Language choices in Chinese-Foreign Relationship

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Jocelyn from Speaking of China just published some results from a survey made by Laura Banks for her dissertation. “She surveyed 33 couples in her research, 18 with a Chinese female partner and 15 with a Chinese male partner.” I wanted to take a closer look on the language themed findings for Chinese/Non-Chinese couples.

“Sometimes being able to choose which language to use is not possible, due to one partners inability to speak another”

In our case, my boyfriend has limited English skills, even more limited when we first met, so speaking Mandarin Chinese was the only viable option for us. My boyfriend’s English has improved a lot during this half a year, but as my Chinese is still better than his English, therefore we mainly continue using Mandarin between each other.

I also feel a bit weird when speaking English with him as I’m so used to using Mandarin. Sometimes he speaks English to me, in order to practise, and I answer him in Chinese.

“A number of the couples talk about one of them learning a new language, [one] reason is the desire to be able to speak and communicate with the partner’s family…. This is an important factor for many because it can be difficult to feel accepted and comfortable in a family if you are unable to communicate with them.”

My boyfriend’s native language is Cantonese and I personally feel that I have to learn Cantonese in order to wholly feel part of his family. My lacking Cantonese is the reason I feel out of space in the dinner table and also in meetings with his friends. Even though all of them, family members and friends, can speak Mandarin too, I would feel much more comfortable if I knew Cantonese.

My boyfriend doesn’t have such a big pressure to learn Finnish as we don’t live in Finland and my family members can all speak English (They haven’t met yet anyway). My boyfriend’s first goal is to learn English and only after then would he consider learning Finnish.

“A number of couples talk about themselves having to or ‘finding someone to’ translate or interpret for the partner or family”

I usually don’t need translating help when I’m speaking with the family members, usually it’s the mother “translating” the father’s heavily accented Mandarin. Or if they are all engaged in a conversation in Cantonese, I might ask my boyfriend to translate for me what they are talking about.

So even though I can communicate with his family, I still regard learning Cantonese very important for me.

“Children and the language that they are able to speak when their parents are in an intercultural relationship can be very interesting.”

If we have children I would speak Finnish with them and my boyfriend and his family would speak Cantonese. They would also learn Mandarin as we speak it with each other and it’s compulsory at school. English would of course be in the package too as it’s way too important not to learn, and also a compulsory subject. So that’s four languages already!

Language choices in a multicultural relationship aren’t always so simple. I’m not sure if we will use more English in the future. My boyfriend’s English is improving all the time, but my own English is getting worse every year. Also, could I be able to learn Chinese to a level where it would be equal with my Mandarin?

What language do you use with your Chinese better half? Do you feel weird when changing between the languages? Please share your experiences in the comments!

  • daophos

    I haven’t looked at the research on this question in years, but I believe that most couples tend to stick to the language that the relationship began in. Couples quickly evolve a style of communication–pet phrases, key words, etc.–that are very difficult to duplicate in a second or a third language. So whatever language you begin the relationship in, it’s very difficult to make a change later. (Of course, not impossible. But the spouse who does usually has to have some motivation beyond communicating with the other.)

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I remember reading about this too, perhaps on Jocelyn’s blog. But my boyfriend doesn’t have that kind of weird feeling, for him it’s just a matter of his lacking English.

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    daophos Reply:

    Or so he says. The fact remains you don’t speak English. ;-)

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I know! :) I will slowly try to find a way to speak more English with him. And hopefully some day a bit of Finnish too!

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  • Linda Dunsmore

    Great post! I always speak Chinese with by BF because his English skills are also verrrry limited. However, sometimes we talk in English but just like you said it feels weird and I usually switch back to Chinese even though it would be better to continue talking to him in English so he can improve himself. I also feel the same like you when your boyfriend uses Cantonese. My BF’s native language is Hakka Hua and his parents also have strong accents. When we are out with his friends they also tend to speak Hakka Hua. A reason for me to learn Hakka Hua? Maybe in the future… :)

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    My plan with Cantonese is first to understand it, as everyone can understanf my Mandarin, I don’t have any rush to speak Cantonese myself.

