The Language of a Relationship

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.

256 Replies to “The Language of a Relationship”

  1. I’m with you there – on both counts … and about throwing away (other people’s) rule books. The rules you’ll follow are the ones you make together, in your language of love. Nice work.

  2. True story. This has always annoyed me.

    As we met in the US, we spent probably 3 years speaking English nearly exclusively. Although I’ve also found it’s changed over time. At this point, I just tell people it’s Denglisch. And it depends on a variety of other circumstances, such as the topic of conversation. I’ve found that now, there are some things I don’t have the vocabulary for in English, simply because they are things I never had to deal with in English. (Which is a really weird feeling.) Sometimes it’s vice versa, which probably seems more believable anyway.

    Now we’ve got it even more mixed up though, with the German-speaker in England and the English-speaker in Germany for the time being. (Agh! It’s terrible! Invasion of Brit English.) Go figure. Bilingual relationships are so…interesting. haha. 🙂

  3. Interesting is the word! It does change over time, I totally agree, and I expect it will always change. But when you meet with one language, get to know each other, connect with that language, regardless of anything else, it is difficult to change that! But totally agree with the Denglish … sometimes sentences are literally half/half, or the German word is plucked from your head before the English.

    @Wanderlust – ABSOLUTELY! Rules – BE GONE

  4. I agree so much with your comment “One thing people feel they have free rein to constantly comment on, is what language I speak in my home and to my partner”! Although I speak French (the local language) to my husband, I often have people tell me I should be speaking English (my native language) to him. And I also often get comments that when we argue surely I revert to English… (not the case – if we argue I want to be sure he’s understood me 100%).

  5. I get it completely! My boyfriend’s Norwegian and I’m American. We live in Norway. While it is a constant struggle for me to learn Norwegian just ‘out on the town’ because everyone’s English skills are superb, it’s also difficult for me to want to speak Norwegian to him at home because are relationship language is English. It always has been. However, lately we do try to speak Norwegian 90% of the time because I have no other way to learn the language…but when we are having real conversations, they will always be in English. Don’t let others tell you how to run your relationship. I mean, if we followed ALL the rules wouldn’t we have chosen our signifcant others from our own countries so we didn’t have to deal with the immigration documents, language, etc?! 😉 We have the most unconventional of relationships and unless someone else is in that situation, they just don’t get it! Good luck 🙂

  6. I can completely relate! People’s comments never fail to piss me off, and at first I thought I was being overly-sensitive, but you’re right–it’s nobody’s place to say which language you “should” be speaking with your partner.

    Thanks for the reaffirmation. 🙂

  7. Even after nearly 15 years of living in Germany, my German husband and I speak mostly English at home provided that we’re not around other Germans and sometimes even when we are. I’ve nearly brained well meaning family and friends for piping up with a command for us to speak German. I think some of it stems from their nosiness – they can’t bear the idea of us saying something they can’t understand. Yes, I would speak better German if I spoke it exclusively but, as you wrote, it’s not our relationship mother tongue. I do speak much more German at home than I used to but my husband? He’s the German and yet he seldom will reply to me in German unless I tell him to. Plus I am not amusing or witty or funny in German – things which my husband loves about me – so he likes it better if I speak English. The other upside for him is that he’s self-taught in English (English wasn’t taught when he went to school – he learned Russian) and did not speak all that much English when I moved here. Over the years my German skill level is conversational but he’s now fluent in English and speaks better English than many other Germans who studied it.

    All I can say is that after a few more years when you are a better German speaker the commands from others to speak German will lessen a great deal and you’ll likely speak a mix of the two at home and English only will be saved for more complex conversations. Then you can say when asked that you speak both. No need to tell them that 75% of the time it’s English.

  8. Something I encounter often is simply that many Germans WANT TO SPEAK ENGLISH. I typically try to use German first whenever possible. I only say “Errm, sprechen sie Englisch?” when it’s something complicated I know I won’t be able to describe in German (though I will throw in German words where possible). But despite (or because of) my simple and incomplete mastery of the complicated grammar and limited vocabulary, I am answered in English. It’s very frustrating… As you say, you can’t just break out into song in German! I think you need a certain threshold where you can stand your ground before German is stuck to. In relationships, as in every day life. At the risk of arrogance, I dare say the German girls I’ve dated here were pretty excited to speak English…

    Related story: I met a flatmate’s friend last week. She is German, but studied Spanish forever, lived in Spain for a year, and there met her Italian boyfriend, who was also living in Spain. He speaks no German and only bits of English, but of course his Spanish is fluent. Naturally, Spanish is their Sprachen de Amor.

  9. @Megan – I think, as well, it helps not to be too hard on yourself. A) Scandinavians speak impeccable English, which makes learning the local language difficult and B) people always used to say to me, ‘JUST SPEAK’ as if I could conjure German up from thin air, despite it being, grammatically, one of the most difficult languages out there. So I didn’t ‘JUST SPEAK’ until I had confidence and knowledge of the grammatical basics and silently told people to feck off every time I heard the instruction to open my mouth and let German magically flow.

    @Christine – It’s not just you!

    @Kim – that is so interesting. 15 years here and your relationship still speaks the language it started speaking, despite, obviously, your ability to speak both German and English. And I ABSOLUTELY agree with every word you say. Had to laugh at this: ‘Plus I am not amusing or witty or funny in German.’ Me neither, meeee neither. I have just started saying ‘mostly English with German as well’ so people don’t give me the disapproving face.

  10. I can’t believe people are actually telling you what language you guys should speak. Just because you’re living in a certain country doesn’t mean you should do everything your countrymen do, least of all speak the same language. Some countries even have multiple official languages, or no official language at all. Who are these people, anyway? The German Rick Santorums? Speak any language you want; it’s your relationship and you should do what makes you both comfortable.
    Auf wiederschein (God, I hope I spelled that right).

  11. No one else’s business indeed! It constantly amazes me how many people offer perspective into things about which they have zero perspective…

    Great post!

    🙂

  12. So smart to write about this. In actual days are very commom people have a relationship with another culture. I think in our future will born a new linguage, a new one than everyone can speak.

  13. Congrats on being FP! And congrats on sharing your well-considered, well-said thoughts on such an important part of any relationship. After all, ALL relationships are based on the intermixing of two diverse people, whether we’re talking about cultural, gender, language, or just individual diversity. I SO agree with all you said and celebrate the lucid way you described this fascinating topic. Thanks for your post, and I look forward to more of your posts.

  14. Lovely post — I especially like the notion of a relationship having a mother tongue. 🙂

    Long ago (the DDR was still around) I was an exchange student in Germany for the express purpose of learning/improving my German, so it made sense that I spoke only German with my host family. I had the weird experience (ala Eric above) of certain people insisting on speaking English with me, primarily to practice their own English. Some of them then had the temerity to berate and correct me because I was speaking American English rather than the British English they had learned. (I have no problem imagining these same people similarly berating me for NOT speaking German if I had been in your circumstances.)

    My exchange sister visited me some years later, when we were both in college. We found ourselves speaking mostly French, with the occasional word or phrase in German or English, because our fluency was fairly equal in that third language. It just felt like the right ground on which to meet one another, where neither was at a particular disadvantage. It wasn’t the language in which we had met or even previously conversed, so I don’t know if you could consider it the mother tongue of our relationship, but it formed a mutually agreeable and solid foundation on which to continue.

    (Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!)

  15. It seems to me that in a relationship, the thing is “relating” more than using a language. I know bilingual folks who mix it up all the time because one language says something easier at on point while the other says it easier at another point. I’m not quite bilingual, but it seems to me that “relating” is whatever works. Why let a silly old thing like some official language category screw with the important stuff? 🙂

    1. Very true re: mixing it up – some things are easier said in one language than the other. German can be a much more economical language than English, so saying something in German is sometimes easier and more succinct!

  16. The only rule you need is “do what works for you” ! I know several couples speaking a native language living in the states, so why cant the opposite be true. Great post !

  17. Relationship is all about connection and communication… as far as I’m concerned, whatever language works best for that is the one to use!

