Intercultural Relationships Part 2: Navigating the language barrier

language barriers in relationships
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In part 1, I talked about how to navigate cultural issues. What about when this is compounded by a language barrier? Your home will probably have a dominant language, the one that both of you speak well enough to communicate in. This may be your native language, your partners, or perhaps even a third language which is a second language for both (such as the official language of the country you’re living in, and the couple have no other common language).

Most people can’t or don’t communicate effectively with people who already speak their native language, and we are unfortunately living in an era of declining social skills. When your partner is from a different language background, effective communication skills become even more important.

With the following advice I’m assuming there is enough language skill for most day-to-day communication, that you can generally understand each other, but may have occasional miscommunications or misunderstandings. These may arise from grammatical mistakes, misused or confused vocabulary, difficulty expressing complex ideas or forming complex sentences, etc.

Here’s some tips for navigating the language barrier

  1. Be patient
    Try not to get frustrated at inefficient communication or when you have difficulty understanding. Be clear about what you need from them (speak louder, I can’t understand what you mean by this word, I’m confused by your grammar). If you give specific feedback, it will help them to better address the problem and improve their language skills. Otherwise, they may just speak louder thinking you didn’t hear rather than doing anything to improve  their clarity.
  2. Respect your partners feelings when they make mistakes 
    Refrain from mocking them particularly in a mean spirited way. If they are already lacking confidence with the language, don’t damage it further, it will make them more reluctant to speak.
  3. Learn each other’s native language
    Particularly if your language is the dominant one, at least make an effort to learn some basics of your partner’s language. The insights you will gain from learning their language, particularly if it’s not a widely spoken one, will be invaluable in helping you to understand them. It will help you to understand where formality is required, the people who are culturally highly-regarded (eg. teachers, parents, elders), and understand for example, the barriers they have had in education (speakers of some languages suffer with limited access to information as it has not been translated, and may be decades behind in some areas of science and health knowledge). Many cultural beliefs are embedded in language and it will assist you in understanding some of their quirks.
  4. Rephrase what they have said
    Repeat what has been said back to them and either reword it or correct their mistakes. This will help them to know if they have been understood or not and if they have said what they intended to.
  5. When there seems to be a misunderstanding, ask them to say what they understood
    Have you ever said something completely innocent and your partner got upset or angry for no apparent reason? They may have heard something different or misunderstood you. Prediction plays a large role in conversation and someone’s mood can also influence how things are interpreted. This is a greater problem when there is limited ability in the language spoken because there’s more room for the brain to project it’s predictions and distort the message. If their reaction seems inconsistent with what you’ve said, it can be helpful to just ask what they actually heard and explain gently that they were mistaken if necessary. This is also a good thing to remember if you ever need to give important instructions, ask them to repeat them back and/or rephrase them. Otherwise, you may get an absent minded ‘yes’ and wonder why they didn’t do what you asked.
  6.  Give them space when they feel overwhelmed
    Speaking a different language full time is not easy. I remember when I visited my husbands family who spoke very little English and sometimes I just wanted to hide in their guest room and read or listen to something in English. I also never wanted to speak Turkish when I was tired. The good thing about this stay though was that I learned a lot of Turkish. I couldn’t use English as a crutch there, but it was really exhausting at times. These kind of feelings will be more common the lower your level in that language. If your partner ever feels such a way give them some time or speak their language if possible.
  7. Be clear and succinct
    Less is more. Pronounce words clearly and speak plainly. When someone’s learning a language don’t bog them down with rarely used or unnecessary, difficult words. Use the most common terms and speak in simple sentences.
  8. Slow down
    When someone is getting used to a new language, they will need more time to process words and sentences. Some exchanges may become automatic quickly (like hello, how are you? Hi, I’m good, you?) but other topics they may need you to speak slower. Try not to slow down so much that you come off as insulting or that you’re treating them like an idiot.
  9. Listen
    By this I mean really listen, pay attention and try to understand them, on more than just a linguistic level too. Make an effort to understand their accent and grammatical quirks, as well as what they are actually trying to tell you. Be present and interested.
  10. Don’t expect them to speak like a native
    For most people, it is a really unreasonable expectation for them to have a native accent in a second language and also use grammar with the same proficiency. My husband still confuses he and she because in his native language of Turkish there are no gendered pronouns (he/she/it all use the same word which is “o”). While this makes some things extremely confusing, like when he is telling an anecdote about 2 or more people of different genders and I get lost about which he is referring to, I just ask which person he means, or correct him and let it go. I understand that it may take him a long time to use these naturally and that’s okay. I adapt myself to his speech patterns. I notice that when he speaks with others some people cannot understand him because he doesn’t pronounce things in the exact Australian way, whereas others have no trouble in understanding him. I believe that is just coming down to people’s exposure to foreigners and foreign accents. His speaking is not the issue and having an Australian accent would only cause problems in other areas. Perfection isn’t necessary and in my opinion there’s no point getting to ‘native level’ as you’ll still have misunderstandings anyway.

Don’t forget to check out the previous article on cultural issues if you missed it

Let me know if I’ve missed anything in the comments below! What’s your experience been?

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