Another Kind of Language Barrier

Another Kind of Language Barrier

The question of which language to use in an intercultural relationship usually solves itself naturally. In our case we exclusively communicate in Mandarin Chinese.


When I met my husband a few years ago my Chinese was already fairly good, and his English was non-existent to be exact. So naturally our language choice to communicate was Chinese. I remember a post by Jocelyn from Speaking of China about the relationship between language and falling in love. It seems the language you fall in love with someone stays with you throughout the relationship.


I have never really given it a second thought. We communicate in Chinese effortless, and even though Chinese is his native language, he doesn’t have the upper hand. On the contrary, my husband is a quiet person and not very expressive. In an argument he has no chance to win, native language or not. I feel very comfortable talking in Chinese. Of course, the main reason could be because we live in China and we are surrounded by a Chinese speaking world.


But there is a downside to this effortless comfort in our language choice. My husband really wants to improve his English. Over the past years he has learned quite a few words from friends, students, the TV, and even books. But I haven’t taught him a single word.


Why? No, I am not mean or lazy or unwilling. I would love to teach him, but I can’t. It’s not because I am not a teacher (which I am obviously not). It’s not because I don’t have time. It’s also not because he doesn’t want me to. It’s because I feel so awkward to speak in English with him.

language barrier

Just writing it down makes me realize how incredibly crazy it sounds. I have no problem to turn around and talk in English to my colleagues or in German to my German speaking friends, but every time I try to talk in English to my husband, the words just get stuck in my throat. I feel incredibly silly.


One of his New Year’s resolutions is to study English, and we thought it would be a great idea to just have an English speaking day. For 24 hours I would simply speak in English to him, no matter if he understands or not. In theory the idea seemed brilliant and simple at the same time.


In practice, however… We haven’t managed to have one single English speaking day, and it’s already March! I just feel ridiculous to speak in English to him. It feels as if I am acting and I am not myself. How is it that a whole relationship is founded with a single language?


It’s a dilemma. Maybe things would change if we would be living in an English speaking country where the natural surroundings would force us both to speak English. But maybe even then we would go back to talking in Chinese at home. After all that is the language we fell in love with.


What do you think? Is there a language you fall in love with (something like a ‘relationship language’)? And how can someone overcome the barrier of speaking in another language to their loved ones?

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Anna Z. is a freelance illustrator and portrait artist in her late 20s, with a passion for Martial Arts and Chinese culture, and is the creator of Lost Panda, a blog to China and Art. Together with her husband, a Chinese national, she writes about daily life in rural China, focusing on cultural and social differences and the joys (and sometimes difficulties) as an intercultural couple. Apart from China related topics, she publishes her artwork, photography, art material reviews and tutorials to help more people discover their creative side. She is fluent in German, English and Mandarin Chinese.

4 thoughts on “Another Kind of Language Barrier

  1. Wow, I could this really interesting to read about. To be honest, I have the opposite dilemma with my Chinese man. We speak in only english, with some Chinese phrases, and I can’t speak mandarin. Maybe your husband feels like me, guilty for not knowing how to speak, and sad wondering if the person we love feels something is missing because we don’t speak their mother tongue. I bet he really appreciates that you know Chinese. Let him take the steps to learn in the way he wishes, otherwise he may feel you want him to learn because you are unhappy that he can’t speak English! (Just a suggestion).

    Best to you and your husband :)

    • Very true. It doesn’t bother me that he cannot speak English. We know each other for seven years and we never spoke in English to each other. The point was that is feels awkward to speak in English to him, not that I wish he would learn English. The wish to learn English comes from himself. Every time he meets other Chinese people who are fluent in English, he always asks me why he cannot be fluent in English. Some people blame me that he cannot speak English because I simply always speak in Chinese… He has found someone else who can teach him, and I support him in any way I can, but we will never be able to change the language of communication, at least not as long as we still live in China.

  2. This is a really interesting perspective. My Chinese fiance and I have the opposite problem! We started out our relationship in English because we met (and live) in an English speaking country and he speaks perfect English (along with Chinese and Spanish – he was born in China but grew up in Argentina before moving to Australia in time for high school so he really has been blessed in the language stakes!) This was never a problem until I met his parents (who speak very little English). I started learning Chinese (thinking that him and his parents would be my biggest help). I could not have been more wrong. Like your husband I have learned more Chinese from random people than I have from my partner. I agree with you that it is incredibly hard to switch the language of your relationship.
    Cat (talkingofchinese) recently posted…VIDEO: speaking Chinese (very badly)My Profile

    • Wow you Chinese fiance is a language genius! How lucky he is. He should use this language ability :)
      My husband still sucks at English, and I suck at teaching him. I guess we both silently gave in. For now we don’t need English and when we have a baby, I said I will talk in German and it is going to be our little secret language hehe No one else is able to understand German here, so it’s perfect. If I need to educate my child in public, I can say whatever I want without embarrassing him or her, and no one else will understand :D

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