    Perhaps you will to learn to understand some Hakka if you later spend more time with his family and friends? Do you feel annoyed when he is speaking hakka with his friends?

    I thought it’s a common way of being polite to speak the language everyone understands. but that doesn’t happen that often. I’m often clueless what they are laughing or joking about.

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    Ellen Reply:

    Hi Linda,
    I have exactly the same situation. Any success with learning Hakka?? :)
    How do you cope with the “pressure” of being an outsider when he speaks Hakka with his friends and family?

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  • Teresa Moya

    Hi Sara!
    My boyfriend is from the US and I am from Spain, he doesn’t speak any Spanish so we always speak English. Next year we are moving to Spain and I hope he’ll learn some Spanish because honestly, sometimes I wish we could speak in my mother tongue. Don’t you get tired of always speaking Mandarin all the time? Your level of Chinese has to be really good!

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    Alva Reply:

    Hi Teresa! I am also Spanish, if you are moving to Spain maybe Barcelona is the best place for a non-Spanish speaker. I don’t think in our case we could make it anywhere else in Spain without the language skills. Unless he goes there as an entrepreneur with your support!

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    Teresa Moya Reply:

    Hi Alva, thanks for your advice! Undortunatelly, we are moving to a very small town in Extremadura. :( The reason is that he got a job as an English teacher there. It’s going hard to make friends there, but at least we’ll be 2h away from Madrid.

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Hi Teresa!

    Before I used to get tired of speaking Mandarin, but because there was no way out, I got used to it. Now it doesn’t tire my anymore.

    But of course there are times when I wish he would understand Finnish. That’s still the only language where I can express absolutely everything I want to say. Of course if he learn English to an advances level, and my Chinese gets better, that will help a lot too.

    I hope my bf could visit Finland so he would exprience the culture. I believe your bf will understand you much more when he moves to Spain with you, especially if he doesn’t have many Spanish friends at the moment.

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  • 精灵公主

    Although I can speak in Mandarin, my boyfriend prefers to speak in English to improve his English skills. Like your boyfriend’s, my BF’s native language is also Cantonese, yet I can’t speak Cantonese at all! He helps me with my Mandarin and I help him with his English… but I know that his parents don’t know any English and their Mandarin is very limited – so I really need to learn Cantonese but I’m a bit scared of the challenge.
    I have a feeling that we’ll probably end up speaking English whenever we’re together as we always have done because I think it would feel too weird to make a change. If I ever learn Cantonese then I will try, but by that time his English will be nearly perfect and so there wouldn’t be much point. If we ever have children though then I’ll definitely bring them up to be bilingual, and they can speak to my BF in Cantonese and me in English – and maybe they can learn Mandarin later. Language is so important in life. If they can speak 2 languages from birth then that automatically secures them a job in the future – eg. translator – and if they ever can’t find a job then they have a safety net to fall back on!

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  • Alva

    We use English, we met in English, I was with friends from US when we randomly met the first times and that’s the language we keep using…Hope some day we can break that routine! :)
    Regarding my family, I translate for my father’s side of the family. Though the girlfriend of my cousin can speak English and Pablo, the 5 years old boy can sing and say hello. Even when I am not there communication is not an issue, they find ways to interact.

    In the case of my mom’s side, my mother, aunt, uncle, cousins..they are fluent in English and what was quite weird was the situation with my cousin Clara.

    Clara and me moved to China at the same time, she moved to Shanghai with a scholarship and I moved to Suzhou to work at Siemens. She was a student in south Spain, translation and interpretation, majoring in English and Chinese. She finally focused in English but she can still talk in Chinese. It was weird to be able to have a conversation in Chinese with Tony and my cousin. Pretty ackward!

    With Tony’s family I can only exchange few words, their dialect is very strong and my Chinese is not that good, anyway when I talk they understand me, then I need a translation of the response.

