One thing people feel they have free rein to constantly comment on, is what language I speak in my home and to my partner. The most common refrain is, ‘You are in Germany, you should speak German to each other’ and other variations on the theme. Frankly, I tend to feel telling me what language to speak to my partner is like me telling you how often you should be having sex with yours. It isn’t any of my business and it is entirely up to you two. But that is by the by. This isn’t about what pisses me off, but instead about a little theory I have regarding bilingual relationships.
Obviously, I speak English. I came to Germany with three words of German (and one of them was ‘hallo’ under my belt) and have spent the past eighteen months simultaneously teaching English, writing in English and learning a rather difficult language that, contrary to the popular refrain of ‘just speak it!’ requires a decent amount of grammatical comprehension prior to bursting into song (is it obvious people telling me how I should and shouldn’t learn irritates me?) SG speaks German and English, having learnt the latter at school from the age of 10 – nowadays it is 7 – and taking two courses as part of his tertiary education. So what language do we speak at home? What language does our relationship speak? English. Isn’t it shocking!
Yes, it is an ease thing. SG is far better at English than I am at German. It is easier for us to communicate in this language. But more than that, from the very beginning, we were instantly able to communicate in English. It was the language with which we got to know each other, the language that enabled our relationship to actually develop. I believe bilingual relationships have mother tongues and the mother tongue of a relationship is the one you both use/used for all the important things – for the first dates, the big conversations. That language is the one that is the closest to mutually comfortable. Perhaps the Spanish boy with the German girl speaks better German than she does Spanish, or perhaps they both speak excellent French – but one of the three languages will be the one that connected them; the relationship’s mother tongue.
I spoke to a friend of mine about this once. He is German, but lived and studied in Seoul. He met his girlfriend there, and the language they felt most comfortable communicating in, was English. And so it was English that they spoke. He said as much as they both said, ‘I really should teach you German’ or ‘I really should teach you Korean’ and despite the fact they were both living in Seoul, the language that connected them was English. That was their relationship’s mother tongue. And once that language has asserted itself, once that is your method of communication, it is very difficult to change it.
Some couples are equally as fluent in the same two languages. I have a friend who speaks, after thirteen years of studying it, terrific German. She and her German boyfriend alternate between English and German, depending on how they feel or who is more tired and less motivated to converse in their second language. But I would hazard a guess, out of both languages, there is one that, when push comes to shove, would be the chosen language to really connect with, to make themselves understood within their personal dynamic.
In our house, we speak both German and English, but primarily English. English for the big conversations, to convey meaning, to enable understanding. German is the ‘learning language’ the one for light conversations, the one that’s vocabulary often gets unwittingly mixed into an English sentence with spectacular results.
I used to feel bad, sort of lazy or uneducated when people asked what language we spoke and my answer was ‘mostly English’, particularly when the inevitable reply of ‘you should speak German’ followed. But I am learning – always learning – that in an experience like this one, in a story like the one I am writing blind, there are no shoulds and shouldn’ts, there are no rules we should be beholden to. We can only do what works for us – and if that means under your relationship roof, you communicate in a common tongue that doesn’t necessarily match the country you are currently living in, then so be it. It’s no one else’s business.
Update 17/4: original post stated SG started English at 7. That is incorrect, it was 10. ‘Early English’ was only introduced in Germany in the early 2000s.