In my last post I talked about couples communicating in other languages, and wondered how successful it can be. I’ve also talked about what is sometimes called getting a black-haired dictionary (learning a language from a paramour, in this case a Chinese girlfriend to teach you Chinese). If you have a partner who speaks a different language from you, will it always help you learn that language? Not necessarily.
Depending on your situation, having your partner available to you may be very successful, or not really help you with your language progress at all. Obviously, one of the big factors is the personalities of the people involved. Not everyone is a good teacher, and not everyone is a good student. Some students don’t like being corrected (and some people can’t help correcting others – I’m one of them!), and some teachers find it too frustrating to repeatedly go over the same point. If the teacher already has a good grasp of the student’s native language, it may just seem easier to use that language for communication, and forget about the student learning more.
I know a couple where the husband speaks very little English (but he is currently learning), and the wife speaks very good Chinese. The husband says that his wife is a really bad teacher. I think she may just get frustrated easily and prefers communication to be fast and easy.
Have you been in a relationship where you have been the student or the teacher? How has it worked out?
I was reading a really interesting blog post on Speaking of China, a blog by a western woman who is married to a Chinese man. The post was all about love and language, and people who communicate with their loved one/s in a language that is not native to one or both parties. She was asked whether she had a better relationship with her husband in Chinese or in English. She said that it fluctuated between the two (and may be slightly better in English because of her husband’s studies in the US), but that they have some kind of hybrid Mandarin-English language that they communicate in.
Her English-speaking friend then said that she communicates best with her Chinese husband in a third party language – Japanese. They had met and come to know each other in Japanese, and they both had to try hard to be understood (and understand each other) in that language. I think it says a lot that both people have to compromise and put effort into communicating with each other (instead of it being easy for one person and difficult for another, or frustrating to everyone involved!).
I often wonder how close relationships can be if the language used is a non-native one. On one hand, if you can only say certain things, you might avoid getting into in depth arguments, but on the other, how can you really get to know each other? I’ve seen plenty of couples where speaking is not necessarily the main goal (if you know what I mean!), but if you want a deep relationship, how good do the language skills have to be?
One of the things I find fascinating about languages is connotations. Even if some languages (or even cities or countries) share the same words, the common meanings may be completely different.
Today I learned that in China, you can use the term 爱人 (àiren, literally love person) to mean your husband, wife, partner, sweetheart. A man can introduce his wife to people as his àiren, and the wife can do the same. I find this quite sweet and, as a person who severely dislikes most terms for ‘significant other’ in English (including partner, other half, better half), I think it does the job quite well. There’s also the added bonus of not having to define your relationship to strangers (yes, there’s a stigma about not being married in a lot of places).
Unfortunately, the same phrase in Japan translates to the English meaning of lover. This conveys a somewhat illicit meaning, a mistress, affair, or some other kind of secret relationship. Imagine the staid Japanese coming to China and seeing people introducing their lovers in such a casual way!
Do you know of any other interesting differences in connotation?
One thing I’ve always found a bit awkward with friends who are learning English is the part where they ask me to correct their English whenever they make a mistake. I always feel a bit weird about this, not least because I notice pretty much every mistake anybody makes (especially me). I have no problem at all answering direct questions, or checking particular pieces of work, but if someone asks me to correct them while they’re speaking, I feel quite uncomfortable.
I’ve come up against this problem from the other side as well, where I both want and don’t want people to directly correct my speaking. I want to improve, of course, but I also think it interferes with the flow of communication and can change the dynamic in a friendship or working relationship (and if we’re going to be totally honest, I don’t really like being corrected).
For these reasons, I’ve been loathe to ask friends and co-workers to help me with my language studies, either as tutors or language exchange partners. I prefer to keep my teacher as a separate role from my friends. I don’t know if it’s just me not wanting to look like an idiot in front of people I know (and am not paying for the privilege), or if I have a valid point. I think a good way to do it is to wait for a while to notice the regular (and larger) errors, and then mention them, but I wonder how receptive I would be if someone did that to me. Then again, I wonder how annoyed I would be to independently find out that people hadn’t been correcting huge mistakes in my speaking.
Do you have any particularly positive or negative experiences of getting people besides a teacher to correct your spoken (or written) language?