    Our kids will be learning Chinese from my husband, Spanish from my side, and English because of the environment. Never know, maybe they can also learn some Scandinavian language and then if they want they can move to Sweden or Finland. That will depend on what they want.

    My father and my aunt exchange emails with Tony, they send pictures, and short sentences, they do it in Spanish and then both parts use Google translator to help! Sometimes they even chat, you can imagine how that goes.

    When my father comes to China I am a translator also, he speaks Spanish but he does speak a dialect, that means 2 simultaneous translations, till he realizes castilian is far more easy for me. :)

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Wow, there’s a bunch of languages in that mix too!

    I hope my boyfriend can imrpove his English before we go to Finland togerher so I don’t have to translate for him. But if my family comes over here, I have to be a 24/7 interpreter for them :) I think there isn’t going to be a day when my parents and my boyfriend’s parents can communicate without our help.

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  • Guus

    Recognizable. My wife and u speak English (my Mandarin is intermediate), I speak Dutch with the children and my wife Mandarin. As we’re in Singapore, they speak English and Mandarin at school.

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I want to ask you a questions Guus. Does you or your wife feel strange if you can’t understand what you’re children are talking about? For example if they use Dutch in front of their mother.

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  • MrChopstik

    I saw this when you first posted but didn’t have a chance to respond earlier. An interesting topic. I’m a native English speaker and my wife is a native Chinese speaker (Mandarin only, fortunately). When we first met, it was challenging b/c I was learning Chinese and she wanted to learn English. So our relationship was built upon the study of both languages. In China, we spoke mostly Chinese. After we moved to the West, it switched to mostly English. However, that being said, we typically speak Chinglish most of the time and it comes quite naturally to us. So much so that others are amazed at how we communicate b/c we constantly switch between languages, even in the middle of sentences. But, having been married for more than 10 years (and knowing each other for more than 15), it is quite normal and natural that we have built what is, in essence, our own language that works best for us.

    Nowadays, I need to brush up on my Chinese as it is slipping since I do not use it on a regular basis, but that is another story. :-)

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Great you came back to leave a comment, thank you! I believe that later on our language will transform into Chinglish too as my bf’s English gets better and my English is still better than my Chinese. I should actually find a way to improve my English too, as my spoken English is getting worse.

    I have a Finnish friend and she is married to a Brazilian guy, they have interesting mix of languages two, at least three in one conversation I think.

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  • alex

    It is one of the important aspects to learn your partner’s language in a cross-cultural relationship. First and foremost, it gives you a great deal of cultural reference and background through learning process, which should result a your understanding towards your partner in a more efficient way. 2nd, it is perfectly and simply normal to learn your partner’s language if love is there. No need to mention it is very challenging for the mixed relationship between Asians and Occidentals; but conflict and misunderstanding can be easily found even for Europeans who are from different part of Europe; for the Americans come from different states. I have lived abroad for 15 years. First 5 years I lived in the United States, rest of years until now in Europe. I have dated 2 European girls since I arrived to Europe (not 2 at the same time ;-) Unfortunately, both relationships didn’t work out in the end. The first girl I went out with was a French, most of time we spoke English despite her spoken English was limited, so was to my French. However, our verbal communication was fair enough to understand each other. My second girl friend is a Spanish, from Barcelona. We met in Paris; we mainly spoke English and French (my French by then was already better). Later on, when the time came to the point where I started to learn her language, the interesting part of this process is that I need to choose between Catalan and Spanish. For those of you who is not familiar with Spanish social constitutions, political system in Spain is more diversified than other European countries. Barcelona, the capital of the Catalonia, more than half of the population prefer speaking Catalan rather than Spanish due to historical and political reasons. Personally I prefer speaking better Spanish prior to learning Catalan, as it is a widely spoken language after all. Meanwhile, the girl friend thinks it is better to speak Catalan first in order to have better communication with her family members. This is more or less the same case for western girls like Sara whose boyfriend prefers that Sara to speak Cantonese over Mandarin, especially when talking about meeting the parents! However, YOU would think that the benefit of speaking Mandarin is far more than speaking Cantonese; especially nowadays people understand Mandarin perfectly well either in Guangdong or in Hong Kong; same as people understand me well if I speak Spanish either in Catalonia or in Basque country. Long story short, neither choosing what language to use in the cross-cultural relationship, nor managing your relationship with your Chinese mother-in-law are the main issues. As long as your love is based on mutual trust; acceptance of each other’s positive side and weakness; respect — a respect both to yourself and your partner. Have a nice day to you all. cheers