  18. This is a great article. My family is from Argentina, so I am fluent in Spanish. My wife is from the Philippines and speaks Tagalog. However, we both met in English and despite our best efforts to get the other to pick up our mother tongues, we feel so comfortable in English that we continue in it entirely. Perhaps we are a bit lazy in not trying harder to teach the other, but there is something special that English holds for both of us and as much as I would like to be trilingual, I don’t find the need to pick up Tagalog that badly.

  19. What language you speak in your own home is no one’s business but yours. It’s not like you’re refusing to speak German in public forums where everyone else is speaking German. I teach English as a new language and actually encourage my students to keep speaking their primary language at home, and to keep studying in it. The more fluent and skilled they are in their strongest language, the easier it is to learn a new one.

  20. Great post!

    My significant other is primarily a Spanish speaker, but studied English from a young age. Meanwhile, my Spanish was limited, when I met him, to whatever words I had picked up on Sesame Street as a child (counting from 1-10 is really less helpful than one might think), and the ability to order ethnic foods. I am learning more Spanish, but “our” language is English. Which is probably for the best, because he’s fluent in English and I am having a shockingly poor time learning more than the most rudimentary Spanish, even after *years* of trying.

    The only two people who seem terribly bothered by this are his mother (who speaks as much English as I do Spanish) and my sister (who truly worries that relationships are hard enough without throwing language barriers into them). My take on that latter issue is that all relationships encounter misunderstandings… starting from 2 different languages makes us more likely to give each other grace and try to understand what is TRYING to be said, rather than just what we’re HEARING. If you see what I mean.

    1. Well, I see what you mean. I’ve always wondered if bilingual couples have better relationships because they can’t fight on auto pilot – they need to think more about what they will say to each other and can’t just repeat the usual nonsense we say when we’re angry 😀

  21. Thank you for that post! My husband and I are a mix of Italian and German living in Ireland! I can’t tell you how often it was said “youd should be speaking German/Italian by now” why??? We live in Ireland, we both speak english… what makes you think we magically learn our partners language and then will be able to communicate our inner most feelings in that said language?
    Thanks for the post, I totally agree! Yes, there should be the effort to learn the others language but we will still communicate in our – as you call it – relationship mother tounge.

    1. People always assume picking up a language is oh so simple, ESPECIALLY if you live somewhere or have a partner speaking that language. God, why aren’t you writing novels in that other language yet? It only took you 25 years to perfect your native tongue, chop chop with perfecting this new one!

  22. Fascinating read! I’ve never been in a bilingual relationship, nor have I been very close to anyone who was in a bilingual relationship, but unfortunately it doesn’t surprise me to hear that people criticize your relationship language. Obviously, couples should speak in whatever language they want. 🙂

  23. I love your idea about the mother tongue of a bilingual relationship.
    The first thing I learned when I embarked on my study in Linguistics was that there are two types of linguists: the judging ones that prescribe language (e.g. they tell you what you should and should not be doing with language) and the objective ones that describe language (observe what users do with their language). I always learned that descriptivism is the way to go. Prescriptivism is bad. So, next time someone tells you what you should be speaking, you could wrinkle your nose and say, “That’s prescriptivist,” and walk away.

    Lovely post!

    1. Fascinating! I think I am more of a ‘descriptivist’ – I am far more interested in what we do and how we do things with language (and other aspects of culture like general interaction … and food!)

  24. Fantastic post… And one that really, truly hit home. Just out of curiosity, what part of Germany are you in?

    I am an American, but I spend about 3 months a year working in power plants in the Cologne/Dusseldorf area. Predictably, I ended up falling in love with a German girl, and we’re in the exact same boat. Only as of yet, my German education has barely begun. I know how to ask for a beer, and i took the time to teach myself how to say “Ich liebe dich.” But for the most part, I’m the ignorant American, and she’s bilingual, and is forced to speak her second language 100% of the time… In person, this isn’t too bad, in fact, I find her German-accented British-English downright endearing, but when i’m back in the states and we’re restricted to Facebook chat, I feel like a fair amount, especially humor, gets lost in translation… It’s a constant challenge…

    I wish you and SG the best. Thanks again for this post, it’s well-written, and it’s nice to know that there’s someone out there in a sort of similar position to my own 😀

    1. I am down south, in Franken, Bavaria (still getting used to the entirely different dialect!) It is a challenge, and one that throws up so many new, different and bizarre things that mono-lingual and mono-cultural relationships don’t come across. But it’s worth it!

  25. Oh wait guys. Yes. Yes you can break out into song in German. I do it all the time… mostly to call a boy an Arshcloch without having to use the word. And with the words of a schlager artist who is said boy’d doppleganger. 😀
    I fell in love with Matthias Reim’s voice at the first note. And with Google translate was able to learn the meaning of the words while I was learning the songs to help reinforce my language skills (which actually muddled it. But I amuse the hell out of the german speakers in my online group so its all good) Turns out all you have to do to break the ice is start belting out “Verdammt ich lieb dich…” also handy “Manner sind dumm!”

    Of course I have been told that it is terribly rude to sing out loud over there. I’ll find out when I get there. But yes… you can bust out in song. I’ve always said that there is a song for every occasion and if you can’t find the formal/proper words in German there is a song for that thought. But as with all things KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. I’d underline but I do not know how that html works in comments.

    And just wait til you and SG decide to have kids. Those same people are going to have an opinion for the language the kids learn, your diaper choices, what baby food to use et all. People just can’t help kibbutzing. 🙂

  26. Making your own rules is the only way to live. I had a couple of strokes, and always wished I’d spent time teaching guitar. After the strokes, relearning to play and to overcome the physical and memory difficulties gave me the incentive to post guitar licks and songs online for others to learn. I don’t worry if they are perfect, I do as I can, and post them. They won’t be of use to everyone, but some people find them to be useful, and that is all I need to continue.

    Congratulations on your freshly pressed!

  27. I can relate to this post. Although I did speak English before I arrived here, the many different accents, especially those coming from South Africa or Namibia, made things a little difficult.

  28. The idea of a relationship’s mother tongue makes a lot of sense to me!

    My partner and I are both native speakers of German who live in Germany. But we still ended up speaking a lot of English with each other, especially when things get emotional or intimate between us. Some things are just easier to say and also feel closer to the heart in English for us. No, I can’t explain why that is so.

    All I can say is that I consider myself immensely blessed to have a partner with whom I have two languages in common, and who loves English almost as much as I do.

    1. This is so cute! And interesting! If you HAD to come up with a reason why, why do you think you and your partner prefer to communicate intimately and emotionally, in English?

  29. When it is loved ones and family, choose the language that both of you can communicate clearest and naturally: after all, you want to preserve your relationship, keep it harmonious. That is number 1 priority.

    I know for some Chinese couples they speak English to one another, even though both are very fluent in Chinese? Why? Because Cantonese is totally different dialect than Mandarin!

    I still speak abit of Chinese ( a dialect within Cantonese family) but have lost 80% of my fluency. After all, I was born in Canada. I don’t have enough Chinese (and none of my siblings either) to pass it down to children. Our language fluency has been retained in shreds….because my mother knows very little English. No, she cannot make herself understood all the time to her own children and vice versa.

    So folks from 2nd generation know about all these bilingual /lost fluency problems. By the way, my partner is German-Canadian and knows more German than I know my Chinese. But neither of us have been able to properly pass on each other’s mother’s language to one another even after being together for last 20 yrs. Probably because both of us have crappy grammar and only bits of vocabulary. I only know hearing a pile of European languages, which one may be German vs. French (since I did take in school). Similarily with knowing Chinese language sounds /rhythms to distinguish it from Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, etc.

  30. My father took the leap to fully learn my mother’s language (Ibanag, a language in Northern Philippines). My mom got to the point of understanding my father’s language (Itawes, another language in North Phil), but not converse using the language. As a result, us siblings picked up Ibanag, although I badly wish I learned Itawes too. I know that the language we speak at home isn’t anyone’s business, but I hope we pass on whatever languages we know to the kids. Pass on for the sake of learning the language, and not to please anyone else! 🙂

    Congrats on FP!!! I love the idea of the language of a relationship. The Philippines has 100++ languages, so I’m beginning to wonder about the multiplicity of possible language-relationships there are here! http://themovabletype.wordpress.com/

  31. This blog is so nice. Though I haven’t been in a relationship with someone not a Filipino (my relationships are always bilingual because the Philippines is a mostly bilingual country), I could completely relate on the rules thing. I totally agree on that under a relationship, we should live and die by our own rules. We should not follow and even hear what other people say about us or what we should do because they don’t know what the hell they are even talking about. Relationships must be centered on what your loved one says, not what other people says. This blog is so nice, I must say that again.

