There’s so many aspects of cross-cultural relationships that I want to talk about, so I had to start somewhere. When someone finds out that my boyfriend Hitomi (pronounced Hee-to-mee) is Japanese, the questions “Do you speak Japanese? Does he speaks English and/or French?” are somewhere in the Top 5 of the most asked questions. Therefore, I think it’s important to talk about that issue, when your significant other does not share the same native language as you.
Obviously, I think that in any relationship, communication is one of the most important thing. But what do you do when you don’t speak the same language as your partner? Is it really possible to maintain a healthy relationship in that case?
Based on my story, I would say that yes, it’s possible. Here’s four reasons why.
1. Body language is more useful than you think it is
Before I went to Japan, I never understood how much the body language is an important element in our communication with others. This is when I realized that we don’t always talk with our mouth; we also talk with our attitudes, reactions and movements. Sometimes we can’t really see it and we can’t control it consciously, but it’s there and our brain deciphers these movements. That’s how we know if we like someone or not even before they opened their mouth to speak. That’s also partly why we’re attracted to a certain person more than to another. What I’m trying to say is, the language that we speak is not 100% of the communication. It’s an important thing, but it’s not everything.
At first, it’s my boyfriend’s movements and attitude that made me feel safe and attracted to him. It was also very helpful when we didn’t understand each other — we could point at objects or use mimics. We could also express our sense of humour while making impersonations. So even with his broken English and my even more bad Japanese, we were able to have basic conversations that anybody can have when they just met.
But I must admit, even today I don’t understand how we did it. Everytime somebody asks me “How did you two were able to flirt and start dating together?!”, really, I don’t know how to answer. It just happened. We were feeling good together; that’s everything you need when it begins. Of course you can’t make your relationship survives based only on body language, but it’s a good start. And anyway, we didn’t started dating right away; we used something else quite a lot (and still do), which is…
2. Modern technologies
And THIS is how we really got to know each other. God bless technology — I don’t know what I would do without that.
After a couple of days of talking with Hitomi in person, we added each other on Facebook – and that’s where the fun starts. Although tools like “Google Translate” aren’t really perfect — some of those translations make my eyes pop out — it’s still very practical. With Facebook messages, Hitomi and I had a lot more time to think of what we wanted to say and search for the words we didn’t know or didn’t understand. At the same time, I had to go to my second host family in Kyoto, so I was leaving town. We naturally continued to write messages to each other during that time.
You have the chance of having all kind of technologies at your fingertips; use it. Translation sites, real-time face-to-face applications, instant messages, games, and all this for free. Even the languages aren’t a barrier for cross-cultural conversations anymore. Don’t be afraid of that.
3. You can learn each other’s first language
You should take advantage of the fact you can practice another language everyday with a native (aka your significant other). I can’t express how much this step is important, even though it’s probably obvious. I just love learning his native language, because every days that pass I can understand better where he comes from, his culture, his sense of humour. It’s as if I am rediscovering him each time I get better in Japanese.
See, I have this theory; I believe it’s normal to develop what I like to call “parallel personalities” when you can speak more than one language. I don’t have the exact same reactions, attitudes and sense of humour in English, French or Japanese. In English, I’m more cold and sarcastic; in French, I’m more stubborn and noisy; in Japanese, well — I’m not good enough yet, but I can feel I’ll be a lot more quiet and polite. Maybe it has something to do with the way a language is made and the ability of each person to adapt to a new culture. I feel like using sarcasm is a lot more funny in English than it is in French; in Japan, it’s not common to use it.
That being said, I don’t want to “know” my boyfriend only in English, I also want to “know” him in Japanese. I think the same goes for him — though I suspect his number one goal is being able to talk with my parents (they can barely speak English).
4. You can connect in another language
While you’re trying to become fluent in the native language of your significant other, I believe it is essential to speak together in another language, one that is easy for both of you and in which you already knew the basics before you two met.
When I went in Japan for the first time, I could barely speak Japanese and I only knew hiragana and katana. As for Hitomi, he could speak a few words in English, but he had a huge accent (which I must admit, is really cute). Just like in Canada (Québec), Hitomi had a couple of English classes at his school. But once he graduated, he never really had the occasion to use it again. As a result, he had almost forgotten everything about that language. But when we forget a language, it’s not definitive. It’s just sleeping somewhere in a corner of our brain. By being in touch with this “lost” language, we can learn a lot faster than the first time we did.
Everytime he would make mistakes in English, I would correct him and he corrects my mistakes in Japanese too. Because I talk a lot — he always says I’m a “talker” and he’s a “listener”, and I must admit he is right about that — his English level rised very quickly. In only six months, he became a lot more better in English than me in Japanese, even if I almost study everyday. He still makes some mistakes and doesn’t understand everything I say when I talk quickly (on Skype), but in general, communication is not a problem. Now that he’s good in English, it’s my turn to become better in Japanese. Both parties in a relationship should try to put the same amount of effort in it. Sadly, it hasn’t been the case for us — he made a lot more efforts than I did regarding to speaking languages. He never complained about it though (he almost never complain about anything), but I’ll change that by trying to speak a little bit more in Japanese from time to time.
I believe my English is not too bad. I have an accent and I make mistakes too, but it was more than enough for our relationship. Without English, it would have been much more difficult to communicate with him (for those who don’t know, my first language is French).
Of course, I would be lying if I said everything’s perfect when a couple don’t share the same native language. There’s days when it’s more difficult and frustration is going up when I — or he — won’t understand a part of the conversation. It’s rare, but it happens. When it does, I usually say “Alright, I will write about it later by messages/Please write about it later” before there’s too much tension. It’s not that we are irritated by each other, it’s more that we are irritated by our own inability to express what we want to say in that moment. There’s also pression on our shoulders: if we want to live together someday (Canada or Japan or anywhere, nothing is decided yet), we’ll have to speak the language of the country we’ll choose. Also, most of his friends and family don’t speak English, so I can’t really talk with them unless I become fluent in Japanese. This is very important for me, so I’m trying to make it possible. We’re doing it step by step, but sometimes I would like to be in the Matrix and just plug a Japanese language software in my brain so I could speak it right away.
Right in the beginning, we both knew that part of our relationship wouldn’t be easy, but we made our choice. The days where I’m feeling depressed about it, I tell myself I’m doing better than yesterday.
Conclusion: dating in your second language, yes, it can be hard sometimes. But it’s not impossible to have a beautiful relationship anyway. It’s fun to teach to each other our own language! And it would be ridiculous to refuse being together with the person we love because we don’t speak the same language. It’s something that obviously can and will get better, and it’s worth it.