It almost goes without saying that learning your partner’s language is a precursor to a lasting relationship. While inter-linguistic fluency is certainly not necessary for successful bilingual relationships to flourish, the act of learning a language for love is an investment — one that demonstrates a commitment and the desire to meet each other halfway.
Based on recent research, it seems that language might not be as big of a barrier as cultural differences. Dr. Jane Elizabeth Dum, a professional counselor in Munich, recalls one couple who had no common language, but managed to speak with body language. When you consider that most communication is non-verbal, this doesn’t seem like that much of an impossibility.
Kyle Killian, a researcher specializing in intercultural couples and families, notes that though existing research on bilingual relationships has a negative slant — i.e. higher divorce rates — much of it is based on the cultural bias of previous decades, wherein intercultural and interracial dating was seen as problematic. Killian’s view, espoused in a book he co-edited, is that more recent studies don’t necessarily point to a greater likelihood of separation or divorce among cross-cultural couples. It seems that the cross-cultural couples who do wind up struggling may do so for reasons that have very little to do with language on its own.
So, will language keep you together for the long haul? There are ways to get close to a definitive answer, and you may just learn some interesting things about human relationships in the process.
What’s To Blame For Miscommunication?
It’s worth pointing out that communication can be a huge issue for monolingual couples, too. Though speaking the same language makes certain aspects of a relationship easier — like expressing the nuances of your emotions, having complex intellectual discussions, and meeting each other’s families — not having the assumption of a common vocabulary can actually have unexpected benefits.
According to one couple’s account, “In some ways, not hiding behind words feels more honest. I couldn’t lie to him or hide my emotions because I couldn’t talk freely to him! Everything is out there in the open — once we’d gotten used to each other, when we’re together, all I have to do is look at his face to know what he’s feeling.”
Another man in a bilingual relationship admitted to being able to talk his way out of situations in previous monolingual relationships. “I just can’t do that in this relationship. You can’t gloss over things,” he said.
One American blogger who married a Japanese man writes that arguments are way less focused on the “he said, she said” aspect. Instead, they’ve “learned to focus more on what the other person is feeling, rather than what they say.”
“It’s not fair to Ryouske to fight with complicated words and hidden meanings,” she wrote. “We have to be very clear. And oddly enough, that has helped us both be much more honest when it comes to disagreements. He doesn’t have to worry about accidentally saying the wrong thing and I don’t have to worry about [loading] up my words with hidden meanings.”
A 2010 study that examined couples and their text messages found that the more two people “sounded” alike, or mirrored each other’s words and language structure, the more likely they were to be dating three months later.
Lovers Usually Create Their Own Language Anyway
One tell-tale sign that a couple is cut out for the long haul? The formation of an “insider” language, including inside jokes, pet names and more. This type of idiosyncratic communication deepens your bond with another, and it also establishes a shared identity.
Research from Ohio State University psychologist Carol Bruess suggests that there’s a link between how often couples use private words and how happy they are together.
Here’s another thing that happens to couples who have been together for a long time: they actually start to sound alike.
Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Powers of Two, writes that long-term couples “start to match each other in the basic rhythms and syntactical structures of their speech.” This is due to something psychologists call emotional contagion, which causes us to mimic everything from our partner’s accent to their laugh.
As it turns out, this can actually be an important indicator of how long a couple will stay together. A 2010 study that examined couples and their text messages found that the more two people “sounded” alike, or mirrored each other’s words and language structure, the more likely they were to be dating three months later.
This is obviously more easily accomplished in the same language, but it’s also true that when you date someone who speaks a different language, your knowledge of that language is frequently skewed to their individual speech habits anyway.
When’s The Best Time To Learn For Love?
If emotions and oxytocin were enough to bring you together, language-learning will probably help strengthen and elongate that bond. But at what stage in the relationship does it make sense to formally invest in learning your partner’s language?
Among the Telegraph‘s four tips for bilingual dating, one major one is “don’t make your partner your translator.” The biggest reason? Learning can be frustrating for both the teacher and the student, and that might not be a dynamic you want to bring into your love life. If you’ve reached the point in your relationship where absorbing stray bits of slang no longer feels sufficient, it might be time to crack a textbook or download a language-learning app.
This is a less concrete milestone than meeting the parents, becoming “official” (or defining the relationship), or moving in together. Any three of these stages could prompt you to learn the other’s language for slightly different reasons. If you meet your lover’s family, you’re more likely to experience a pronounced language barrier. If you become official, you’ve decided to invest in each other. And if you move in together, you’ve formally committed to building a life together — and all that this entails.
Additionally, it’s worth considering that having children who only speak one language will create an imbalance in your parenting roles. If marriage or cohabitation didn’t motivate you to pull the trigger, then ultimately, children might — but of course, that all depends on your shared vision for your family. As with all things relational, communicating this vision is your best bet for ensuring you’re truly on the same page.