  32. My boyfriend and I are both Chinese but a bit of a different dialect. I also speak 2 kinds of Chinese and the one I am better at he does not understand. We always speak in English but do try to throw in some Chinese ever now-and-then. We do want to keep learning more Chinese by talking to each other but I think that is easier for us since we at least speak to our parents in Chinese.

    I sometimes feel bad that some of my friends are so much more fluent in their language than I am but I’m practicing!

  33. Aaaaaa….Right Arm!
    If you do have kids, don’t let anyone tell you your kids “will get confused” if you teach them multiple languages as they’re learning to talk either. Brain science has proven otherwise. I really liked the idea that by having to think about the effects of how to say what you mean, you’re going to need to interrupt auto-pilot, and your assumptions that the other person understood you and “knows what I mean.” One of the essentials of good relationships, IMHO.

  34. Good for you. And you’ll learn German at a pace that works for you. It’ll sink in. I studied German for 3 years in high school, and when I moved to Berlin right after graduation, I could barely get around asking directions and ordering from menus. I was living with students from other countries and German was our language, so after a while, I got nearly fluent. Thirty years later, when I went back to Europe, I was surprised at how much came back to me, at least in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure. Proper noun gender, prepositions, and verb endings I pretty much had to fudge, but people understood me anyway! All as a long way of saying, yes, German is grammatically hard!

  35. Congrats on FP! Love that idea of a relationship having a mother tongue… it makes perfect sense. ~ L

  36. This is an enlightening post! It makes an analogy between “our song” and “our language”. You are fortunate. Having lived in the U.S. all my life, I’ve never needed to learn a language other than English, so I’ve never learned enough of any other language well enough to be fluent in it.

  37. This is interesting. I’ve heard of “the language of love” before, but having another actual language is neat. Some Americans think the only language that should be spoken in America is English, which I imagine has lead to the English education in other countries, but there has to be that element of freedom in developed nations that allows people to speak whatever language they want with whoever they choose. You are absolutely right to speak the language that is right for your relationship and not what anyone else thinks. Because when it comes right down to it, it’s your relationship.

  38. Being brought up in Hong Kong, our children speak Cantonese fluently – a language that neither my husband nor I speak (although we can manage to get home in a taxi!). Most of the time, we speak English at home, but when the children were young and we wanted to keep a secret, my husband and I would speak French (very badly). Occasionally, our children would speak in Chinese – for the same reason. We found that our children were always confident, despite not always being the sharpest knives in the drawer, and studies now show that being bi-lingual does help build confidence. When I’m asked if we would choose the same educational path for our children, although it’s not easy as a parent (learning to read and write Chinese requires such tremendous commitment) we would not change that early decision. Now in their twenties, our children are at ease in both Asian and Western societies.

  39. You are soooooo right! I am fed up with people — and especially our government — trying to tell us what we should or shouldn’t — can or can’t — do in our own homes! This world has gone crazy, and the few of us who are still sane need to keep stating the truth and standing up for what’s right, for everyone’s sake. More power to you!

  40. No matter which country it is, I find it entertaining how the citizens demand that people instantly learn their language once you step foot on their native soil. The irony is that many of these types do not want to learn your language.

    To me, language is about being able to express yourself and to convey ideas. If you can not properly convey a message or it makes you feel uncomfortable, then speak what will get the point across. The people around you who are upset because they can eaves drop or are worried that you are speaking about them just need to get over it!

    Good story and congragulations on being “Freshly Pressed.”

  41. I’m with you on this one. My partner is from Brazil but we met here in Australia. I speak almost no Portuguese but I do speak a bit of Spanish. In a few weeks we will be moving to Argentina so we will be speaking English at home, Spanish outside and maybe he gets to speak Portuguese on the phone with his family. People are always telling me i should learn Portuguese…and I will…one day…

  42. Really good post. I agree with another commenter, I’m amazed how much people seem to think they are “helping” when they’re giving advice about matters that are really none of their business. It’s amazing and wonderful that you both speak two languages in the first place, no one has a right to tell you which one you should speak. 🙂 Congrats on Freshly Pressed!

  43. My parents always speak Italian to each other in our home. They both grew up in Sicily, it’s what they know.

  44. Congrats on the Freshly Pressed. I am so glad English works really well for you guys. I think the even more effective language for you guys as a sweet couple is LOVE. 🙂 As a Chinese who pursues her master’s in the U.S., I am having a Chinese teaching blog. You are more than welcome to visit me if you’d like. http://path2mandarinchinesecharacters.com

  45. I speak only English for the most part (I only know some basic words and phrases in French and Spanish), and my best friend, who is Puerto Rican, is equally fluent in English and Spanish, so all our conversations are in English. Even when I go to a party or gathering at her house where I am the only non-Hispanic person there, she always speaks English around me.

  46. I completely understand! My extended family refuse to speak to me in English even though they speak and understand it fluently. I should be speaking in my mother tongue.

  47. Thanks for sharing this insightful post! It is an extremely interesting topic, and honestly is one that I have never thought very much about. I think you make a great point about doing what works for you (i.e. the couple), and being careful not let other people tell you what you “should” do.

  48. Interesting post! I was dating someone who spoke English as their second language, though he spoke it just as fluently as any native speaker of English. Chinese was his native language and I always felt like we should try our best to speak half the time in English (my native language) and half the time in Chinese (his native language) because so much of how we express feelings and emotions and how we communicate depends on the language we use. Trying to communicate (in a romantic way, of course) in Chinese was difficult for me, I found, just as it was probably difficult for him to do so in English.

  49. If you ask me (and I know you would have if you’d thought about it), the real way relationships should work is the way your German/Seoul example couple work. A and B can both know X language, A also knows Y, and B also knows Z. That way you have not only a language to love each other in, but also each have a language each to, er… let off steam in with the other no worse off. 😀 (Also, no fair learning the other’s language on the sly.)

  50. Makes complete sense, why anyone would care that much about it outside of the both of you is beyond me anyway. Thank you for sharing 🙂

    ♥ Love and light ♥

    ~ Jennifer

  51. My fiance is equally fluent in German and English (his family always spoke German at home, despite living in Australia), so we speak English to each other because my German is only so-so. It has always been HIS family that insists that I learn German and they throw tantrums if we speak in English to each other in their presence. They are also deeply concerned that any future children we have won’t be up to par in German because of me. It really is nobody else’s business, but some people just can’t seem to mind their own.

  52. Great post and, I’d even go further and dare to say, sometimes it’s not only in a relationship one functions better in one language or another. I am a native Spanish speaker yet at times feel much more comfortable speaking/writing English. I even write notes to myself in English… and no, it’s not “snobbery” since no one will see them!

    Congrats on being Freshly pressed

  53. I’m French, my boyfriend is USAmerican. I cannot stand to talk to him in French, because we actually met in English. People tell me I’m mean for not helping him more to learn French by talking more around him but it’s just not natural.
    My brother lives in Germany and, even though he obviously is fluent and my German is pretty good, I cannot speak german to him, even surrendered by dozens of German people: I tell him something in French and then translate it in German for the people around. People we grew our relationship in French.
    And by living abroad, I got to realize that a lot of bilingual couples / families are the same way.
    As it has been said before, I think that what matters most is how you feel. No need to force a language if everybody agrees. Of course, if one was really upset then an effort should be made. But not speaking the language does not mean that you do not make an effort.

    (oops, that’s just re-re-re-re-repeating your post AND the hundreds comments here, sorry!)

    1. Hahaha no problem and agreed! So much of it, regardless of how many languages you speak, depends on which one you feel COMFORTABLE communicating in!

  54. It is so easy to dictate and so much harder to follow. I trust in your position they would all speak English too. I have a similar situation with my husband who is Mexican though I likely trigger the comments by moaning about my lack fo Spanish so I only have myself to blame. I would have liked to check out more of your blog but none of the links are working for me at the moment. Congrats on the FP.

