The Relationship Between Language and Falling in Love

Over dinner two weeks ago in Beijing, Melanie Gao — a fellow yangxifu and blogger — asked an interesting question. “What language do you have a better relationship in with your Chinese husband?”

I didn’t know what to say because John and I had always floated between English and Mandarin, as if the two languages together somehow became our hybrid “husband-wife” language. “Hmmmmm, I don’t know. It’s hard to decide between English and Chinese. Maybe our relationship is slightly better in English these days.”

But I never would have guessed Melanie’s answer. “My husband and I have a better relationship in Japanese.” Japanese? If John had been here, he (and the remnants of his anti-Japanese ideas) would have fallen over. “I think it’s because it’s another language for us. We both have to try hard to understand one another.”

Still, I remembered reading how Melanie met her husband in Chiba, Japan when they were foreign students there — and came to know him in Japanese. Which made me wonder about another explanation. “Maybe that’s because Japanese is the language you fell in love in.”

Does it matter in what language you fall in love with someone? The question followed me long after that dinner, as I recalled my different loves in China.

I loved my first Chinese boyfriend exclusively in English, at a time when toddlers spoke better Mandarin Chinese than I did. When he left to study abroad in England, I started learning Chinese — and always felt embarrassed taking such linguistic baby steps before him. Given how he once warned me not to learn Chinese for him, breaking out of English seemed impossible for us.

Even though Frank, my second Chinese boyfriend, studied advanced English with me on the weekends, he usually turned an embarrassed shade of red and grinned in silence when I tried talking with him in English. So we came to know, love and, eventually, misunderstand each other only in Chinese.

But with John, my future Chinese husband, things changed. Some days, we would live entirely in English, trying to apply the American slang word “cheesy” to some of the terrible graphics on client websites. Other days, we’d laugh together in Chinese as he taught me new words or helped me translate phrases. So to this day, we’re just as happy having a conversation as liaoliaotian.

If Melanie had met her future husband in the US or China, maybe they would have a better relationship in English or Chinese, or even both languages. Instead, they have it in Japanese — which, in my opinion, makes for a far more interesting story. 😉

For those of you who have or have had cross-cultural relationships: what language(s) do you have a better relationship in and why?

19 Replies to “The Relationship Between Language and Falling in Love”

  1. Interesting thought, Jocelyn; to have a better relationship in the language we fell in love in… 🙂 This made me think.

  2. To be honest, I think my boyfriend and I have a better relationship in Chinese. This goes back to that dinner two weeks ago about how Melanie was saying that whichever language you speak, it’s the native speaker who usually has the upper hand. So I typically speak Chinese to my boyfriend so that he’s not constantly reminded of my superior English language skills. Though he’s not an insecure person, I understand that it can definitely be debilitating when you’re trying to express yourself in another language besides your own.

    Then again, there are also times when I get really frustrated at him and express myself in English, leaving him at a loss and trying really hard to figure out what I’ve just said =P

  3. Me and my boyfriend don’t really have a choise because the only language we can communicate in is Mandarin Chinese. It’s not the native language of either of us as my boyfriend’s mother language is Yangjiang dialect.

    Laten on I wish to learn Cantonese because I’m living in Guangzhou and because my boyfriend’s Cantonese is much better than his Mandarin. But I guess that Mandarin will always be THE language for us.

    It really is an interesting story that Melanie and her husband have Japanese as the love language!

  4. Frankly, this is a topic few, if any, people in cross-cultural relationships ever thought about. But now that it has been brought out, it does make you think. Thinking back, I would not say that the language one fell in love is the language that cements the relationship. Rather, it is the facility that a couple has in each other’s language that does the magic. The facility to switch from one language to another and back again keeps the dialectics between the couple interesting and alive.

  5. The concept of ‘the language that you fall in love in’ is an interesting one. I think, depending on the linguistic capabilities of each person in a cross-cultural relationship, one language often becomes something to learn and fun, while the other, that both are more prolific in, becomes the ‘serious conversations’ language, which obviously can affect the way the relationship ‘behaves’ in that language. Another thing that can affect things is the culture behind the language of course. I think different cultures are an endless source of fascination!

