2: Making the family laugh, because they never expected to hear you say THAT in their language

There’s nothing quite like watching my mother-in-law giggle when she hears me say “I’m going to wash clothes” or “I can’t eat this” in the local dialect.

Yes, plain, everyday phrases like that suddenly become hilarious whenever I speak them in front of family (even my husband). And it’s all because it’s so odd to see me – a white American woman – using the local dialect.

(I have to admit, sometimes even I have to laugh when I speak in it. Never in a million years did I imagine myself learning this language, one that had once seemed impossible and completely unintelligible to me!)

IMG_20160207_164829#3: Finally being able to follow conversations around the family dinner table

One of the reasons I used to dread visiting my husband’s family was the fact that I got really, really bored sitting around the table at dinner. After all, everyone would fall into the local dialect – the preferred language – and I couldn’t understand a single word.

Not so anymore.

Nowadays, I understand more than 60 percent of the conversations in local dialect – and whatever I don’t understand, I can usually figure out by the context. (I still can’t believe how much I’ve learned!)

Although, this can sometimes qualify as “not so fun after all” when the conversations happen to involve something intensely personal (like, say, how the family is wondering aloud when you’re finally going to have kids – which happens more than you might think!).

Ah well. Better to hear it firsthand than filtered through someone else, right?

What do you think?

27 Replies to “3 Fun Things About Learning Your Partner’s Obscure Language or Dialect”

  1. I remember when you posted about a debate on learning John’s dialect. I’m so glad that you learned a lot of it! I feel it’s really important especially if you are wanting to communicate with his family. 🙂

    (still trying to learn Sichuanhua or Chongqinghua for my novel :3)

  2. I’m really impressed by this – my Chinese fiance’s family speak Shanghainese and while I’d love to understand everything that’s being said at the dinner table (or would I??) learning mandarin is enough of a challenge for me for now!

  3. The same here! Everytime I say something in local dialect, everybody is laughing so hard 😉 It makes my connection to local people much stronger and I love it 🙂

  4. I am, as always, impressed by anyone who can manage one language with tones, let alone two.

    All I really wanted to learn were the swear words. My husband refused to teach me those. So I swore at him in English.

    He was all, “And THAT is why.”

  5. Great to hear, Jocelyn! I also remember your posts about getting bored at the family table and debating whether you should learn the dialect. Great to hear that you have taken the leap and are reaping the fruits already : )
    I just did not have the energy to learn Taiwanese when I lived in Taiwan and Sichuanese in Chengdu… Mandarin was all-consuming (in a beautiful joyous way).
    I felt a wave of celebratory enthusiasm reading your post today. So happy to be reading this!!

    1. Aw, thanks Paola! Really sweet of you to say so!

      I think Mandarin can be all-consuming…it has been to me at various times. For whatever reason, this seemed like a good time to learn more dialect, so I have.

  6. I can’t speak my husband’s dialect fluently, but I can understand about 80 percent, more if it’s my mother-in-law doing the talking (she’s the one I’ve heard speaking it the most).

    But I’ve found it’s good to be selective about what you “understand”. A good time to to play dumb is when they’re talking about when you’re going to have kids. Somehow my husband’s family would fall for that every time.

    1. That’s really awesome you can understand so much of the dialect! And totally agree with you on selective understanding. I’m really good at playing dumb…especially on the subject you mentioned!

  7. At family gatherings where I was present it wasn’t long before they’d hear me pleading “goong goki, goong goki,” for “speak Mandarin.” I picked up a few words of Minnan (a-bing-go for soldier, ge-gao for nuisance) and still have a tape teaching Minnan but now the opportunities have all passed on with the people. May still resurrect some Minnan for a novel, though.

    What IS your local dialect?

    1. Hi James! I presume your family should be from Taiwan. Although people from Fujian province, especially those cities near Kinmen county of Taiwan speak Minnan too, there tend to be a subtle difference for a few words. In your case, instead of “Goki” or “National Language”, most of us will say “Po-tong-weh” or “Pu Tong Hua” or “Standard Mandarin”. A few old folks who lived through a period under KMT governance would still use “Goki” though. So people from different Minnan-speaking regions can fairly quickly tell who is from where just by exchanging a few words. If you are planning to write a novel some day and happen to need to refresh your memory on Minnan , I might offer some helps.

    2. That’s neat you’ve picked up some words/phrases James!

      The local dialect in John’s hometown is a variant of the Wu Dialects, and closely related to Hangzhou’s local dialect (but still a little different).

  8. Hi Jocelyn!
    I dont remember how I get to your blog but I just want to tell you that your blog is really amazing. I always wanted to know China at close range from Westerners’ eye and am very luck to have found your blog. I will go through many of your old posts from now on and you might find me comment here and there.

  9. I know what you mean about sitting around the table and not understanding what people are saying. It’s really boring. I did study some Mandarin, but since I never lived in a Chinese-speaking country, I didn’t have enough incentive to work hard at it. I never studied my husband’s native language, which was Hokkien. Even though his family spoke good English, they often fell into speaking Hokkien when they were together.

    Congratulations on your success at learning not only Mandarin but also your husband’s dialect.

  10. Wonderful that you are able to get around his dialect. I have myself more than enough troubles with standard mandarin. However my wife and also her relatives say that I would easily Shaanxi dialect as I am so bad with tones 🙂

    1. Marta, my husband did help. I also found it useful to have motivation to learn. My motivation is people like my husband’s grandmother, who cannot speak anything else. If you can find locals who don’t speak anything but local dialect that would be super helpful.

  11. Wow I really respect you Jocelyn! It’s super hard to learn a dialect, it’s not like they have classes for that! Has John been helping you a lot?

    R speaks Sichuan-hua with his family, but thankfully Sichuan-hua is extremely similar to Mandarin so I can usually catch 60% of what is being said. I much prefer it to Shanghainese, which I heard constantly in Shanghai but could never understand (and never wanted to! ugh).

    Anyway, you’re awesome Jocelyn!

    1. Thanks Mary! I’ve heard Sichuan dialect and you’re right, it is very similar and easy enough to understand. I hear you on Shanghainese…I lived there for almost three years, never learned it (and wasn’t too motivated to learn it either).

  12. It is AWESOME you learned the local dialect and can understand 60% of the conversation!!! I speak Mandarin with my friends, Cantonese with my sister and Shanghai dialect with my parents, so it’s very confusing for my wife to really learn because she couldn’t figure what she’s hearing. The only word she can remember is “Foreigner” in Shanghai dialect because that’s what everyone called her when we visited there. ;D

    1. Thanks Jonathan! Wow, that’s cool you speak two dialects in addition to Mandarin. I’ll bet it must be confusing for your wife.

      I think foreigner was one of the first things I mastered in local dialect too! 😉

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