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  • Kim Ling

    This is a great topic, very interesting! I think it’s great that you want to learn Cantonese because of your boyfriend and his family and background and that he in return wants to improve his English and afterwards Finnish. If you were to have children in the future… they would be exposed to all these different languages and cultures brilliant! My Dad is from Hong Kong but when we were growing up he worked a lot and didn’t have the time and also the patience! to teach us Cantonese. My Mum is Irish and so we were brought up speaking English. It always was a bone of contention that we couldn’t speak Cantonese but there wasn’t the source there to teach us. Unfortunately! I did try to learn Cantonese a few times when I was younger through Linguaphone and classes though this didn’t progress much… my Dad got very frustrated that I couldn’t pronounce the words and so that me feel a little useless and stunted any further progress. But have always felt… don’t know how to put into words… embarrassed, little ashamed that I couldn’t speak my Dad’s language. So about a year and a half ago… decided to learn Mandarin… to be honest I prefer the sound of it to Cantonese and it doesn’t have as many tones! Anyways I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this other than that I truly admire you both wanting to learn each others languages. I think it’s absolutely brilliant!

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Thank you Kim for sharing your experience! I can’t even imagine what it could be like not to be able to speak your dad’s native language. I’ve heard of some Finns marrying Chinese who don’t teach their kids Finnish, it’s such a shame!

    You’re right, our kids will naturally learn a lot of language. I think when the time comes I need to do some serious reading on the topic in order to make sure they will learn all the language well.

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  • Tobias

    I’m from Sweden and my wife is from Hunan. We speak English, since I’ve never really been able to study Mandarin full time or at university, and therefore am making very slow progress. The opportunities I have to practice my speaking skills are limited to speaking with my wife, because the only other company is either always speaking Cantonese, or always speaking 湘语. And my in-laws speak with so accented Mandarin that I can barely even understand things I actually understand in Standard Mandarin.

    But if I haven’t learned fluent spoken Mandarin before we have kids, I’ll damn sure learn it while they grow up, I’ll make sure of that. We’ll speak Swedish to them, and make sure we expose to a lot of 湘语 early on.

    daophos pointed out that couples tend to evolve a particular style of communication, we often merge English and Chinese in doing that. Perhaps because my wife’s English isn’t excellent just yet.

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    You have an interesting mix of languages with your wife Tobias. I have the same plan with Cantonese, if I can’t learn it before, then I will surely learn it together with our kids in the future.

    I’m feeling more and more how important Cantonese will be for my immersion in the Cantonese culture.

    I’m happy to hear you will speak Swedish with your kids, as I often hear of kids that haven’t learned their father’s or mother’s language well. It’s such a shame to lose a language and as a parent to have your kids not to understand your native language.

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  • Kelvin Lai

    看完评论,觉得非常有趣,我来总结下涉及到的语言:英语、西班牙语、芬兰语、瑞典语、法语、普通话、粤语、客家话、湘语(湖南话)。看来孩子们要学习很多种语言。还好没看见有要学习潮汕话的。

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  • Richard

    My gf can speak Mandarin and Fukanese but neither one with a great level of fluency. She is comfortable enough speaking with her parents but when it comes to strangers she is afraid they won’t understand her. I’ve been studying Mandarin for about a year now and would really like to practice speaking with her but she views it as a chore. Any suggestions?