  6. When we first met, my Chinese boyfriend was avidly trying to learn English anyway, so he practically forbid me to speak Chinese to him! It amazes me how much his English has improved. He’s almost fluent in a matter of months. I agree with the cute little ‘husband-wife’ language – my Chinese is somewhat lacking so me and my boyfriend usually have to communicate in English, which he says makes him exhausted! But he does it for me anyway, what a considerate guy 😉 That said, if I know a word in Chinese then I’m determined to use it! There’s no stopping me and my nonsensical sentences. Sometimes I’ll be speaking to my English friends and end up exclaiming ‘wei she me?!’ or adding ‘lah’ or ‘ma?’ at the end of it without even realising. Oh God. Hehe.

  7. To this day, ours is still English. Most of the time when I speak Chinese to my husband he replies in English. I don’t think it is intentional, but it always happens. We met in the US when he was a student and moved to China where we lived for 6 years. I eventually became quite fluent, but now that we are back in the States, we use English almost all the time.

    I wonder about friendships and the languages that get spoken in those as well. The first person I met back in the US was Chinese and I was with my husband, so the language we used during that first meeting was Chinese exclusively. After the semester started and we were in her office, she spoke to me in English. It was a incredibly strange conversation and I left thinking I did not like her so much. We talked about it a few days later, and she had a similar feeling. It took a few months to have a good relationship in English. In Chinese, we had great conversations after just meeting. We only use Chinese now when it is related to something about translation (which comes up in our research).

    Most of the people I met in China I continued to use the language we began with as the language of communication. I am not sure if this is common.

    Expanding this topic, I have often thought about how language is used among friendship as well not just in romantic situations.

  8. “’ or adding ‘lah’ or ‘ma?’ at the end of it without even realising. Oh God. Hehe.”

    You sound like a Singaporean!

  9. I love this post. =D My husband was born and raised in Taipei, Taiwan but he came to America to study. We mainly speak English but he encourages me to learn Mandarin and hope I will be able to learn in Taipei. I would love that.

    I remember one time I decided to directly speak Mandarin to him when he called me on his cellphone. There was this dead silence; I wondered why he was being so cold. It took him a while for him to know that he didn’t dial the wrong number. =O He thought he accidently was speaking to a Taiwanese person. I guess I should take that as a complement. (turns red)

  10. Thanks for such a fascinating post! Over at The Displaced Nation, a new collaborative blog for people who venture across borders, we’ve been devoting a big chunk of our posts this month to cross-cultural marriage, using the marriage between Pocahontas and John Rolfe as a springboard.

    I wrote a post listing four reasons against Pocohantas-Rolfe marriages except in rare cases where it’s a marriage of equals. (I don’t know for sure but it seems a fair assumption that an Indian princess and a British settler would have communication problems aplenty!)

    And today I posted an interview with two people who are veterans of — as well as cheerleaders for — cross-cultural marriage: a Venezuelan-born Spanish woman married to a Brit, and an American man married to a Japanese.

    Both of my cross-cultural couples use English with their partners. The Spanish woman doesn’t seem to mind this. As for the American man, while he seems to feel a little guilty (he knows some Japanese), he also believes that his wife’s English is much better than his Japanese (she studied and practiced it for a long time).

    Given your focus on language, as well as your impressive linguistic skills, I’d love to hear what you and your readers think about this — do you think cross-cultural marriage can thrive if one partner is at a disadvantage in terms of their ability to communicate? Or would you tend to see this as a deal breaker?

  11. It depends on the context. If you want to be subtle, use Mandarin Chinese. If your intention is to be more direct, use English.

  12. Who would have thought Japanese would be our language of love?! I never thought of it as a romantic language.

    Shortly after we married and moved to the U.S. we switched to English as our common language, and then after we moved to China we switched again, this time to Chinese. Each time we switched languages I felt the earth rotate a bit. For me there is a strong connection between the language I’m speaking and the way I feel.

    Luckily, I love my husband regardless of the language. 🙂

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