Should Foreigners Who Marry Chinese Also Learn the Language?

If you’re a foreigner with a Chinese spouse or loved one, should you learn some Chinese? Even just at a conversational level? Do we have an obligation to do so because we’re intimately connected to this country and culture?

This idea came to mind while pondering my own past, and first steps, in China many years ago, a time when I began dating a local Chinese man in Zhengzhou and couldn’t speak a word of Mandarin. He and I eventually broke up after six months, yet during our relationship, his presence in my life served as a spark to prod me into learning (along with other more practical reasons, such as being more independent). Deep down, a part of me felt that because I loved him, I should make an effort to study his language, even if that simply meant mastering the most basic conversational phrases.

Ironically, he didn’t encourage my efforts, suggesting my afternoon tutoring sessions were just a waste of time. Of course, he said this late in our relationship, which means it potentially reflected the growing rift between us, more than his genuine thoughts on the subject. Nevertheless, some people out there would agree with him – and I’ve met some or even heard about them, including those who have lived many years in China and, yes, have Chinese spouses.

Most people who argue against learning Chinese turn to two primary arguments: One, that it’s too difficult, and two, that it’s not necessary anyhow.

We all know Chinese remains notoriously difficult to learn. A few months ago, during a business trip at a conference, Chinese academics from some of the most celebrated institutions in China admitted to me in private conversations just how challenging the country’s official language is. Still, nobody says you need to emerge as the next Da Shan, have absolutely perfect tones, or reach the highest level in the HSK. Merely choosing a more reasonable “conversational” level can make the task more doable and less daunting. (That’s exactly what I did when I began learning Mandarin.)

I found an entire article devoted to why foreigners in China often don’t learn Chinese, and it adds an explanation unique those who speak English: “The main reason why more expats don’t speak much Chinese is this: we don’t need to learn it. China caters to English speakers.” This would fall under the “not necessary” arguments many put forth, including that their job doesn’t require it or the employer provides a translator.

For those of us with a Chinese spouse, our loved ones from China invariably end up helping with all sorts of errands, even if you can speak Chinese. It makes sense for a number of reasons, including the fact that they understand how to conduct business much better than we do because it’s their native country and culture. But of course, this gives the foreigner less motivation to learn – and bolsters the “not necessary” side of the argument.

Still, you could argue there’s a “need” for foreigners with a Chinese spouse. Given we already have an intimate relationship with the country, we’re going to encounter the language for the rest of our lives through family. When you can’t communicate with your spouse’s parents or grandparents or other relatives, it’s that much harder to forge a meaningful bond with them and makes holidays with Chinese family more challenging.

Besides the two usual arguments – “too hard” and “not necessary” — an additional barrier exists among cross-cultural couples. Whatever language you use while falling in love with someone becomes the language you prefer to use for communication (see The Relationship Between Language and Falling in Love). For those foreigners who start a relationship with their future spouses in English or another non-Chinese language, this serves as a psychological barrier to trying out their fledgling Chinese with their loved ones. Still, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn; you just might need to find yourself a supportive tutor or a language school or university program to fulfill your goals, instead of relying on your spouse, who might not be the best teacher anyhow. (See my post Why It’s a Really Bad Idea to Teach Your Spouse Your Language.)

So, let’s consider all of these factors together.

#1: Chinese may be difficult, but you can set a more reasonable goal (such as learning a set of useful conversational phrases) to put learning within your reach.

#2: While Chinese might not be a requirement for work or even running errands, foreigners with Chinese spouses may need to know some Chinese because they’ll encounter the language for the rest of their lives, through family.

#3: Foreigners who never spoke Chinese before with their spouses might feel challenged to learn, but they can choose to find tutors or language programs to study, instead of their spouse.

Ultimately, foreigners with Chinese spouses have a really strong excuse for learning – family. And they can overcome the barriers, if they set a reasonable goal and recognize their spouses can’t always be teachers.

So perhaps we shouldn’t ask the question, “Should foreigners with a Chinese spouse learn the language?” Instead, maybe it’s time we start talking about how to learn – and when.

What do you think? Do you agree that foreigners with a Chinese spouse should learn the language?

Photo credit: Kevin Dooley

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9 Replies to “Should Foreigners Who Marry Chinese Also Learn the Language?”

  1. Dear Jocelyn,
    Again, great article! I would love it if you would publish YOUR ideas on conversational phrases to learn. Studying Chinese is one thing , but the everyday fundamentals of conversation are another.

  2. well, I think that living in a country and not knowing at least basics of the language is some kind of being crippled. I really cannot imagine going to another country and not learning at least some simple phrases. And if it is for a long time, not for a year or two – I really don’t get why people don’t want to learn the language they are surrounded by.

  3. I always see it as a type of endearment, learning the language of your partner. I’ve learned little bits of Cantonese, when I have time, and when Mandarin is spoken with friends, I find I can understand and speak enough to make an impression.

    That said, I don’t know almost any other “east-west” marriages where the western side made just about any attempt to learn Chinese, which I see as a shame. Hell, I wish my wife would speak MORE Cantonese/Mandarin with me 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ryan. That’s wonderful you’ve invested time and efforts into learning! Interesting you don’t know many other East-West marriages where the Westerner has chosen to learn Chinese.

  4. I can understand that learning a language as an adult is difficult and that not everybody has the luxury to be able to study it full time as I did, however I find not even wanting to try quite disrespectful to your partner, because he/she might speak English, but what about your in laws? I don’t know many old people in China who can speak English. You don’t need to be able to read academic articles, but reaching an elementary level to have simple chats with Chinese people proves that you care.

    That said, I have to confess my Suzhou hua is still pretty much non existent… although I can at least guess what people are saying if I know the topic beforehand and concentrate very hard xD But, except for Grandma, everybody in my husband’s family can speak Mandarin.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Marta — I have to agree it’s a bit disrespectful if you don’t even want to try.

      That’s great you can generally guess what people are saying in Suzhou hua! My local dialect is still in its infancy — but like yourself, I can generally understand what people are talking about, and most people in the family can speak some Mandarin.

  5. I think communicating with the family of your spouse,and their friends is a good enough motive to try and learn the language. It’s not even that hard – my native language has 3 genders, and even objects have genders, or nouns that denote feelings and concepts, and it has so many tenses as well while the words take on so many forms … wait! don’t faint! Imagine how easy Chinese sounds to me – the verb stays the same no matter the tense, but you add another word to make it negative, another word to ask a question, another to put the action in the past… the nouns always the same, no matter how many pieces we talk about… so on!
    and the tones? while being in china, all you have to do is to imitate the others!

    but many of those who want to learn Mandarin have no connection with the country 🙁

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