Communication in a Bilingual Relationship

Article after stupid article cites “communication” as the key to a healthy, long-lasting relationship. Well, what happens when you speak pretty-good-but-not-perfect Spanish and your boyfriend speaks pretty-amazing-almost-perfect-but-not English? You take a step back, friends, and remember what their native language is and that rude comment might not really be so rude after all.

When we first started dating, Mario commented on that I was, and I quote, “más grande” than him. In case you no speak-o the Espanish-o, that means “bigger.” Uh, chyeah. I was having about 0% of that! I immediately freaked out and harrumphed around until he asked what he’d done to warrant such icy inane behavior. In between sighs I managed to tell him, “You called me fat. Or at least it felt like you did.” So yeah, you may be thinking I’m a crazy girl, but whatever – no one wants to be told they’re bigger, am I right? Turns out poor Mario only meant taller, which – hey – I am. (By about an inch, bee tee dubs.) But he learned a little somethin’ somethin’ then. In English, it’s much less acceptable to call someone bigger than you, especially if that someone is an overly sensitive girlfriend. In Spain, sometimes people comment on weight without all that guilty, oh my gosh, so-and-so is calling Jane faaaaaat! It’s just a comment and fat is not a dirty word, like it can be here. So, I remember that now, and when someone commented that I was “smaller” this year, I just grinned and agreed. ‘Cause, ya know, they weren’t saying I was fat last year. Not at all.

That white font barely shows up on my pasty skin.

Other lessons we’ve learned:

  • I can’t finish off sentences with “…o qué?” Unlike in English, it can sound rather rude. I often ask friends, “Did you want to go here…or what?” and I count on them not thinking I’m  a demanding little you-know-what. But Mario’s looking out for me; he doesn’t want me to spout off such phrases and have people avoid the mean American girl with a smart mouth.
  • Mario often says “It’s okay” for “No pasa nada.” It sounds fine, but you know how when someone apologizes everyone says, “It’s okay” (even if it’s totally not okay)? Well, sometimes people can think he’s pardoning them and, uh, they don’t need pardoning! So I advised him to stick with, “It’s no big deal” or “Don’t worry about it.” (Perhaps we’re overly picky?)
  • Don’t laugh (aloud) when your partner slips up. At least not all the time. I don’t mind him laughing when I want to say “preservatives” and instead say “condom” (=preservativos in Spanish). But when I mess up the subjunctive for the 110th time, just shut it. For both our sakes. I also apologize often for thinking it’s insanely adorable when he accidentally uses double negatives, a habit I abhor in native speakers. (Hypocrite much?)
  • Your significant other doesn’t have the cultural background you do. So Mario doesn’t remember TGIF or trapper keepers or ring pops or know how to play MASH (ugh, I had to teach him that one!). Sometimes, it’s annoying to have to explain who Patty Mayonnaise is, but most of the time it’s hilariously fun! 
  • Learning from each other is really fun if you just lighten up. So what if I used the male adjective to describe myself? Whatever. I think Mario knows I’m not a man…plus, learning what mistakes he makes helps me to be a better teacher – I understand what slip-ups are common and can readily address them instead of being surprised by them.
  • We don’t have to choose a language. We speak English, then Spanish, back to English and maybe some Spanglish. It’s jut how we roll. We spent a lot of time in London with me speaking English and him Spanish. We got weird looks, but hey, that’s just us.
  • Hearing Espain instead of Spain will never get old – to me. Maybe to Mario, but to me? Please keep your accent forever. But um, let me get rid of mine. Please?
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24 comments

  1. hahaa you guys are so cute!

    Perhaps you argue less than Alexandre (my Brazilian “husfriend”) and I do, but I’ve found that grammar mistakes in a heated argument usually cause the other one to giggle, and then lighten the mood a bit.

