Can your spouse help you learn a language?

I have been married to a native speaker of Cantonese for 43 years. It was just 12 years ago that I decided to learn the language beyond “how are you.” We still speak with each other mostly in English. Habits are hard to break. If we are married to a native speaker of another language, how much of help is that in learning that language?

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My father was a native speaker of Dutch, but my mom never learned much beyond “how are you”. We lived in Canada so there was no need to speak Dutch. But I know people in Japan with Japanese spouses who can’t say anything beyond “how are you”. Their wives speak English and their friends are mostly foreigners Also, I think (and I’ve some research backing this up) people are unlikely to change their language of communication once a relationship has been established. Once you become fluent, and if you live in the country where the language is spoken, you may gradually shift into speaking the spouse’s language. As you say, you mostly speak to your wife in English. But if you moved to Hong Kong and were surrounded by Cantonese speakers a lot, then perhaps, over time, you would shift into speaking Cantonese to each other.

But if, for example, you are a learner of Japanese living in Japan and you marry a Japanese woman with whom you mostly speak Japanese (even though you aren’t fluent yet), it’ll presumably do wonders for your language abilities.

So unless you already speak the language together, your spouse may not be of all that much help in learning their langauge.

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Just like with kids, it is the community that really informs the language habits of the family. That is, the dominant language of the community will usually trump everything.

With Japanese non-natives who marry Japanese but never learn it, it is unique situation where the community probably for all intents and purposes is English (usually). This probably would only happen in a country like Japan which has a unique way of both accommodating and segregating foreign influence.

I agree with dooo’s point, but I disagree that the situation is unique in Japan. You’ll find English-speaking expat communities pretty much anywhere you go. As well, you’ll find Japanese-speaking expat communities, French-speaking expat communities, Chinese-speaking expat communities, etc.

My wife is Japanese but I find that is only helpful as a general motivator for learning Japanese. I do not like talking about Japanese language to my wife because, frankly, she is not really interested.

As far as speaking the language to her, it feels weird to do so in Canada, so we don’t. although we do make small talk with the kids in Japanese. We also both read to the kids in Japanese as well as watch Japanese kids shows.

It also depends on which language it is the partner speaks. My partner’s native language is one of the main languages spoken in Ghana. There is very little material available for that language and frankly I am not a language explorer like Moses who likes to learn less mainstream types of languages. I am more attracted to languages which have a far reach and a large global community that uses it.

I have to say after the intense work I have been putting into Chinese for all these years I don’t know if and when I get myself to take on another one, but if so it will probably be from this pool: Japanese, Portuguese, maybe Dutch.

But then again, maintaining one’s existing portfolio is already more than enough work. I never felt that I have a special talent for languages and in a way I feel very often that learning languages is all about trying every day to suck a little bit less, rather than ever being really good at it.

My wife is Korean. Before I met her I studied Korean for about 4-5 months. After we met I helped her with her English, but we never worked on my Korean. I recently have attempted to begin learning Korean again after two years of being together. What I have discovered is that, she either laughs, calling my learning “cute” or that she is too harsh on correcting me. I feel that the being harsh is something more cultural from listening to her horror stories of her days in Korea’s school system. Harsh just doesn’t work for me when I am trying to learn a language and know in the back of my head that I just don’t need to learn it. On top of that she knows there is no reason I need to learn it either, since we live in America. We do baby sit some Korean kids and I say some basic Korean to them, since it seems to please them to hear it and gets them to even speak English more (which currently their skill in English is lacking). Therefore, I see no day that I will ever speak to my wife in Korea, it feels weird, I don’t want to fail her and she is too critical to make it perfect. Also, it almost seems like a trust issue for me to learn it, she left Korea, but yet I want to learn Korea and want to watch Korean Dramas, that is a problem. Yet on the flip side, I’m sure she wants me to learn it to talk to her parents one day, as do I. So it’s tough both ways.

On top of this over 15 years ago I dated another Korean (no I don’t only date Asians). This woman was a professor of Korean for the military, so you would think she could teach me something. Yet, she taught me even less, I never even knew how to say anyeonghasayo from her. So I think unless you have someone that is equally motivated to teach you as you are motivated to learn, it just doesn’t work.