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    In my opinion it’s best to stay as boyfriend and girl friend and not to turn into a student and a teacher. Of course you can try to explain why learning Mandarin is important for your, perhaps in order to communicate with her parents if you two are in a long lasting relationship?

    In my case I prefer to speak Mandarin with my husband as my Chinese is better than his English. It actually needs extra effort to speak to someone whose language skills are lacking, that’s why good teachers are precious.

    If after explaining your reasons wanting to practise your Mandarin with her, and she refuses, could you look into finding a tutor?

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  • Mariam Gaber

    My Chinese friend (whom I have a major crush on) and I speak mostly Arabic. Arabic is a very hard language, and since I’m Egyptian, we have our own accent called “Egyptian accent”. him and I talk in formal Arabic, sometimes it’s hard to follow, but we’ll eventually get used to it. I speak very good English since I’m an IGSCE student in Egypt, unfortunately when I speak English he never understands my British accent because It’s kind of too quick and he hardly can hear what I’m saying. My mandarin is so weak but I’m still learning and will hopefully get better, I now memorized over 100 characters, can barely read, but I’m getting better. :)

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Wow, that’s an amazing story Mariam. That from all those language you are using formal Arabic to communicate with each other. Later on if both of you learn more languages, it can grow into a very interesting mix.

    By the way, does he know you have a major crush on him? ;)

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    Mariam Gaber Reply:

    Thank you Sara :) , I’m planning to take Chinese lessons while he’s away for two months, Hopefully I can speak more mandarin when he comes back to Egypt again :D, His Egyptian accent is also improving. Mandarin is still quite confusing for me since I’ve been learning Japanese, and Japanese has some Chinese characters in the writing called “kanji” , Actually sometimes I mix the two languages and it creates some really funny misunderstandings.
    About him knowing, I guess he might have actually noticed it, So far he’s really well behaved, and very caring. One thing that bothers me is that I heard Chinese people rush marriage, and I guess he’s really traditional and he sometimes asks questions if my parents will ever agree to get me married to a Chinese, but he said he can wait, as he knows I’m still too young to think about it, I also I read it’s a deal breaker if the girl is from a higher social status, I’m keeping that as a secret for now, It’s quite complicated, especially with two traditional cultures like ours. Also some Egyptians can be Extremely racist towards Asians, & there’s a 5 years age difference between us (I’m 17, he’s 22, but he looks way younger to be honest) , but it isn’t a big difference in Egypt, some people have huge age differences, maybe like 20 years and it’s not Illegal. Also dating in Egypt is frowned upon so we go out with my friends, and I guess that kind of doesn’t really help at all, he’s really shy and barely talks when they’re around, We also get weird stares from people, but anyway The best part is we are really understanding to each others’ cultural differences and that’s a really good start :]

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    It really does sound like a great start :) I like that you two are getting it slowly and getting to really know each other. Like you noted, you will learn so much about each others cultures and language.

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  • marde

    my boyfriend and i met in Germany, but I am American and he’s Chinese. We speak each other’s native languages at about the same level…his English vocabulary is stronger but my Chinese is also quite good after years having lived in China. We also both speak German and use all three when communicating. We have problems because I want to make Chinese the go-to language and I understand he also wants to improve his English and German, so German is always my second option and also a good option for him since German is a foreign language as well. I cringe every time I’m forced into speaking English–what was all the effort in Chinese and German worth? Well, our go-to language dilemma is causing problems to say the least.

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Wow, you use all three languages, that’s a mix! At the very start did you start with multiple languages or was there one language above others?

    And in which language you think your communication is the best at the moment? That would seem like a logical choice as that’s the main reason you use a language with each other.

    For example if English is the best communication language, perhaps you can find other ways to practice your Chinese and German as well. Or if you go with Chinese, then your boyfriend will find another way to improve his English.

    In my opinion it’s not a good idea to be each others teachers in a relationship, or even language partners.

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