Misunderstandings are usual in all kinds of relationships: with your partner, family, friends and colleagues. However, when this is a multilingual relationship and you have to communicate in a language that is not your mother tongue, the challenges are even more interesting, let’s say.
In the last episode of “Más allá de la Lengua” (Beyond the Language), the podcast that Sara from Handyspanish and I release once a month, we discuss the misunderstandings of arguing/fighting with your partner when your native languages are different. If you are learning Spanish or it’s your mother tongue, I strongly recommend you hear it, I’m sure it will be extremely useful! Not only for romantic relationships but all the bonds you are cultivating abroad.
An Example to Illustrate Language Misunderstandings
In the podcast with Sara and now with you, I share the following story:
One of our first arguments with my husband was in Spanish. He was forcing himself to practice Spanish (his native language is German) and didn’t want us to converse in English. So when we started, I had to force myself to speak slowly… very hard, because I was angry about something (Actually I don’t remember what it was, it was 12 years ago!) but I did anyway. In the heat of the discussion, he throws this bomb to me: “you are pathetic.”
Yes, you are pathetic he repeated, even more convinced… can you imagine how upset I was? I stood up and went away. After some minutes, he approached me laughing. I was still angry of course. How dare he call me pathetic and then laugh???
He had a dictionary on his hands. Long story short:
English (and Spanish) definition of Pathetic: Pitiful, absurd, laughable
German definition: Dramatic, theatrical
We were able to laugh about it and continued our conversation. But only because he was wise enough to understand there was a communication problem.
This is a very common issue between multilingual relationships. Language disagreements are exacerbated by the heat of the argument, and a little misunderstanding can lead to a big fight. As expats we often feel especially vulnerable, and our emotions are not easy to manage. That’s why you must stop escalation based on something you can easily avoid.
All expats and internationals know that even if you speak very well the native language of your partner, there are still nuances or double meanings of words that are very easy to confuse/misinterpret. Even if it is the same language! My mother tongue is Spanish (from Chile) and I have some challenges and funny misunderstandings with people in Spain. It’s common and part of the perks of living and loving abroad.
How to Save your Multilingual Relationship?
Language-related misunderstandings can be difficult to cope with. My partner and I still laugh about the “pathetic” anecdote. But what if my partner wouldn’t have noticed the word had different meanings depending on the language?
I want to give you these four golden tips to bear in mind EVERY TIME you see a multilingual argument coming.
1.- REMEMBER: YOUR PARTNER IS NOT YOUR ENEMY.
It seems so obvious but is not. My first reaction when I heard my partner was anger. I didn’t think “oh, maybe he meant it in another way”.
Every client that is in a multicultural relationship has had this first reaction.
I know is difficult, but give him/her the benefit of the doubt. Ask him/her twice or even three times what he/she means. Don’t ever forget is the person you choose to love.
2.- MAKE SURE YOU DELIVER THE MESSAGE AS CLEARLY AS POSSIBLE.
As the sender of the message, it is your responsibility to deliver it as clear and straight forward as possible, so the receiver can understand exactly what you mean.
I’m not kidding, if necessary, draw it. Explain it slowly. Have a dictionary near you. Use metaphors. It may sound exhausting, but it comes a long way. And encourage your partner to do the same!
3.- HAVE A COMMON WORD TO STOP ESCALATION.
It is difficult to stop an argument, especially when you feel you still have so much to say. However, generally is more sane and reasonable to stop the fight altogether before it escalates.
How? Find a word that suits you both and use it when you want to stop the conversation and need a break.
You assign the meaning.
For instance: the word “apple”. If you or your partner say apple, the conversation must stop immediately and one of you (or both) should go to another room for the time you agreed upon. After that time, you can resume the conversation. Believe me, it works!
4.- FIND YOUR LANGUAGE AS A COUPLE
You are a cultural entity, you are integrating both languages and both cultures.
Developing your own private language can be, apart from fun and enhance your complicity, a way to:
– communicate more effectively as couple.
– evolve your language along with your relationship
I wish that these tips, insights and suggestions are helpful and lead you to start living the expat life you desire and deserve.
Take the reins now and live a fulfilled and happy international life, wherever you are, wherever you are heading!
Want your 30-Minute Free Consultation? Book Here!
Still not sure about making the next move? Read the testimonials of my clients living the life abroad they want!
By your side,
Gabriela Encina is an online psychologist specialized in expat women and supports them with the guidance and tools they need to feel confident, make the best decisions for their lives, build and maintain meaningful relationships and prioritize their well-being.
Her approach is practical, solution-oriented and focused on the present.
Gabriela offers counseling to expat women in Spanish, English and German.