What it's like to love someone in a second language
“So, do you speak to each other in English or Spanish?” is up there as one of the questions I’m most frequently asked about my bilingual relationship — typically by curious strangers, although sometimes by friends who clearly haven’t been paying that much attention. While slightly bizarre, I can understand the curiosity factor about romance in a second language. (And hey, it’s a better, less problematic question than “So, which one of you needs a visa?” Spoiler alert: neither of us.)
I guess it’s to be expected when you’re a Spanish-speaking British woman and your boyfriend is an English-speaking Mexican man.
Long story short, I’m happy to answer the question: We mainly speak to each other in Spanish.
As a native English speaker, this can come with some unexpected frustrations. Primarily speaking in a second language can often leave me feeling confused and angry — especially in the heat of an argument, like when I throw the word estúpido around, thinking it has the same easy breezy meaning as “stupid” in conversational English. (It does not.) And don’t even get me started on innocuous but minor mistranslations —like when I think embarazada means “embarrassed” (it means “pregnant”) — that can blow things way out of proportion and show that appropriate tone can be very tricky to master.
On the flip side, there’s nothing that leaves me feeling more badass and invincible than arguing effectively in a second language. I dare you to defy that bold claim after winning your first argument in a language that is not native to you. Do tread lightly though. Yes, getting mad in another language is one of the most satisfying, bet-you-weren’t-expecting-that moments that any language learner can experience, but it will get you in hot water when you’re doing it with someone you love — just like any lover’s quarrel in your native tongue.
However, an unexpected bonus of being a bilingual couple: Misunderstandings can easily be worked out in two languages, leading to a greater understanding of one another in the long run.
My boyfriend now knows what I’m talking about in Spanglish, and I can understand his English mistranslations.
Still, the fear of fatal misunderstandings remains a major downside for anyone experiencing love in another language.
It’s a nagging doubt that doesn’t just fade into the background once the fight is long finished, either. For me, there is always an underlying fear — in both romantic and platonic relationships primarily conducted in a language that’s not my first — that the relationship is built on a lie. A lie built on negated nuance and confused conjugation that will eventually lead to an unravelling sense of self and the discovery that my witty personality and unique thought process didn’t translate the way I’d hoped.
And as ashamed as I am to admit it, I’m a total language hog when it comes to communicating with my boyfriend — to the point that he’ll be speaking to me in English and I’ll respond, out of habit, with ¿qué? rather than, you know, continuing the conversation in my native tongue. (He gets his revenge by correcting my Spanish in front of people — like that time I misconjugated morder and said mordas instead of muerdas — because he knows it annoys me no end.)
But the facts are that we live together in a Spanish-speaking country, we got to know each other while communicating in Spanish, and we live our lives predominantly in Spanish. That’s why I naturally shy away from speaking English with him. My native language feels unfamiliar in our relationship, but I’ve promised that I’ll be more flexible when we move to an English-speaking country.
While there can be many (mostly harmless) annoyances in a bilingual relationship, there are so many fundamental benefits, too.
Upside numero uno (see, I told you I was bilingual) is that you just have to become better at communicating with one another to make things work (no matter how well you speak your respective second or third languages). This might mean stopping mid-fight to clarify exactly what the other person is saying or just taking the time to explain things more clearly to one another, which has the added bonus of giving you some extra seconds to calm down. Alternatively, it might mean overplaying your “Oh I didn’t hear you, can you repeat that?” hand to make sure you really know what’s going on. (I honestly use that one far more than I care to admit.)
When you eventually reach a point of mutual understanding and minimal linguistic confusion, your relationship will be stronger for it. After all, communication is the foundation of a healthy partnership, and if you can negotiate that in two languages, I’d say you’re doing pretty damn well.
Upside numero dos is that, even if everything goes horribly wrong…well, at least all that extracurricular effort is likely to help you absolutely nail your final year Spanish exams. What are you waiting for? Go and find love in another language.