How to survive a multilingual relationship: 6 tips from a psychologist for expats
Are you in love with someone speaking a foreign language? It might seem romantic at first but it slowly becomes a daily challenge.
Misunderstandings, language barrier with friends and family, constant mix of vocabulary: a multilingual relationship is, first and foremost, a LOT of work!
From dealing with embarrassing mistakes to surviving arguments, licensed psychologist specialized in life abroad, Gabriela Encina, shares valuable tips to navigate your multilingual life.
Gabriela grew up in Chile and that’s where she met the love of her life, an Austrian passing through her country on his journey in Southern America. She ended up moving to Vienna with him and went through the ups and downs of expat life and intercultural relationships.
Her experience as a psychologist combined with her personal intercultural story allow her to provide the best support for your international life.
Are you ready for an avalanche of useful tips to save your multilingual relationship?
Let’s get started!
1) Develop efficient communication
According to Gabriela, this is the key element of your relationship, and the one that will save you from many tricky situations.
“Speaking in a very basic and rudimentary way is the easiest method to prevent starting a fight at every sentence:
- Ask a few times what the other understands
- Choose the words really consciously
- Use a dictionary to check meanings
You need to make sure you deliver the message as clearly as possible. It’s not romantic but it’s the most efficient way to avoid misunderstandings.“
To illustrate potential misunderstandings, Gabriela shared a fun anecdote of a situation that occurred with her husband. During one of their conversations, her husband told her:
“Oh, you’re so pathetic sometimes”.
He didn’t even seem angry but Gabriela did not appreciate this comment, stood up and went away. And this is what happened next…
“After some minutes, he approached with a dictionary in his hands, like a white flag. That’s how we realized that “pathetic” has different meanings in German and in Spanish/English:
- In German, the word means “theatrical, dramatic”
- In Spanish and English, it means “pitiful, absurd”
He was only referring to my emotional and passionate attitude, he didn’t mean to hurt me.
We ended up laughing about it, but only because he made the effort to look for the problem and he was wise enough to realize that there was probably a misunderstanding.”
2) Don’t assume your partner is your enemy
The “pathetic” anecdote is a great way to understand this second tip and how to reframe a situation.
“This tip sounds obvious but it isn’t. When my husband told me I was “pathetic”, I felt offended because my first reaction was emotional and I assumed his intention was negative.
So you need to step back and think:
- This person is someone I love and who loves me
- Most probably, my partner does not mean to hurt me
- I should check with my partner what he/she meant precisely
In most cases, you will realize that it was only a misunderstanding.”
3) Have a safe word to stop the escalation
This piece of advice can be a game-changer and will help you calm down in the heat of an argument.
“In some situations, some arguments, you are not able anymore to control your words. So having a safe word is a great way to stop the escalation:
- It gives a warning signal to avoid hurting each other
- You can resume the conversation once both of you have calmed down
- You should use an easy word to remember (fruits or vegetables for example)
It’s a way to say « time out » and to make sure the conversation won’t be counterproductive.”
4) Find your language as a couple
This next tip is something I can totally relate to. After a few years with my foreign partner, I can see how we created our own language and how it keeps evolving over time.
I love the way Gabriela highlights this specificity of multilingual couples:
“You are a cultural entity, you are integrating both languages and both cultures. It means that:
- You need to find the way that YOU can communicate effectively.
- You will see that your common language evolves as much as your relationship“
Something else to keep in mind when you are mixing up words from different languages is that your brain is WORKING!
A lot of people in a bilingual relationship are struggling because they think they are not fluent enough.
Yet, Gabriela underlines that mixing vocabulary is a richness to be aware of:
- Mixing words is a sign of flexibility and intelligence
- Creating this new language as a couple means that you can express yourself more accurately
“You need to understand that mixing languages is not a sign that you don’t know enough vocabulary. On the contrary, it shows that you know SO MUCH that you are able to choose the most accurate word. Don’t punish yourself, just reframe the situation.”
The last two tips are related to situations where you have to speak your partner’s language with his/her friends and family.
Like many of you, I have spent a lot of time frustrated because I couldn’t express myself properly in my partner’s language. It makes dinners with friends and family complicated and exhausting.
This is why I was really excited to hear Gabriela’s recommendations to avoid these painful moments.
5) Have your partner on your side
When you visit your partner’s friends and family, you should communicate before any encounter.
Gabriela recommends to ask for your partner’s help:
- Make your partner understand that he/she needs to guide you when you are at his/her house or with his/her friends
- You need to underline the fact that the situation is going to be demanding because you don’t understand the language.
- He/she will have the role of being on your side and helping you navigate this situation.
“Be careful, it doesn’t mean becoming a translator! You can’t translate full conversations all the time, it’s exhausting. Your partner needs to be aware of the situation without being a full-time translator.”
6) Don’t set unrealistic goals
Learning a new language is exhausting and spending an evening with people speaking a foreign language is very demanding.
According to Gabriela, this is what you can do to ease the process:
- Be aware of what you can and cannot say, don’t be unrealistic
- Prepare your basics to show that you are making efforts to learn the language
- Make clear to the family/friends that you can’t understand everything (even if they shout 3 times the same thing!)
“Overall, it’s healthier to be transparent and explain the situation. It’s alright if you need to stay on your side and you are not able to participate actively in the conversation. Let them know that you enjoy their company and that listening to them is helpful to learn the language.”
Did you find these tips useful? How do you survive the challenges of a multilingual relationship?
- Licensed psychologist with 18+ years of experience and certified Expat Coach.
- She offers online counseling and coaching sessions in 3 languages (English, German and Spanish).
- Her counseling is based on a 3-step method (identify the problems, connect with your feelings, and take action) to help you move forward and live the international life you want and deserve.