A high school dropout from Florida learns French so he can talk to his longtime partner’s parents. Despite a strong accent, the son of an Austrian police chief woos and wins the daughter of a prominent American politician. A one-time political science student from Senegal has been happily married for nearly 20 years to a guy from working-class London. Who are these couples? Johnny Depp and French actress Vanessa Paradis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver, and Iman and David Bowie.
Dating someone who grew up speaking a different language than your own isn’t just for the rich and famous. According to the last census, Americans speak more than 300 languages. About 82 percent of us grew up speaking English, 11 percent grew up in Spanish-speaking households, and the rest of us have learned to say “I love you” in everything from Arabic to Zuni.
You might find yourself mysteriously attracted to someone who didn’t grow up speaking the same language as you. To which we say, “Bravo!” (Or “Brava,” if you’re a woman; that’s the proper French!) But first, consider the following words (“palabras” in Spanish and “Wörter” in German) of advice.
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Make the effort
“One of the things I tell everyone to do is to attempt to learn your partner’s language,” says Dugan Romano, a Washington, D.C.-based cross-cultural consultant, journalist and author of Intercultural Marriage: Promises and Pitfalls, now in its third edition. “You may never become fluent, but you will get to know more about your partner’s thought processes.”
At the very least, you’ll appreciate how hard your partner has worked to learn English. And your partner’s family will appreciate you, too, says Susan Baroncini-Moe, an Indianapolis, IN-based marketing consultant who’s married to her business partner, Leonardo Baroncini. “I really want to be able to talk more with Leo’s family in Uruguay. They’re so warm and friendly.”
You’re not a language teacher
“You have to be very careful about this, because a relationship is not a classroom,” says Lynn Visson, an adjunct professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California and author of Wedded Strangers: The Challenges of Russian-American Marriages. “I think it’s absolutely critical to help your non-English-speaking partner to take lessons outside the home.”
Cari Andreani, a Jacksonville, FL high school teacher, recalls the challenge of going to movies early in her marriage to Madrid native Juan Luis. “My husband was constantly saying, ‘What did he say?’ when the actors would speak too fast or use slang, or he would ask, ‘What does that mean?’ By the time I would answer him, I would miss the next part of the movie.”
Be sensitive to possible miscommunications
Of course, you should also do this if you marry the girl (or boy) next door. But it’s a key issue for people who grew up speaking different languages in their professional lives, too. “We’re both facilitators — professionally, that’s what we do,” says Allen Gunn, referring to himself and his Costa Rican wife, Lena. Gunn is executive director of Aspiration, a San Francisco-based technology support provider for nonprofits and international development organizations, and Lena is a journalist who also works in international development. “We’re both very aware of language issues,” notes Gunn. “So anytime there’s a miscommunication, we adjust, we listen.”
Copenhagen native Berit Brogaard, who teaches philosophy and psychology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, has studied the differences between English and her native Danish. “If you go into McDonald’s and order a Happy Meal without saying ‘Please,’ people look at you as if you’re wearing a Cubs jersey to a Cardinals game,” she says. “But we don’t have a word for ‘please’ in Danish. Everyone knows you are being polite when you ask for something!”
The subtleties of humor
Humor is one of the most difficult things to master in any language. “When I first started dating in Italy, I felt that I wasn’t myself — I was much too nice,” admits Romano with a laugh. “That’s because I didn’t have the vocabulary to be witty or sarcastic in Italian and so I came across as a much nicer person than I really am.” Romano eventually learned Italian quite well and married an Italian man with whom she’s shared an exciting globe-trotting life.
For many couples, though, humor is a key factor in any relationship’s success. So, how do you find balance when language gets in the way? “There’s sometimes a little explaining to do, but on the other hand you create a lot of humor, like when one of you doesn’t pronounce a word right,” says Lena Gunn. “But we respect each other’s feelings. That’s the important thing.”
English is a foreign language, too
Your dear partner, struggling heroically to express a complicated sentiment, can easily miss many of the nuances of this adopted language. “More than once I’ve heard an American husband complain that his Russian wife is bossing him around,” says Visson, who interviewed more than 200 Russian-American couples while writing her book. “In English, when a person says ‘Let’s go to the movies,’ the ‘Let’s’ signals that it’s a polite request. You don’t have that in Russian. People say to each other, ‘We’re going to the movies.’ This is in fact is a polite question, an interrogative, but when translated literally into English, it can sound harsh, like an order.”
Says Leonardo Baroncini, Susan’s Uruguyan-born husband: “Once I wanted to tell Susan that she was sweet and fair and delicious, so I thought, ‘I’ll call her a marshmallow.’ Fortunately, she laughed! I learned pretty soon that you don’t want to say that to a woman in America.” And remember, you will be exotic — to your partner. When Brogaard first came to America in 1996, she was struck by the rich vocabulary when it comes to dating. “There are many terms for relationships in English — ‘seeing each other,’ ‘going out,’ ‘dating,’ ‘going steady,’ ‘hooking up.’ Learning all these terms and what they mean was very challenging for me. In Denmark, we simply say ‘a relationship’ or ‘a serious relationship.’”
Vive le romance!
Ultimately, dating someone who grew up speaking a different language from your own can change your life. Take TV producer Michael Sousa, who met his future wife, Heide — a native of Germany — at a New York disco in 1990. “The language difficulty actually brought us closer together because of the need to help each other,” recalls Sousa. “It made our love stronger because in a sense, it was against the odds. And it was fun, especially in the beginning, as she taught me words in German.” Eventually, Sousa became so fluent that he was hired to help launch QVC Germany, where he, Heidi and their bilingual daughter currently live.
Or consider Dallas minister Gloria Tate-Read and Tino, the Mexican man she met in seminary school. Though they never married, Gloria and Tino’s story is just as touching as Michael and Heide’s. Says Tate-Read: “I helped him get a job with a bilingual church where he performed services in English and in Spanish. I’m proud of that. People love him. He’s a wonderful speaker, much better at preaching than I am!” So the next time someone catches your eye and you find yourself unable to share a conversation, take heart: Love can cross any language barriers if you’re willing to give it a chance.
Kent Miller is currently writing a comic young adult novel. His articles have appeared in Nintendo Power magazine, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The San Francisco Chronicle and The St. Petersburg Times (Florida).