One love, two languages: 3 FAQs about mixed-language relationships

14th February 2016

Happy Valentines Day everyone! There’s an old Italian proverb that goes moglie e buoi dei paesi tuoi. Roughly translated, it means “choose wives and oxen from your own town.” Today, it’s used to suggest that you’re better off with a partner who comes from the same country as you. More people are living and working aboard than ever before. As a result, lots of people are proving the old Italian saying wrong and entering into happy relationships with partners of different nationalities. For many, this means a relationship where both partners have different native languages. Like me and my partner Matteo: my native language is English, his is Italian. I get asked tons of questions about what it’s like being in a relationship with someone who doesn’t speak the same first language as me. So in honour of V-day, I’m sharing the answers to three of the most commonly asked questions:

1. You must be completely fluent in Italian by now, right?

Finding a boyfriend or girlfriend from a foreign country is often singled out as the easiest way to learn a language. But this kind of relationship is a bit like moving abroad: it provides a good opportunity to boost your language skills, but it doesn’t guarantee success on its own. Firstly, it depends on which language you speak together. If your partner is fluent in your native language, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of using that language all the time, particularly if that’s the language you used when you first met. And even if you speak together in your partner’s native language, your other half may not be the best person to help you perfect your language skills once you get past a certain level. It’s well documented that people who spend a lot of time together develop similar speech styles: if your significant other communicates with you in their native tongue, they're likely to simplify their speech to some extent. Even though we communicate in Italian most of the time, my relationship with Matteo doesn’t stretch my Italian skills as much as you might imagine. He doesn’t dumb things down on purpose; he’s just subconsciously adapted his communication style to match mine. And I find myself doing the same thing when we speak English.

2. Do you get each other’s humour?

Yes and no. We have lots of laughs together and in many ways we share a similar sense of humour. But the language barrier means that sometimes we need to explain jokes to each other, particularly if they involve cultural references or wordplay. Some people might find that tedious, but we love sharing English and Italian humour with one another, and getting a laugh (or groaning at the dad joke) when the penny drops.

3. Is it hard to get along with each other’s friends and family?

Luckily most of our friends and family are open-minded, loving and patient: everyone gets on well, even if they don’t speak the same language. In my experience, cultural awareness trumps language skills when mixing with family and friends: people are more understanding of language mistakes than they are of cultural faux pas. It’s surprising how easy it is to form bonds with people with non-linguistic communication like smiling, helping and sharing. When Matteo first met my family, he didn’t speak any English, but it didn't seem to matter that much. My dad took him out to play golf anyway and they had a fun day together. When Matteo did things around the house, my mum was really pleased to see that I had met a nice, helpful bloke. For us, when meeting friends and family, actions really did speak louder than words. Of course, if our mums meet, they won't be able to talk to each other all much. But that might not be such a bad thing after all!

What do you think?

Now I’d like to hear from you. Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who speaks a different native language? What did you find challenging? What did you find rewarding?

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