  55. I so agree with what you said . And you don’t need to feel guilty if you didn’t fluently spoke your partners language. As long as there’s a common language where you both can communicate fluently with all is well.

    Honestly people don’t need to know or understand how you communicate with each other is not of their business.

    Thank you and good luck with everything 🙂

  56. I totally feel you when it comes to people telling other people what to do, it is none of their business and they shouldn’t worry about it.

    I had a similar experience to yours. I had a French girlfriend for three years and at first we started out speaking English. I do speak French (when we started my French was probably better than her English), but we spoke in English as she wanted to learn it to live in an English speaking country for a year and I was kind of too lazy to speak French.
    Her English ended up being pretty good and then it was my time to learn French, as this was a huge opportunity. We still ended up speaking English though, as I was too lazy to make the effort.
    In retrospect I wish I had done it, I was visiting her in France constantly and my French would have been terrific by now.

    I do not agree, though, that a relationship has a mother tongue. There is a language that both speak to a well enough degree that sutained conversation in that language is not too much of a burden for both, and that language is mostly spoken. I do think that if both partners speak several languages well, they will end up speaking in several languages. Usually a decision is made. If I had an English speaking girlfriend, I’d much rather talk to her in English, to practice and because I love English (I just feel so cool when I speak it :P). She might need a little push to practice German, but since I am not giving that push she is more comfortable with English, too. So we’d end up stuck with English.
    I see it with couples everywhere. I am Turkish and actually from Berlin (with a huge Turkish community) and Turkish couples are comfortable with both speaking German and Turkish.

    What I do find annoying, as the son of immigrants myself, is the double standard employed. While people are ranting about the smallest mistakes Turkish people make (a 50 year old first generation immigrant has to speak PERFECT German? Give me a break…) while talking German and there is an attitude of “Stupid Turkish, learn German if you come here” it seems to be totally cool if English speakers (especially Americans) never learn German.

    1. I have noticed a bit of that, to be honest. I actually think Germans just aren’t that happy with other languages in general. I hear all the time ‘you live in Germany, speak German’ which is fair enough, but said, sometimes, a touch too aggressively.

      1. Yeah, I feel you.
        The German arrogance is very annoying at times. Looking at German colonies in Argentine, Spain and Turkey I think they shouldn’t preach water and drink wine.

        But on the positive side: I <3 Germany (well, not all of it, just former Prussia :P)

  57. Nice post. I have an almost identical experience with this. My partner is also German. We got together before I spoke much of his language, so we first communicated only in English. Now we actually live in Germany, and I do speak an intermediate German. But I always get the feeling that when we try and switch over to German, our relationship/dynamic changes.

    Even though I am not bad, I still sometimes make grammatical mistakes. And I sometimes have trouble expressing certain more complicated concepts. Its like there are parts of my self that don’t exists in German. 15 -20 minutes in, we inevitably switch back.

    I am always working on getting better at German, but I doubt we will ever completely switch over. English will always be the language in which we know each other in the best.

  58. I was instantly drawn to your post, and I’m so glad I was! My bf is Swedish and we just moved to Sweden. I’m trying to teach myself swedish, but its so hard to stay focused! We obviously speak english to each other. But then again, I’m fluent in spanish. SO everyone tells him to speak to me in swedish, and then they tell me to speak in spanish. I feel like if we did that we’d never understand each other! At least I’m glad I’m not the only one out there experiencing this 🙂

  59. Excellent post.
    This is a really good read for me, Must admit that you are one of the best bloggers I ever saw.Thanks for posting this informative article.
    Congratulations on your freshly pressed!

  60. Congrats first, and then yes I like the way you put it – speak in what’s comfortable for you, it doesn’t matter! Who really is to say which is better for you? I’ve had so many people telling me what to do and what not to, sometimes I don’t even know why it matters to them that I should speak in English/Russian/Chinese/Cantonese/gibberish to whoever I’m conversing with. Speak whatever is comfortable, speak what connects. Cheers.

  61. Language is a tool, a means of getting what’s inside you to be inside the head or heart of another. As German becomes hardwired into your life, you will probably start to use it more, or mix them up. don’t worry about it. Just enjoy !

  62. I recently met a middle aged couple who were travelling around. She was American, he was German. They live in Germany. Now, I don’t know what language they speak at home, but while they were travelling she spoke exclusively in English and he in German (at least while they were out in the public areas of the hotel we were staying at). I found it fascinating. Seemed to work for them!

    1. Haha yes, sometimes you do have the conversations where one speaks one language and the other replies exclusively in the second language and it works just fine. Completely bizarre!

  63. Hi there, I really enjoyed your post ! I am French and speak french, english and spanish, he is Australian and thinks he is too old to learn a new language so we only speak english in our intimacy and in front of everyone else. I wish he would learn some french, that would allow me to introduce him to my culture and the beauty of my own language…

  64. Thank you for your blog. I get t his, my boyfriend is Danish, I am Dutch. We met in India (now living in Ireland) so we both use English throughout the day at work as well as at home. Even though we are both learning each others languages, this is more for the ease of mixing in with family and friends than actually communicating with each other. It even gets harder for me to have a deep, personal conversation in my mother tongue!

    Next to that, we both speak German but even around German friends we stick to English since this is the common language in our ‘international’ group of friends. When around, for example, my parents or someone who doesn’t speak English as well we try to speak German… But this feels funny and unnatural!

  65. I tend to believe that people try to change the lives of others when they can no longer change their own. When they feel they can’t control their own situations, they look to control someone else’s. Good for you for doing whats BEST for you!

  66. My husband and I currently live in Moscow. We were born and raised in the US and both spoke Russian before we spoke English (until we started school). Now we are here in Moscow, but still speak English with each other. Our Russian has gotten a little rusty over the years and English is just easier. Plus, you are right, it was our relationship’s mothertongue. First date, proposal, etc. I do hope to brush up on the Russian to prepare for whatever kids will hopefully come along, but for now we stick to English and Runglish (some words just convey meaning so much better in Russian). To speak all in Russian with each other when we are alone feels a little too formal. Of course we have to get used to the fact that speaking under our breath in Russian in Moscow is not as secretive as it is in the US, haha!

  67. I love your blog! Very interesting topic you have chosen here! I knew a girl who was dating an arab guy and she was herself persian. They had this problem as well- who should speak arabic or who should persian. It seemed like they favored their own language because of their parents. But what they didnt understand was to use the language that worked for them and not only for their parents. Btw- I’m quite new here and I love these different blogs. I will soon publish a new post and hopefully you guys will read it 😉

  68. sounds like you have a pretty good handle on it, clarity in understanding.

    I like the theory of speaking the language of the country while in public and dealing with people but at home finding a comfort zone.

  69. My partner and I speak a mix of English, Swedish and German.

    She is English and I am Swedish but we have both lived and studied in Germany before and we are both still working towards Germany.

    For us, English seems to be the everyday language, Swedish the experimental, as you said “learning”, language and German the language for fun – used for telling secrets or jokes. Interestingly enough we always speak Swedish when we go food shopping – it makes for a whole lot of learning for my partner and a whole lot of “aw, that’s so cute” for me.

    What is even more interesting is that my partner claims I change ever so slightly when I speak my mother tongue, that I become more animated and engaging because I feel much more sure of myself. Have you found this with your partner?

    Thanks for a great post!

  70. Wow, that’s a lot of responses, makes me feel a bit better about my situation too. I am English and my partner is German, we met in New Zealand and I have now been in Germany with him for about 7 months. We have always spoken English and when people say we should speak German at home so that I can practise I say that would be great if we want to have really interesting conversations about what my name is and where i’m from. I also work from home as a freelance copy-editor in English and only really go out for German classes once a week. All his friends speak wonderful English, but tend to go from that straight into really complex and very fast Erzgeberg-ish and somehow expect that i’ll suddenly catch on and keep up. I am understanding far more than I used to, but can still only string very simple sentences together and very slowly. It can be very lonely at times and sometimes my charming partner is not as helpful as he could be. He tends to only explain the things that I already understand and ignore the rest unless given a nudge.

