Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Group Blog Topic: The Language of Bilingual Couples

This week’s genius topic is thanks to Fned and I was super excited to get writing about the topic when I first saw her idea, and then for some reason all my good ideas escaped me. I’ve been trying to hold out until they come back, but I really want to read everyone else’s posts and I can’t do that until I post mine. I tried to write this yesterday and it was a no-go. But, today, YES, score, GOL, I got it out. Withouth further hesitation...

When I met Christian, there wasn’t much of a choice between what language we would speak. Although I was on the path to being bilingual (ie. advanced-low level of Spanish in July 2006), his extent of the English language was around the likes of “Hello, my name is...” (if that). The fact of the matter is that Christian really never liked English. Although he had taken classes in both high school and college, thanks to the widely-accepted Chilean cheating system, he didn’t really take much from the class. Instead, he was much more interested in German and Germany (due to the fact that he had a serious g/f that was German). In any case, when we met, I was on a whole anti-English gig so it was obvious that Spanish would be the choice language. I am obsessed with Spanish. I came to Chile to become fluent in Spanish and although for my first 2 months here, I did speak some English with my gringo friends, it was at the beginning of my 3rd month that I completely stopped (unless I talked with my parents or other people who didn’t speak Spanish).

Speaking Spanish played a huge role in the beginning of our relationship because it was one of the things that brought us together. I remember when I first started hanging out with Christian. We would always be in the mixed presence of gringas and chilenos. He would tell jokes or huevar and many times I would be the only gringa cracking up at the jokes along with the Chileans who actually understood what he said. Within the first few weeks that we knew each other, we would joke back and forth constantly and to me, being able to joke with someone in another language was HUGE. In fact, they say that understanding jokes in another language is one of the signs of being fluent—and while I definitely wasn’t fluent in those first few months, my understanding that early in the game was a precursor to how fast I would pick up “chileno” (or Chile’s dialect of Spanish).

So we could joke around with each other...but what about those serious conversations that couples have? Riiiiggghhhtttt.....during the first six months of our relationship, I would say the hardest part of communicating was when we would discuss our feelings, our history, our thoughts, beliefs, etc. Anything that was abstract became a challenge to discuss. However, since Christian had previously been in relationships with extranjeras, he had the patience to help me learn how to describe what I was feeling. Was there miscommunication? Sometimes...but overall, we managed. I think that when two people really want to hear what the other person has to say, verbally speaking isn’t the only way to do it. I have heard of couples meeting and neither one actually speaks the other’s language. Somehow they get their point across and learn to communicate.

Pretty much our whole relationship has been in Spanish and I prefer it that way. I feel like I can express myself better in the language and I love the romantic things that can be said. After truly becoming bilingual, English just seems so cold to me when it comes to demonstrating my feelings. Many times when I was back in Colorado after study abroad, I was at a loss for words because I couldn’t figure out how to express myself in my own native language. Weird, right? I know. It is completely normal for someone to speak to me in either language and I will respond in the corresponding language, but if you then asked me what language I was just speaking--a lot of the time I won't have the slightest idea.

When Christian and I had been dating for about 6 months, we already knew that we would get married someday. I remember my mom came down to Chile to visit and one of the gifts she brought for Christian was an English CD/book set so that he could start learning English. This was important because we were already planning that he would come visit for Christmas 2007 and since the number of people in my family that speak Spanish is a total of 3 (1-me, 2-my great aunt, 0.5-my grandma and 0.5-my mom--I put them as half because neither one is fluent), it was important that he at least be able to converse somewhat with my Dad. He did study for a few months and then his studies just kind of trailed off. We would practice every once in a while and when Christmas time came around, I was still the official translator, but he did an amazing job at communicating with my family. Him and my Dad hit it off better than I could expect and even went outside to take pictures of the Christmas lights alone, both using some sort of sign language and broken English to get their point across.

Now that we are married and plan to live in the States within the next 2 years-ish, it us much more important that he actually learn the language. I have been trying to only speak English with him at home, but it is SO hard. I have heard that when a bilingual couple begins speaking in one language, it is very rare that they switch to the other and I totally agree with this. Although we are speaking much more English at home than we ever have, Spanish is our real language. It is what we speak when we want to have a conversation, or tell each other how much we love the other person, when we get mad and argue, or when we just want to feel like “us”. Our speaking English is for the practical purposes of him having a solid base when we get to the US. I will admit that I get super excited when we can have a more-than-basic conversation, or perhaps speak in English on the phone, but it is because I am proud of how quickly he is learning, not because we are any closer to being able to speak fully in English. I don’t want “our” language to change and I can 99.999% guarantee that our relationship will continue to be in Spanish no matter where we live.

Here is a list of the other bloggers who wrote on this group topic:

Clare: Musings from inside, outside, and underneath (Spanish/English)

Fned’s Blog: Bilingualism in Expat Couples (English/ Spanish/ French)

Bee Ean : A Malaysian in France (English / French / Chinese)

Andromeda : The adventures of an American Blonde in France (French / English)

Jennifer: Italian Trivia (English / Italian / and a little Veneto)…. and a practical case

Minshap : Both sides of the coin (English / Spanish)

Leilani : Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (English / French / Spanish / German / and four more languages!!!)

Francine : Callaloo soup (English / French)

Poppy Fields : Poppy in Provence (English / French)

Chris : A Pretty How Town (English / French)

Cancuck Canuck : A Canuck in Cancun (English / Spanish (and a little Mayan? lol))

Emily : Don’t call me Gringa (Spanish / English)

Natasha : The Ex Monologues (English / Spanish)
Arlet Grace : Little something about me (Filipino / Korean / English)
Lydia : Just smile and nod (English / Spanish)
Cherise : Adventures with Angelina (English / French / Thai and soon German!!)

Sarah : Misplaced Texan (English / French)

Ale : Letters from Wonderland (English / Spanish)

Karina : Milk Jam (French / English)Rebecca : Trente-trois-mille (English / Spanish / French)
Kumichan83 : Tales of a Japanese Gringa in Quito (English / Spanish / French / Japanese)


Fned said...

How is it that I missed this blog????

You are so right when you say that getting the jokes is a good sign that you've become "fluent" in a foreign language. I think that speaking slang or getting "albures" (double meaning jokes for mexicans) or jokes in a foreign language lets you really "integrate". It doesn't matter if you can't yet conjugate or spell correctly, if you can get the jokes and little "subtle" things people say is much more important!!! It's what'll let you "fit in" better!!

That's so cool how you've become completely bilingual in Spanish! I also have a hard time switching back to my native languages now that I'm so immersed in French. If Hubby and I go to live in the US one day I suspect we'll also have a hard time switching to English too!

Great post!

Disclaimer—La Chilengüita is a blog created upon my personal experiences and which expresses my personal opinion that in no way represents the views my employer, family or friends.