Language Barriers

Language Barriers
Apr 23, 2009 By Jessica A. Larson-Wang, www ,

Between my husband and I we have quite a few languages. I speak English, Chinese, and still retain some leftover Spanish and Japanese from my school days. My husband speaks Mandarin and the Yunnanese local dialect, and whatever English he’s retained from his school days. Most Chinese people who don’t know my husband assume he must have superb English skills, but actually his English is pretty poor. We speak Mandarin Chinese together all of the time, without fail. We chat in Chinese, we joke in Chinese, we fight in Chinese. While I’ve made some half-hearted attempts at teaching my son English using OPOL (one parent one language), about 80-90% of my communications with even him are in Chinese.

Photo: Mr. MeTime

I’m confident in my Chinese skills, and I can pretty much communicate what I want when I want, but still, Chinese will always be my second language, and there will always be certain things that I cannot share with my non-English speaking husband. We can watch my favorite films together, but he won’t understand how delicious the dialogue is. He can read the books I like in translation, but he won’t understand the plays on words. I can play my favorite bands for him, but he won’t understand how the lyrics affect me. What’s more, I’m not able to joke with him in the ironic way that I prefer, and when we fight, I’m often at a disadvantage, unable to be as quick-witted as I would be in my own native tongue.

Not speaking English is a sacrifice, one that my husband, sadly, cannot really understand. Every so often I remind him, gently, that he gets to speak his language. It seems so simple, but of course, for me, it isn’t. Wang Yao tries to be conscientious about the lack of English in my life. He doesn’t complain when I spend loads of money on imported books, or when I surf the web for hours on end soaking up my language and culture. While there are many compromises that have to be made in an international relationship, perhaps the biggest one is that most often one partner must give up their language, or if not give it up entirely, at least put it on the back burner.

Photo: Helga’s Lobster Stew

Which isn’t to say I’m entirely gloom and doom about the whole thing. While I don’t get to use English with my husband, I have gained another language, which is something many people spend lifetimes trying to achieve. All of those things that I can’t share with my husband in English, he can share with me in Chinese, which means a whole new world has opened up for me. I have options. I’m not limited to movies with subtitles or expensive imported magazines. I get two cultures, two traditions, two languages, and that’s pretty cool.


After Chinese friends and co-workers get over their utter shock and horror over my husband’s lack of English skills, their next question is inevitably “well why don’t you teach him?” Well, I can think of a few reasons. For one, he’s my husband, not my student. Teaching English is my job. I do it for the better part of each day. When I get done teaching English the last thing I want to do is come home and teach more English. But more importantly, even if I did somehow manage to teach my husband English, I doubt we’d use it anyhow. Language habits are incredibly hard to break. I have a good friend, my first Chinese friend, and when we first met, I couldn’t speak much Chinese and her English was excellent. To this day, her and I still communicate in English. In the same vein, speaking English with my husband just doesn’t feel right. Our relationship started in Chinese. We had our first date in Chinese, he proposed in Chinese, and we were married in Chinese. For all my talk about sacrifice, I wouldn’t change things, not even if I had the chance.


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