    Thank you for your post and making me feel like my situation is not so alien.

    x

  71. My husband and I were both born and raised in the United States, but our parents (both sets of Spanish descent) still bug us about not speaking in Spanish to our son (never mind that my parents rasied me speaking mainly English and only spoke Spanish when my grandmother was present). I sometimes do feel guilty that my son doesn’t know more Spanish, but as you say, it’s just easier for all of us to converse in English. And, when we don’t want him to understand what we’re talking about, my husband and I can always slip into Spanish. . .

  72. I can completely relate to this! My Danish boyfriend and I speak to eachother in English even though we are living in Denmark and I am learning Danish. I am often surprised by the people who feel the need to comment on the matter.

  73. Oh my goodness, that is such a good theory! I never thought of it in those exact terms before – mother tongue of the relationship – but I definitely understand that idea. I’m in the same boat as you – though I had some German before coming here to Hamburg, my fiancé and I met each other in English back when I could barely speak a word of German, and it just kind of stuck. Now we speak more of a mix of German and English, but I still feel guilty sometimes that I don’t try harder to speak German. Of course I want to learn it better, but it’s a nice reminder that I shouldn’t feel any shame speaking to my partner in English!

    German grammar sure is difficult. Good luck on your journey!

  74. I totally understand! My boyfriend speaks good german, pretty good french and pretty good english. i speak good english, pretty good mandarin and poor french. We communicate with English but I’m picking up German just because. Our primary language for communication is still english but I like that we can switch across languages for simple messages! 🙂

  75. We have 3 languages spoken in our house, English, French, Spanish. We had to choose one language for the benefit of our kids, our eldest was not speaking clearly and jumbled up sounds. Great post & congrats on FP!

      1. English. Now that he’s in kinder I want to introduce French and Spanish informally, like saying the name of something in two or three languages. He understands there is a difference between languages now and doesn’t jumble sentences.

  76. I’m in the same situation with my roommate and I. She’s completely fluent in English whereas I’ve studied Arabic for less than 3 years. Yes, I know I’m in a program where I’m supposed to be speaking Arabic 100% of the time… but learning isn’t just about language. I’ve learned more about culture and what people actually think here in a week than I did in a month of only speaking Arabic. We can have those real, heavy conversations and actually get to know each other in a way that I am incapable of at my current level of Arabic. Should we speak more to each other in Arabic? Obviously. But just because we don’t doesn’t mean that I’m not learning.

    Side note: She (and my boyfriend) also speak German, so one would think I would have picked more up just offhand. Then again, I’ve always found European languages to be harder for me to learn than Arabic! It really does make no sense at all.

  77. If you are interested in languages and especially in English and ( among other european ones) look up “Interlingual” blog (on Google. You may find it interesting and helpful. Boris.

  78. You are completely right on all counts here! First how hard it is to learn another language and all the grammar that goes along with it when teaching English, writing English, and mainly conversing in English (I’m teaching English in Greece, so I completely feel you on that one!). Plus, all of the bilingual couples I’ve met here do have a mother language! That’s definitely true.

  79. I have not personally ever had your problem, but to each their own. Why would it be anyone elses business what language you speak to eachother in? For all they know you speak German during sex. Good luck, thanks for the entertainment.

  80. As a psychology major I can not help but truly appreciate your blog today. The only comment I wish to leave is that the only language that might matter the very most is the language of LOVE. Fantastic perspective you wrote from here. I was blessed to find this blog today. Thank you for sharing of yourself.

  81. I’m in your exact situation, 2 years later: we still speak English for the ‘important things’ since it’s the language we got to know each other in, although I can and do speak wonderful German 🙂 Cheers!

  82. Reblogged this on livingleanandinthegreen and commented:
    This is an interesting article that caught my eye because I am learning German and my husband speaks some German too (although we are both Americans…so English is the language in our relationship).

  83. I am reblogging this! I am currently learning German as my second language and it is my husband’s second language as well. We plan on visiting/staying in Germany at some point in the not too distant future. Obviously since we are both from the US our native language/ relationship language is English though we throw some German in with it for fun. 🙂

  84. Ha ha awesome. This idea never occurred to me but now that I read it, you’re right. I have always been a struggling student of German and my reaction to “just speak it!” might be a little too Brooklyn for the novice. I confess I have at times been interested in learning French or Italian just for the “relationship language” though… if my girl and I spoke intimate German I think we’d laugh ourselves silly.

  85. I’m happy to know that other people go through this language dilemma. My boyfriend is Spanish and I am Venezuelan, so we both are Spanish native speakers. However, the language of our relationship is English, and I don’t know how to explain that to my friends. It is not that Spanish form Spain and Spanish from Venezuela are very different, is like saying that you have the New York’s accent and the other the London one, so the differences are minimal; yet, we feel more comfortable speaking in English. And we don’t even speak with the same accent, Mario’s English is British (from London) and mine is American (from NY). And whenever we start to speak in Spanish we feel weird about it, and we ask ourselves the same question when that happens: “why are we speaking in Spanish?”

  86. If you would like to realize how much English is related to German, please read “Interlingual blog”) on Google), a blog about interrelations between European languages. I am sure you would find it interesting and educational. Boris.

  87. Thanks. Very nice post.
    But my choice is native language. So, for me it’s important, I practice my own language, cause if I don’t, I’ll forget it. Language, culture – is an individuality.
    lose individuality, lose yourselves & lose values

    1. You seem to be very young. To paraphrase a saying; “No language is an island”. In time , I’m sure you will enjoy widening your horizon. Knowing another language and using it alongside your own doesn’t cause forgetting your native one. On the opposite, it enriches its understanding.

  88. “Mothertongue” of a relationship – that’s where we should start. I had more than one bilingual relationship, here’s a curious one: I am a Bulgarian, living in Hungary with a Portuguese speaking boyfriend and we spoke in English because it was the only common language between us (my bf spoke Spanish and Portuguese) and I speak Bulgarian and Hungarian, so we had to speak… in English:) My level was better, so I was helping him to improve his English, so that we could actually communicate:) We spent 3 years together and we really did invent our own language – the base was English + a mixture of the funniest Portuguese and Bulgarian words. I think that there are many things which you can express rather than say. Love speaks no language.

  89. I just came across your site, and after seeing a bunch of wonderful photos of Sapporo, I proceeded onto this entry. I have to commend your insight. Regardless of your admission that you were pissed off, you are very effective in conveying yourself using English. While I had not thought of the mother tongue as a concept applying to relationships, I wholeheartedly agree with you. Rock on.

  90. I bumped into this post a few minutes ago and find it brilliant, well-written, true, funny, interesting. Just to add to the stories. I am Italian and German. I was born and grew up in Italy, where I met my husband, whose mother tongue is French (he comes from the Ivory Coast). We have always spoken Italian and we continued to do so when we moved to Germany, 20 months ago. He is now learning German and I attend a French course. I speak English; he doesn’t. Our son has learnt German in no time and he speaks it with my father (who is German, but speaks Italian to me); he spaeks Italian to us. We all agree that we should sometimes make an effort to speak German to each other, like, say, once a week for half an hour. We managed twice and then it was over. German simply doesn’t sound … natural. Italian is the mother tongue of our relationship and I suspect it will always be!

    1. What a melting pot of languages! If Italian is what you guys started with and what feels more natural, then Italian it is. And wouldn’t it be amazing to be like a young kid and just absorb everything so quickly.

  91. So true! My guy is Irish and I’m Dutch, in our relationship we speak English because that’s easier for both of us. What’s that to others?

  92. Reblogged this on Новая жизнь and commented:
    This applies to my time in Russia as well… within our friendship circle of Russians and Americans we spoke/communicated however we could to get our thoughts across. English, Russian, pantomime. LOL. This comes from a terrific blog I am now following.

  93. I came across the same criticism when I chose to speak Spanish to my kids at home; “they are in America, they should speak English” and they did. But I also wanted them to speak the language of their ancestors. Now, 20 years later, those who criticized my choices are amazed at how perfectly bilingual my two kids are. Sometimes, most times, go with what your heart tells you

  94. I know a family who moved from Russia many years ago. They’re in Australia now. Home is the only place they get to speak Russian. Speaking Russian at home has been very important in not allowing them to forget their mother tongue in a country that speaks almost exclusively English.

