Language choices in Chinese-Foreign Relationship


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!