…is difficult. I guess that should come as no surprise – trying to order food in a foreign language is difficult enough, so obviously dating should be a bit tricky. Communicating in any sort of relationship is always complicated at times, even when you do speak the same language. Add to that a different culture, upbringing and worldview and you’re bound to run into some issues.
But, naturally, that’s not what’s on your mind when you first start out. You don’t meet the handsome stranger and think, “Hmm, we only have a limited shared vocabulary to verbally communicate to each other with…this could cause some problems.”
No, no, no – you think, “Hmm, I’m in an exotic country and this handsome stranger is pretty dang intriguing…and their English is really good…but I’m sure this isn’t going to go anywhere, that’s just silly, and…shit, they just kissed me.”
And then you’re screwed.
Things are good – it’s always exciting and interesting, and somewhat unbelievable, when you begin to get to know someone. To go out and each time learn a little bit more about them, the window into their lives opening a little bit more.
Then you realize, “Wow, eight months of Thai lessons and I can just get people to understand my order…most of the time. How am I supposed to explain when I’m upset with something? Or, now that we’ve gotten the usual ‘getting to know you’ questions out of the way, how do I explain my political stance or religious beliefs?”. How do you differentiate between stressed and feeling serious when there’s only one word for the two in their language? How do you explain a part of your culture or beliefs accurately when the language is so different and the custom so foreign?
Sometimes you don’t know if it’s the language or the culture differences getting in the way. You get into arguments over little things, like how to sweep the floor because you assumed there weren’t rules to sweep the floor but actually it’s customary to sweep out a certain door at a certain time of day and when that’s being explained to you you don’t quite understand, because those ideas never ever crossed your mind and then you get confused and a little defensive. And then it turns into a misunderstanding because the tone of voice being used comes across as not very kind, but it’s not actually meaning to be harsh there just is a different understanding of the subtleties of the language being used, so things are perceived one way when they’re actually meant in another.
And then you can do one of two things: you can get angry and give up, or you can take a moment to cool down and try again.
What you decide makes all the difference.
Yes, it’s frustrating to not be understood or for what you say to be misconstrued. But if you both realize that this is going to happen, that you have to be patient and try not to lose your temper or jump to conclusions, and are willing to try again, to try to communicate in a different way or word what you said a little differently to be better understood, then it can work. (And speak clearly! Between accents and mispronunciations and gaps in vocabulary, speaking quickly or mumbling is not going to help you.) You both need to give in. You both need to make an effort to figure out what works for the two of you. You both need to cut each other some slack for saying something that doesn’t come across or translate well. Cause it’s going to happen.
But after a while, just like if you were dating someone who spoke the same language, you’ll start to learn how to communicate better. When to speak up and when to hold your tongue, when to push an issue and when to acknowledge you said some things that could have been misinterpreted. You learn that when you hear them say they’re going to ‘sex bar’ they really mean the place called ‘Sax Bar’ down the street to play pool.
When you’re able to make it past those initial hurdles and misunderstandings it gets easier. And, after all, there’s no better way to improve your language skills and get an insider’s perspective of where you’re staying.
Have you been in a relationship with someone who spoke a different language? How did it work out?
Hey! I'm Alana and I've spent nearly the past decade living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, working as a writer and photographer. I started Paper Planes as a place to share local insight, special places, and how to travel well through a range of experiences — from hostels to high-end hotels, street meat to multi-course meals.
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A number of times ive dated people who didn’t speak my native language english.
Russian, hebrew, and spanish being the most common.
the #1 thing it did was improve my skills, my patience, and my understanding of humanity.
thanks for this post.
It definitely opens up your world a bit.
It does seem exotic and exciting, doesn’t it… When I moved to Geneva, I was hoping for a francophone boyfriend with a sailing boat on Lac Léman and a chalet in the mountains. I speak more or less fluent French now, and of course men say that my accent is ‘cute’, but I can’t help but feel a bit silly and incapable of expressing the nuances of what I’m feeling in what is still a foreign language. And I’m still talking about European languages and cultures here!
I think ultimately it comes down to the two individual people and if they work or not…but the different culture/languages definitely adds an extra hurdle sometimes! And nice job on the French…
we’ve been in Thailand almost a year now and although we have learnt basic words. we hardly ever get the chance to properly practice the tones and sentence structure. we learn fastest when we are thrown into real situations. it really is the only way to properly learn.
I took private lessons for a while, and have a decent foundation, but rarely use it except for ordering food (which I’m a pro at). I’ve found it difficult to meet and interact with people who didn’t speak much English and were willing to talk with me. I also haven’t been able to make many Thai friends – without that you can’t practice! It’s frustrating…
I’ve had relationships in Chinese and now Thai. It’s pretty exciting, and always exhilarating but frustrating at the same time. I find that the best only-Thai-speaking friends I’ve made, the ones most willing to talk to me in Thai all the time, are the ladies in their 40s who operate a couple food stalls outside the local 7-11. I have chats with them every time I go to 7-11, and we sit down and gossip like we’re at the beauty parlor. It’s heartwarming, and great practice for my Thai! At one point (before I had a steady Thai boyfriend) I was accepting dates from any Thai man who asked me out, provided he couldn’t speak English. That was great practice too!
I think putting yourself in situations where you’re forced to use the language and stretch yourself is the only way to learn!
I started talking to a boy in Mexico via Facebook. I do not speak any Spanish, however it would appear we are in a relationship. Sometimes it takes a while to explain things to each other, but everything seems to be working fine.
I’m Italian and Dale (my partner) is English but as you can tell there are no language barriers there, when there are though must be so incredibly hard to communicate, I’m sure at the end it’s possible to find the way to understand each other but I don’t know if I could do it myself. Very challenging! 🙂
Hi Alana! Great post! Any intercultural relationship comes with their own share of complications. But even if challenging, it can be an exciting learning experience about another culture and it will definitely help you to improve that foreign language. Even if they don’t always work, I would say follow your heart. After all, every experience in life has something to teach us! Cheers 🙂
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Ani – it’s definitely an interesting ride.
Ha! My husband of many decades and I are both native English speakers, but from different English-speaking countries. We have many cultural differences, and even after all these years, differences in how we use the language. Sometimes it’s been frustrating, but now, thankfully, we usually laugh about these differences. I guess if we didn’t, we wouldn’t still be married 😉
Excellent post, and thanks, as always, for your honesty and accuracy. You write so well.
13 Comments on Dating in a Foreign Language