  95. I m brazilian and my husband is Indian…so… you wonder what a “salad tongue”… we face every day…. I don’t speak his language… he doesn’t speaks mine… so.. english is the connection in our relation. when it fails… we smile and kiss 🙂

    Now .. no joking… after I had a pleasure of living in India more than a year… facing so many languages there ( neighbor…. left side speaks urdu… right side hindi… across the street.. kannada)… I understood that we could live in peace and love just by eyes and hands comunication… The WILL is the SECRET of LIViNG HAPPY.

    Congrats for the excellent freshly pressed. Well deserved.

  96. Great post, always a struggle for multilingual homes to do it right…best is to do what feels right for you both. I want my wife to speak Chinese at least one day a week but she doesn’t want to because she wants to improve her English.

  97. Everyone has the right to speak in what ever language they are the most comfortable in, and when it comes to personal Language only the people involved should have a say.

  98. Really interesting post–I never thought about having a “mother language” for a relationship. But that really does make sense.

  99. I love that too, the relationship’s mother language. And I agree, people should mind their own business. As long as you are communicating – which many couples have difficulty with – that is the important thing!

  100. Is as if you wrote the story of my last 2 years life: husband: turkish me:spanish we live in Norway…. our relationship language is english!!!! and terribly annoying when others give their opinion on the matter! thanx for such an honest article 🙂

  101. Congratulations on being Freshly pressed – I would not have seen this otherwise. I live in France and my husband is French, our daughter is bilingual. My husband doesn’t speak very good English and I often feel that when I want to have an important discussion that my conversation is stilted and misses some of the nuances that I want to insert. I understand totally why you would want to have ‘big’ conversations in English. For me I always feel it demands that extra effort. When I get frustrated I revert to English and he understands some very ripe language in English now.
    I am often criticized for speaking English when I am alone with our daughter – as though that is anyone’s business but ours. She has grown up bilingual and for me it is a thoughtless process to speak English and for her it is easy and she sometimes learns new words.
    Thanks for the article – very thought provoking

    1. You should never feel bad for speaking English to your daughter – you are her English teacher. Kids should learn the language from the mother-tongue parent. So your husband (and indeed her school) are her French teachers and you are her English teacher. It is utterly expected you would communicate with her in English, for bonding reasons and for the success of her own bilingualism! Better she learn English from you, her mother and a native speaker, than haltingly learn it in a school environment, surrounded by French.

      1. Thank you for your support. I couldn’t agree more. I shall in future ignore those who criticize me for doing what comes naturally and is evidently very good for my daughter’s education.

  102. my boyfriend is Canadian, I’m German, we live in English, French and Spanish environments, soon it will be Chinese, but our relationship is based on English. I doubt that will ever change. totally agree with your assessment!

  103. nicely written. makes a person think twice when listening to couples speak in different languages to each other. i applaud the person speaking the language of the person not in the mother country. because a lot of the time, the only time you hear your language is with this person so its something the two of you share. but your right, it should be up to the couple and no one else’s business. 😀

  104. I completely understand – when I met my other half my Chinese was not really that great – so we spoke mostly English as he had lived in the UK for 6 years. Three years later, it depends on our moods – who’s more tired – if we want to keep something secret from those around us. Actually – when we travel to other countries we speak Chinese more, but if we’re in China – English more – it all varies. Great post and congrats on being freshly pressed.

  105. I hear ya! After living in Vienna for a year my German is still horrible! However, thankfully my Austrian husband is patient and my kids (who absorbed it up in a matter or weeks) help me out with the grammar part.
    Eines Tag .. or is it Ein.. Einnen…? Ah you know what I mean.

  106. I absolutely enjoyed this post! I’d never taken the time to think about the language of love in a bilingual relationship. It’s very intriguing and thank you so much for bringing such a topic to light. Congrats on being freshly pressed as well! I will make sure I continue following your blog. I love your writing.

    Cheers to epiphanies and the language of love!

    cc:Keith

  107. Your post is just spot on! At a point we are really tired of trying to please others. I’m Arabic married to a Turkish and we communicate in English. And we are both trying to learn Norwegian because we are settling down in Oslo. And when they ask me why i’m not yet learning Turkish, I feel just as uncomfortable as it is described in that post. My automatic answer to all of them is: I will…. When I want when I feel it’s necessary.

  108. Great post!!
    I for one speak English with my boyfriend (he’s from Australia and doesn’t speak German). As I’m 15, my English isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough.
    He understands me, always.
    Well, actually, we have created a new language, which is English with “our words”. Which means lot of words that only the both of us understand. This is a real “language of love”, I think.

  109. I like the idea of ‘Relationship Mother Tongue’ German is my first language, I learned English in school (Canada) and French because of my friends (in Quebec where I grew up) English is definitely my language of comfort now. I was dating a Spanish guy for a while (another language I want to learn) and we communicated in English. My gut tells me that 9/10 times a relationship mother tongue would be the language chosen by the woman, only because women are generally more relational and communative. What do you think?

  110. Very interesting. I lived in Japan for a while and found that anyone I spoke to in Japanese during the day would be speaking Japanese in my dreams at night. And I didn’t always understand it! (just like daytime) So I always wondered if it was real Japanese in my dreams or something my brain made up.

  111. My husband lived in Scotland until age 9, when he moved to the northwest U.S., where I grew up and where we have stayed. It took me about a year of dating him to understand both of his parents without trying– and they were technically speaking English! My father-in-law speaks American English with a northern Scottish accent, and my mother-in-law speaks a mix of American and British English with a southern Scottish accent (which for some reason I find harder to understand). My husband and I have adopted a mix of British and American English. We mostly speak American English, but have a few phrases we only use in British English (like chippies to mean French fries, but we still use chips in the American sense, which gets confusing…), and having him around makes reading British books much easier.

  112. Your post really, truly speaks to me and what my life has been like for the past year and a half!

    I met my boyfriend while I was studying in Ecuador for two semesters. Since I was trying to improve my Spanish (my primary reason for studying abroad), we began our relationship speaking Spanish 99% of the time – we would only speak English when I had something really important to say that I felt I could not express fully in Spanish.

    Now that I am back home in the states and we are long-distance, we continue to speak Spanish nearly 100% of the time, although his English is a bit better than my Spanish is. So people say to me, “If his English is so good, then why don’t you speak in English, since it would be easier for you?” It is a difficult thing to explain, but it would be like having a completely different relationship if we communicated primarily in English! We are used to hearing each other in Spanish, and it makes up an important aspect of how we relate to each other.

    You articulated very well what I sometimes try to communicate to others who question our use of language… thanks!

    1. By the way, I told my boyfriend about your article, and he thought it was super interesting, and he’d never thought about it before!

      Then he said “Yeah, Spanish is definitely our mother language. When you start to speak English, that’s when I know you’re mad at me”

      hahahaha!

  113. I’ve been in several relationships with men who have learned English as their second or third language, and people have given me the same crap as to what language we speak when we are together. The truth is that my Danish is god awful, and my French is not advanced enough to maintain a relationship strictly in that language. So, you make it work. But it’s always great to have the ability to talk to your partner in their native tongue – especially when you’re surrounded by people who don’t speak it. Then you can use it as your own secret way to communicate.

  114. Thanks for the idea that there is a relationship mother tongue. My husband and I are in a bilingual relationship – French and English and we alternate between both languages quite a bit. His English is better than my French and yet sometimes it is easier to communicate in French than English. Congrats on being freshly pressed!

  115. I absolutely love this post! I seriously relate to it, and I’ve never even been in a relationship where I had to speak a different language. I am bilingual, (I speak Arabic too) but speak in English almost all the time. Even at home, if my mother speaks to me–and she always does it in Arabic–I reply back in English. Some people also tell me that I should speak Arabic more since I’m Lebanese and all, but English is the language I can truly express myself in, the one I connect to people the most. This was a great way of explaining that kind of dynamic. Congrats on being FP’d!

  116. Interesting thoughts on language, a topic I find fascinating, especially overlayed with cultural difference… I have a brother learning German for fun – inspired by his love of Wagner & opera in general. I also have a sister who is married to a French Canadian, but she never speaks French with him (she is too shy); it’s always English. I personally speak English and French, but would love to learn another language (e.g., Latin – because of my interest in word origins).

