Happy Valentine's Day! Well, at least it is for me, because I finally have someone to celebrate it with. To jump on the theme of love and relationships, let's tackle the question; Does having a significant other who speaks your target language, help your language learning skills?
The answer isn't as simple as you might think! Emily Liedel who writes at The Babel Times is going to take on that question for us! Over to you Emily!
If you’ve been learning a foreign language for very long, you’ve probably heard the “conventional wisdom” that having native-speaker lover is the best way to advance. You might even have had the thought yourself. Believe me, when I was living in Russia and feeling cold and lonely, there were moments when I thought that if only I had a Russian boyfriend, I would not only be less lonely but I would also learn so much more.
That was 10 years and several languages ago. Now I know that shacking up with a native speaker is by no means a foolproof way to advance your language learning, although it may help with the cold and the loneliness. In my own experience (and based on years of observations of other couples), sometimes having a native-speaker partner can actually hurt.
I’ve met some people who were astoundingly fluent in their partner’s language. I’ve also met people who can’t speak a word of their partner’s language. I even know a few couples who seem to be able to communicate with each other even though neither one has a very strong command of the other’s language. Here are some thoughts about what factors in a romantic relationship can help or hinder your language goals.
How A Native Speaker Spouse (or boyfriend/girlfriend) Can Hold You Back
He/She Will Take Over
My husband is from Nicaragua and his native language is Spanish. The first time we visited Spain, I spoke a little (very, very little) Spanish, most of which I had learned from listening to audio tapes. Unsurprisingly, my husband did everything language-related in Spain. He ordered in restaurants, asked for directions and bought train tickets. This was very convenient for me. It also meant that I got zero practice speaking Spanish.
The Correction Factor
It is very, very rare for a regular person to get frustrated with you for making a mistake while speaking their language. It’s also quite unlikely that you will take it personally if they correct you. But if it’s your significant other, things are different.
I think my husband corrects my Spanish a lot – even excessively, and it makes me not want to speak Spanish with him. I’m not usually that shy about speaking Spanish – I have done quite a bit of public speaking in Spanish – but talking to my husband is different and more stressful. I also feel like he gets frustrated with my mistakes. Maybe I’m particularly sensitive, but I don’t think so, because I’ve seen this same dynamic play out in a lot of couples.
People act differently with their romantic partners than with friends, other family or strangers. Of course, a lot depends on both partners’ personalities, but I am certain that I am not the only person who feels more sensitive about corrections from my husband than from other people.
What if He or She Wants to Learn Your Language?
If you want to practice your Russian/Spanish/Whatever Language, then shouldn’t your partner be able to speak your native language with you? Does that mean your whole relationship is going to a never-ending language exchange tug-of-war?
For both the benefit of your relationship and both partners’ language goals, you have to figure this question out. Maybe your partner already speaks awesome English or whatever your native language is. Maybe he or she is totally uninterested in learning your language (which is good for your language learning but probably does not bode well for your relationship). Either way, this is an issue that you need to consider. It is especially difficult if there is an imbalance in language abilities, because you will tend to use whatever language is easiest for both of you to communicate in.
Yes, A Native-Speaker Lover Can Help. Here’s How:
You Talk to Him/Her All the Time
If you are speaking with your partner in the target language, you are getting a lot of practice, because you are probably spending a lot of time with him or her. More speaking = more improvement.
In my opinion, you actually will get more language-learning benefit from your partner’s friends and family than from him or her directly.
First of all, your in-laws are less likely to be interested in learning your language. While that might be quite vexing in a spouse, I don’t think you’ll mind if your mother-in-law has no interest in learning English (or whatever language) for your benefit.
Speaking with someone one-on-one is of course good for learning a language, but participating in group discussions – the kind that happen over holiday meals or drinks with your partner’s old school pals – will help you take your language skills to the next level.
If your partner is dating (or married to) you a foreigner, he or she is probably not 100 percent typical, no matter where he or she is from. But his or her family and friends probably are. Spending time with them will give you both linguistic and cultural insights into your partner’s language and culture that might not be accessible otherwise.
My husband and I rarely speak Spanish together, but we both speak Spanish with his parents and extended family. I don’t think my relationship with my husband has improved my Spanish dramatically – but my relationship with his mother has.
A desire to understand your spouse’s culture and family is a powerful and very concrete reason to learn a language. Learning your spouse’s language will allow you to fully participate at family events and communicate with your in-laws. I think that a lot of people struggle with language learning because they don’t really think the language will be relevant to their life. In most cases, the ability to speak your spouse’s language will have a clear positive impact on your life that is absolutely obvious to you.
Dominant vs. Native Language
My husband’s native language is Spanish. But he moved to the US when he was eight years old and he is more comfortable speaking English than Spanish. Ultimately, that is the reason we don’t speak Spanish together very often. Just keep in mind that if your partner is hesitant to speak his or her native language with you, it might be because he or she is actually more comfortable in another language. This can be the case even for people who moved countries as an adult.
What Language Did You Meet In?
There’s a lot of inertia in relationships. Unless you try very hard to change, you’ll likely keep speaking whatever language you and your partner started speaking to each other in at the very beginning of your relationship.
Last Thoughts on Romance and Language
When I was living in Russia, I had a Canadian friend who was married to a Russian man. When the two met (at a bar in Quebec), my friend didn’t speak any Russian. She decided to learn Russian after meeting her husband, but she didn’t learn from him. She went to live with her in-laws in Russia for three months and spent every day talking to her mother-in-law in the kitchen, aided only by a dictionary. She insisted on going alone, so that her husband could not translate for her. When I met her, she was studying in a Russian university for a semester – while her husband stayed in Canada. She spoke excellent Russian – but most of it she had learned while in Russia without her husband.
The people I have met who speak their spouse’s language well have always made an effort – outside of their time with their spouse – to learn the language. Having a spouse who spoke their target language might have helped, but it has never replaced studying.
So if you happen to be dating or married to someone who speaks the language you are learning, great. Try to speak to him or her in your target language as often as possible. Hang out with his or her family and friends. But study away as usual, and make sure not to let your partner translate for you, finish your sentences or order for you in restaurants too often. Also, grow a thick skin.
But fantasies of fast-tracked language learning are no reason to fret if you’re single (or to dump a partner with the same native language as you)! If someone suggests that you should be doing more learning “in bed,” remember that hooking up with a native speaker is by no means a foolproof road to fluency. It isn’t even a shortcut.
Emily is from Portland, Oregon and has lived in Switzerland, Russia, Spain and France. She speaks German, Russian, Spanish and French, and is learning Mandarin and Arabic. She writes about language learning and living abroad at The Babel Times (www.thebabeltimes.com). Emily lives in Portland with her husband and two chickens. She is currently preparing for a long trip to China and is trying to reconcile her love for long-term trips abroad with her interest in gardening.