On Friday evening we participated in a French-Puerto Rican cultural event at the Alliance Francaise – a book written by a French author, Laurent LeMaitre, was being launched. We listened to the bilingual presentation of the book by the author himself, his wife – the translator from French to Spanish, and the father-in-law who runs the publishing company. Afterwards we mingled with Puerto Ricans and French people, and we made some new friends during the evening.
The event made me think about us bilingual and bi-cultural couples… Every time I explain to people that my husband is Spanish, I get the question – which language do you speak together? This is especially puzzling for people who hear that we met in Brussels, a French-speaking city (officially bilingual, but not really). I always say But of course we speak English… but I guess that is just obvious to the two of us!!
At the event on Friday I spoke in French to two French girls married to Puerto Ricans and O talked in Spanish to a French guy married to a Puerto Rican woman; and of course the language issue came up! Both the two Puerto Ricans married to the French know how to speak French; but one couple speaks mostly Spanish at home and the other couple speaks mainly French. And we, the Swedish-Spanish couple, speak English at home, but we are slowly trying to introduce Spanish as well…
First of all we all agreed that it is very difficult to change language as a couple – if you met in English / French / Spanish, you will probably continue speaking that language. This is clear in the example of the two French-Puerto Rican couples – the couple speaking French met in France, the Spanish-speaking couple met in Puerto Rico! O and I are different though as we, a Spaniard and a Swede, met in a third [bilingual] country with a third language (French), we speak a fourth language (English) and now live in a fifth country which is also bilingual! [I would probably need to make a diagram here]
One of the girls told me that she has a French-Swedish friend who lives with her Spanish boyfriend in Sweden (or it might have been a Spanish-Swede with a French, but nevermind!) and the couple speaks English together. The girl had complained about the language issue and said that it was very tiring to not speak her mother tongue[s] in the relationship and especially when having to speak a language that is not neither partner’s language. So, obviously the question to me was, is it a problem speaking a third language together? I answered that I have never felt that it has been a problem for O and I that we speak English in our relationship – not something that annoys / tires us, nor something that has caused misunderstandings. I overheard O telling the Puerto Rican husband of one of the girls that he thinks that my English is better than his, but that it is still not an issue in our relationship (that is another discussion which I will save for later).
Whether or not different mother tongues in a relationship becomes a language barrier depends most likely on the level of understanding and as well as on the personalities of the two persons! In a way it is more democratic to speak a third language, which is foreign to both partners. It can also be construed as unfair if one person learns to speak the other language but not vice-versa. However, I have never felt that way when it comes to my efforts of learning Spanish, and O’s almost inexistant Swedish. There are quite a big difference between having to learn Spanish, a world language and the only language my family-in-law speaks, and to learn Swedish, which is not really a useful language outside of Sweden and when English works pretty well inside of the country as well! I also believe that learning Spanish will be very useful for my future career, regardless of where we end up living.
Not learning your partner’s mother tongue can nevertheless be interpreted as an unwillingness to get to know his / her culture and background. In our case I believe that O is showing a huge interest to adopt Swedish culture – eating Kalles Kaviar and Herrgårdsost (Swedish cheese), enjoying watching Swedish films, celebrate Midsummer’s eve and inviting friends to Adventsfika (Swedish celebration in December) and absolutely loving IKEA! He is interested in learning Swedish and I am sure that he will pick up quite a fair amount eventually.
This kind of questions is not just applicable to bilingual couples, but also any expat who lives in a foreign country – with or without a foreign language. Do you try to learn the new language or do you get by in English (or any other second language)? Do you expect people to be able to speak to you in the languages you know?
I have so many more thoughts on this matter and I haven’t even touched upon culture, but I will save it for Part II…
All the photos except the one of the Spanish map are from Brussels, a city which is officially bilingual (French & Flemish / Dutch).