  117. Agree SO much! I live in Japan and despite the “we should really try English” or “you should be magically fluent by now!” comments, my Japanese SO and I’s main language is, and always will be, Japanese. Thanks for this post!

  118. I had a Dutch boyfriend, and we lived in Sydney. I vowed to learn when/if we had children. When I fell pregnant, I had private tutoring for 7 months but once our son arrived there was no time. I didn’t want a ‘secret’ language in my house but couldn’t keep it up. Now, we are married, and we have another baby coming. I love hearing them chatter in Dutch. I understand quite a bit as we’ve learned together and I’m no longer threatened by a language they know and I don’t…. It’s their connection and it’s beautiful. English will always be our first language, but Dutch has a special place in our home. Nicely written post….

  119. Great post, thank you! I dated a Dane for awhile, and though I’d love to say I learned a great deal of Danish in the time I was there (~6 months total), it’s hardly true. Only stupid little sayings, ultimately. And he would grow tired sometimes of speaking English and we’d have to shut up, the both of us, for awhile. But yeah, like another commenter above, said, I’m not funny or witty without English (and I was voted wittiest as my school superlative) so I feel as if I’m half myself and half someone else altogether with him. Someone else who kind of bores me, after a bit. Yes, it ended, and we are still good friends, but it wouldn’t have worked out. I love writing and reading and language, which ironically made it all the more difficult with him, because we couldn’t fully share that.

  120. Reblogged this on Joy of Living and commented:
    A very insightful and readable article ….the title itself is so compelling. Love the whole idea of ‘languages and relationships’ . . . both my favorite topics coming together into one.

  121. Insightful post! I agree with your term of relationship’s mother-tongue. And I also agree that it’s really none of other people’s business about in what language you and your husband communicate as long as both of you are doing great with the way you communicate. But you know, sometimes people just cannot hold the urge to throw their opinions 😀 They meant well, but not in the right context.

  122. Thank you for writing down the feelings I have had for the past two months!
    My boyfriend and I met in Slovenia, so naturally our chosen language was English, me being a Canadian and him a German, and neither having knowledge of Slovene!
    I now live with him here in Germany and am trying to learn German, if for nothing else but just to try and get around a little easier – as you said, our relationship mother tongue will always be English!
    I’m a self-learner so can read better than I can write, and listen better than I can respond! That brings me to another point, do you have any tips of what helped you with learning?

    1. Hi Frances,

      Thank you so much for getting in touch. Like you, I am a self-learner – money and time just haven’t permitted formal learning unfortunately. So, like you, my reading and listening skills are better than my spoken skills, which are getting better, the more I get a hold of those pesky verbs and articles.

      But I do not believe, with German, you can just ‘speak’ unless you know what the hell it is all about. German as a language is grammatically very complex, initially. I believe once you conquer the grammar, it is far more methodical and straightforward to build upon than the much more fluid, changeable and exception-prone English. I also think the more you try to ‘just speak’ without knowing enough, the more disheartened you will become.

      I suggest you find someone who is willing to have a coffee with you a few days a week and do some worksheets. Sounds trite, I know, but God it helped me. It helps with verb conjugation, it helps with articles, with sentence structure. And once you are on the path to understanding the way the language works, then you can kick off with some gentle conversation. People will shower you with theories (‘if I speak to you in difficult German, you will learn faster!’ etc etc) but go at your own pace and do not be afraid to say, ‘speak more SLOWLY and SIMPLY.’

      There are some great online resources for worksheets as well! And watching Engish shows with German subtitles can be quite fun as well, although sometimes the subtitles are wrong. But it does help with colloquial expressions. Watching German with English subtitles also helps.

      Liv

  123. A very insightful and readable article ….the title itself is so compelling. Love the whole idea of ‘languages and relationships’ . . . both my favorite topics coming together into one.

  124. My folks were like that in our house-hold. I’m Russian, and though I speak it fluently, I sometimes find it more easy to express myself in English (and other times, in Russian). It depended on what I needed to express and the familiarty of the words in the topic. English can be pretty descriptive, but Russian has an ungodly amount of adjectives, many that the native-speakers aren’t even familar with. I ran into a wall with my parents, however, as they absolutely refused to talk to me or respond to anything I said in English. It hurt, because they knew it was hard enough for me to express myself, period, and having them ignore me if I spoke in English was pretty much a turn-off for me.

    They did it because they expected me to speak Russian at home, because we were in Russia. Likewise, now that I live in the United States, people expect me to always speak English and I actually get scolded for speaking in Russian to someone who knows it. It’s none of their business! Seeing as I don’t like speaking in general, I say be happy that I’m speaking at all! 😀

  125. I once dated a Swiss guy who was fluent in French, English, Spanish and Tagalog (in order of proficiency). We spoke in English and played around in Spanish, peppered in both with some Tagalog. Linguistically, it was the most colorful time of my life.

  126. Interesting post. I’m American and married to a French man and people ask us all the time what language we speak together. Like your friend, it depends on who’s more tired, or motivated, but usually its just a complete blend of both, sometimes mid-sentence changing languages. I would be pissed off , too, if people were telling one of us what language to speak because it really makes no difference as long as your able to communicate effectively.

  127. I come from a bilingual family. I initially spoke Spanish, but switched to English at around 3 when I realised that all the kids around me spoke English. My father then wanted me to have good English… so they decided that they’d speak English – and they used Spanish when they didn’t want us to know what they were planning! Or making jokes…
    It was years later that I realised that when it came to expressing love, that it would have been more natural in Spanish for my mother – rather than than the excellent but still second language English we used in the family. They didn’t know that children could acquire more than one language at the same time. Whilst assimilating the new language, I stopped speaking Spanish – but it didn’t mean I wouldn’t have continued learning it.
    One day I replied in Spanish when we were saying goodbye on the phone, (besitos!) and the whole tone of the conversation changed instantly, became less academic.
    This post has given me an extra insight into how they must have thought about that decision, and what language they used to communicate. Thanks!

  128. Very interesting thoughts, and even though I haven’t really given much thought to it before it’s definitely something that I can relate to. I’m myself Swedish and have an English boyfriend, and since he didn’t know any Swedish at all when we met we got to know each other speaking English. However now I’ve started teaching him a bit of Swedish and he can say quite a few things in Swedish, but as you say, it feels a bit weird speaking Swedish to him, since that’s not the language we used when getting to know each other. I think you’re definitely right about there being a mother tongue for a relationship!

  129. as a single bilingual (German/English) i so get this post … language is more than just words and the language you choose to speak in is the one you can express your in. I think you can always choose what suits you best. With my brother I speak German (he was tiny when we left Ireland) and with my sister we swap and change as we chat. By the way lived in Bamberg for 3+ years and what they speak there isn’t really German 🙂

  130. Excellent post. I’m not in a bilingual relationship, but I’ve had my fair share of people being in my business about things. It’s not pleasant, it’s annoying and fresh. I worked at a bank years ago and I had a Spanish speaking customer tell me that the tellers of our bank “must” learn to speak Spanish. I was like “um…….why?” Mind you, I speak Spanish, but that’s not the point. The point is, if you choose to speak a language, it’s your choice! If you find common ground with someone who speaks your language, good for you. But nobody has the right to force anyone to speak or learn a language. People need to mind their own business. If you want to speak Creole to your partner, that’s YOUR business! Nicely done and congrats on being FP!! Don’t let anyone tell you what to do! LOL 🙂

  131. Reblogged this on Ramblings of a Misguided Blonde and commented:
    I love this post! It’s funny… Even though Brian doesn’t fluently speak another language, we say little things to each other in both Spanish and Polish. I love it – and the fact that I now know a few words of Polish. It is a part of our relationship despite the fact that we aren’t both bilingual.

  132. Two partners in Germany with no German
    – one I spoke German to (he insisted, they told him to do so in his language course) -> we got divorced
    – one I speak English to (he hates German) -> we’ll get married this summer

  133. Myself:
    2 partners with 0 words of German when they arrived
    #1 insisted to speak German at home (they told him to do so in his course) -> we got divorced
    #2 insists to speak English at home (he hates German) -> we’ll marry in May
    Language of Love…

  134. Reading this reminds me of another bit of language incompatibility. My parents spoke Hungarian to each other and English to us kids. So I rarely understood what my folks were talking about.