    During one argument, Alexandre tried to say “marriage” but instead said “merriment.” That was entertaining.
    Then, in one argument, I tried using “por seu governo,” which is a Portuguese expression that means “just so you KNOW,” but instead I said “por seu governmento” (por tu gobierno, in Spanish), which made no sense and which made Alexandre laugh and which totally ruined my attempt at being snooty.

    It’s gotten to a point where mumbling “your grammar is wrong” has become a sort of peace offering.

  2. I got pretty tired of how Spaniards are content to comment on anybody and everybody’s size, but I guess there I go, being a hypersensitive American, or whatever you want to call it. As a lady just shy of 6′ tall, I’ve just got to get used to the “grande” adjective. Also, holla for having short beaus.

  3. I second what lauren said!! I’m pretty sure I almost cried I heard a good friend of mine in Spain say how ‘grande’ I was. (I’m 6 feet tall as well) A hypersensitive American is something that I will always be, and that won’t go away. Kaley, I LOVE your posts about relationships. Makes me want my own little Spanish boyfriend so badly! I say little, again, because of the 6 feet thing. haha

    When are you heading back to Spain?

  4. I would love nothing more than to be around for one of those conversations when you’re speaking English and Mario’s speaking Spanish!

  5. Great post! I appreciate it! I agree, communication in a bilingual relationship definitely comes with its challenges! My bf speaks really good, alllllmost perfect English, so whenever I catch a mistake I think it’s cute! I’m a hypocrite though because many times I can’t resist to tease him about it, even though I get really sensitive if I make a mistake in Spanish haha And definitely, the best is having your own “language” that’s a mix of the two that makes other people scratch their heads!

  6. And you can NEVER, EVER call a girl “mi gordi” or “gordita” or any variation, even if it is an affectionate term! I just wrote an article about bilingual dating for a multilingual bookstore’s online site – will let you know when it goes live! Now off to la madre tierra for another year!

    1. Ditto what Cat said. I’m pretty sure there should also be a rule against suegras making comments about weight… every time I see mine I pray to God I don’t get “Mija, te estás poniendo más gordita!” The whole talking-about-weight thing is a cultural thing in Spanish that I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.

  7. You guys are lucky to have such good communication! No Spanish boyfriend for me (yet?) but this reminds me of funny incidents in my private classes. For example, my one male adult student kept thinking “embarrassed” = “pregnant” which made for a rather funny class, lol.

    My family is from the Philippines, and they unfortunately inherited this type of bluntness from their lovely Spanish colonizers, and they are quick to call people “fat” ALL the time, lol, so this is really prepared me for Spain… One day at school, I was at the teacher’s desk and my chair was all the way out (blocking people from walking behind me), and a 10 year old student said: how do you say “gorda?”…

  8. Great post! You guys are so cute!

    I also relate to the “grande” sensitivity. My boyfriend’s ex is a tiny tiny Spanish girl who he called “peque.” I, on the other had, was “gordi”. That did not go over well and I made him put a stop to it asap!

    I think vocab slip-ups lead to some of the funniest moments in a bilingual relationship. One of my favorites was when Alvaro told me not to leave things on the floor because it was covered with Germans (instead of germs). But usually I’m the one making all the mistakes while he speaks his “pretty-amazing-almost-perfect-but-not English.” LIke when I turned to him on an airplane one day and asked him if he wanted to go on a “cruzada” (crusade) instead of a cruise. oops.

    Grammar and pronunciation issues, on the other hand, are definitely more sensitive. I cannot roll my “r”s and sometimes Alvaro tries to help me “practice” by making me repeat lots of words with rolled “r”s. It drives me crazy! Especially when I’m 99% sure he just does it to laugh at me!

  9. i’m so glad i found this… I can totally relate! :) My boyfriend is from Peru and he speaks like maybe 10 phrases in English…haha he is learning…my Spanish is okay but definitely needs improvement. And you’re right – when you love someone you find a way to communicate and its definitely hard sometimes but really rewarding. How long have you been together?

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