  135. How silly of people to tell you what language to speak. It’s almost impossible to change the language of a relationship. When my husband and I lived in Belgium, we would often be in a group of people who spoke several languages, and the conversation around the table would change languages according to who you were talking to!

  136. I’m Swedish and my husband is American. Since we live in LA we speak English to each other. That’s how it will probably stay for the most part, but he is slowly learning Swedish too so I guess that will be our “secret” language once he’s more fluent 🙂

  137. That whole concept of the “Mother tongue of the relationship” is beautiful. I agree that judging somebody’s home language is just as bad as judging their sex life. It’s your home and really none of their business. Great post!

  138. Very interesting, great food for thought. I also happen to be in a bilingual relationship at the moment, but no one has ever suggested to us what language we “should” be speaking to each other. This is possibly because many Khmer people, I have found, are very relaxed about language in general, and maybe also because my native tongue (English) has a distinctly unfair bias here. It is believed that my boyfriend is getting ahead by learning my language, whereas I am just being “culturally sensitive” in speaking his. But in fact, what we tend to speak the most (and which I consider us fluent in) is Khmenglish. 😉 Thanks for the post, look forward to reading more.

  139. I completely understand what you are talking about! I live in Israel, am teaching English, studying in English, but learning Hebrew and I communicate with my potential partners in English, despite everyone around me saying “you must speak Hebrew!” Someone even went so far as to tell me that I need to find a boyfriend who speaks NO English so that I Will be forced to learn and speak Hebrew. To them, I just smile and say “butt out.”

  140. I can definitely relate! I’m American, my husband’s Spanish, but we met in France; thus our relationship’s mother tongue was French. However, after following me back to the US, we switched to English so that he could improve. Now, we’re living in Spain and we get that question all of the time. I’m trying to learn Spanish as fast as I can; however, try as I might, it’s very difficult to be disciplined enough to speak entirely in Spanish especially since my level is still fairly basic. Instead, we most often fall into the languages that we’re each most comfortable speaking. Therefore, he often speaks to me in French while I respond in English. Spanish is slowly starting to become more comfortable but it takes time to adjust to speaking a new language together. One of these days, perhaps we’ll be speaking Spanish naturally, but, in the meantime, there’s no rush.

  141. I’m from the Republic of Maldives and my girlfriend is Chinese!! We talk to each other in English. Her command of english drammatically improves when she wants something or is mad at me.
    I totally get you! Great post!

  142. In Lanzarote I (Scottish) met a guy from Mozambique and his girlfriend from the Basque country and without any questions we automatically spoke English, with the girl-friend doing translation into Portuguese when there was any need. Unfairly or not, this is how English works.

  143. Rock on for English teaching expats. I am an American living in England married to an Englishman. I also teach English to Englishpeople which is complicated and attracts tons of mockery. Not as different as German, of course, but we have learned to speak to each other in a British/American smushing of Englishes and it’s ours and that’s what matters.

  144. Nice article! I agree that a couple should speak the language they feel comfortable about. But I don’t think it’s always the language in which everything started. Me and my partner were both foreigners in Germany and, at first, used German as lingua franca. After some time we shifted to English which is his mother tongue. Since then, I can’t imagine speaking another language with him.

  145. My boyfriend and I do not speak each other’s mother tongue, so English was the natural choice ” the common ground”, so to say. We receive a lot of criticism for not teaching each other our languages, but since we’ve always lived in a third culture that is not English-speaking we had to invest the time we had to study that language. There is just not enough time in a day to study all those languages….
    But what bothers me more is that the criticism extends to our children. we raise them trilingual (well, sometimes quatrolingual, if that is even a word:)). However, their passports are from Denmark, a country that we lived in but neither of us is a native of. So, we decided to not teach our children that language unless we move there. We have had a lot of people criticising the choice for not teaching their “passport” language (even though they are not at all in touch with that culture), esp. from Danes. This went as far as only speaking to our children in Danish (which they do not understand).
    THAT to me crosses the line…

    http://www.global-moms.com

  146. I speak English, Spanish and Catalan. As part of my experience overseas and living with my English-speaking in-laws for 18 months in Australia, my English has become my first tongue. I think and dream in it. I even struggle when I try to speak to my family and friends back home in Spanish or Catalan. I am not ashamed of that. My partner only speaks English and that’s the language I met him and fell in love with him. I don’t care if I have to translate absolutely all the conversations between him and my family. If I would not want to do that, I might as well find a partner that spoke my mother tongues. But it’s not an issue for me as I enjoy our translating sessions very much. I experienced times when 4 people were so into a conversation with him, while I was translating back and forth, that they knew what he meant already and finish his sentences as I was translating. That is just magic. And I love to be part of it. Even if he gets to learn and speak fluently both my mother tongues, I doubt I would be able to swap languages. And that’s ok. Thank you for the post, it was really inspiring. I will be following you.

  147. I’m first generation here in America, my mom speaks Cambodian to me, and I converse only in English. When people realizes I don’t know how to speak my own native language, esp. those elders, they’d give me a strange look, like I should be asham and then made rude comments. It’s not an easy language to speak, some languages are just easier to learn than others.

    1. A really good piece and Chana I have exactly the same issue with you. I am Nigerian but have spent my entire life in the UK. Though my parents speak to me in Yoruba, I always reply in English. I now have a partner who is just like me on the language front and the amount of grief we get for not conversing in Yourba is frustrating. I guess it is good to have an appreciation with our native culture and language to a certain extent is what defines a culture

  148. Although I’m sure you’ve already been told this an endless amount of times, I can relate to this post. I am also in a multilingual relationship. When my husband and I first started dating, we mostly spoke in my native language and his second, but the longer we have been together, the languages have somewhat leveled out. We now speak both languages equally – sometimes we speak entirely in one or the other, sometimes one of us will speak in one while the other responds in the second, or sometimes we even combine the two languages in each and every sentence.

    I find the conversational dynamic in bilingual relationships very interesting and that dynamic becomes even more interesting when there are children in the picture. My step-son does not speak my native language and he always becomes extremely agitated if we use it – he demands that we translate everything he “missed” and yells at us when he doesn’t understand. His mother also speaks another language which he does not understand (he refused to learn it) and he does not like when she uses it to speak to his grandmother or step-father. We’ve tried to encourage him to learn another language, but he only seems interested in learning a few words in as many languages as possible rather than learning many words in a different language.

  149. Welcome to the intricacies of my household where the convergence of 4 languages has fused into a kaleidoscope of love. Who really cares what the language is? To me, the strong relationships are all that matter. The language will naturally follow…

  150. I feel that the language of love should not be limited to what language you speak to your partner. In our relationship, we also speak English together and he even told me that there is no need to learn his language if I did not want to. As his family, does not speak English, I decided to learn his country’s language. What I feel is more important about learning the language of your foreigner’s boyfriend/girlfriend are the social relations that are sometimes attached to certain characterisctics of a language. Some languages, such as Spanish, are full of idioms that you cannot just type into “Google Translate” and expect to understand the message.

  151. To hell with what other people expect you to do. Funnily enough I’m in a very similar situation – an Australian coming to Germany for a few months, which is turning into a year – Living with my German boyfriend whose english is far better than my german. At the beginning we always spoke english. Although I had learnt german for a couple of years, it made sense to converse in the language that we would both fully understand. Since moving in together, the tables have turned and we tend to speak german most of the time. Partly it’s because in our day to day life (uni, work, friends) we both have to speak german, partly it’s because I wanted to practice while I had the chance and partly it’s because, inexplicably, after 8 months in Germany (and 6 learning it at home), I’ve becoming fluent. I tend to only speak english now when I’m overly tired or having an argument. Every now and again I’ll put english words or expressions into a german sentence and my boyfriend does the same. It’s nice because we both understand and it’s like we have our own, private language. But I understand completely what you mean about others saying that you should speak german all the time – it’s annoying and controlling. I speak german now because I want to, but I when I first arrived it was too exhausting and I simply didn’t have the words or grammar.

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