My wife is Thai.
At the beginning of our story, we spoke in English only.
Now, we speak in English and Thai, I would say 50/50.

I think in the (near) future we will speak Thai most of the time, but we will never stop communicate in English. As pointed earlier by Steve, habits are hard to break !

In my opinion, having a spouse whose native language is your target language is good to PRACTICE, not to LEARN.

My experience – if learning from a low level, and, if you already have another common language you are both good at, then this is not a good idea.

Some reasons

–they will often resent having to teach you like a baby
–it is another chore in their day, for you
–feedback is really difficult to manage
–there are much better ways to learn a language (like lingq) (and you will surprise and impress your partner by making an effort in your own time)

However, if your ability is already ok, and, you just use your partner’s language in general everyday use, and, you pick up some new things now and again then this is obviously ok.

Here in Finland things are maybe a bit different than in Japan. Most of the foreigners I know who live here, have learned to speak Finnish,including getting help from their Finnish partners. Someone correct me if I am wrong. Except those who did not put effort(or do not have a good method) to learn the language. Like me before. As far as I am concerned people from latinoamérica,Spain,Italy(those are the ones I have more contact) are quite good help for their partners to learn their language(always when the other have the interest and attitude to learn). I have friends who have learned for example Spanish basically speaking with their partners(occasionally reading and studying some text books,after attending some classroom lessons,but not that much)and they say to me,my partner have been my best help,my best teacher.

However, my experience have been different(as I suposse similar to the others)my partner is Finnish,we met in Spain. When we met he spoke very poor Spanish(he uses a lot Italian vocabulary) so I was very patient with him. He says that he learned to speak Spanish with me. After 5 years speaking in Spanish I got bored to his strong accent and to see him not improving in the language. He would not understand what I was saying sometimes and will take long time to explain,express certain things fluently sometimes. Because he is the" speaking advocate" he don´t like to read,and he thinks that the way you learn is Speaking.

My mother language is Portuguese,and my partner dont show any interest to learn Portuguese. I even created a LingQ account to him. he uses it maybe twice,then never again.

As we have been leaving betwen Finland and Spain, I did not speak English 1 year ago,even know I am still studying. I decided to start speaking in English with him as his English is stronger than his Spanish. Yet even now when he wakes up he speaks to me in Spanish I answer in English because I want to learn, I want to use my English. Maybe it sounds heavy,boring I don´t know. I don´t really care, because that is actually the only way I can get practice. Anyway after 4 months we changed the language I see him trying to keep his Spanish “skills” talking with me in Spanish and sometimes in Italian(as he believes he have a “talent” for languages and I do not have that talent). From my experience I know that " Talent is overrated". Especially when it cames to language. It is so anoying because my tongue language is Portuguse and if I am willing to talk in Spanish I will meet my Hispanohablante native Friends.

Now when it cames to his mother language Finnish better not even try to get any help. Even last time I would like to listen to some Finnish songs he got so anoyed. He only wants to listen Italian songs,Spanish songs etc And also watch Italian moves(what I understand and encourage him, if it is so important for him). So I am kind of creating my learnind enviroment into my pc,my ipod and exchange group conversation.

Good luck for those willing to learn the partner language!.

First of all, it’s quite interesting how many persons here have a spouse from another country.

My fiancée is from Russia. At the beginning of our relationship we spoke mostly in English, because her German was very bad and my Russian nonexistent. Today we converse mostly in German. We knew very early on that (after completing our studies) we would live in Germany, because there are no job prospects for me in her hometown, Arkhangelsk (and in general very few in Russia, but the situation may hopefully change with the rise of Skolkovo). Therefore, she had to learn German to a high level (she passed the C1 test a few month ago), while my Russian studies were more or less a hobby (I know it on a B2 level) and just important to speak with her family and friends, as none of them understands English.

As JujuLeCaribou and iang I have made the experience, that having a foreign spouse can help you to practice a language and to pick up some new things (provided that you speak it already on an intermediate level), but it won’t help you much learning the language from scratch.

I have been married a Brazilian, She always spoke with me in portugues and I spoke her in spanish. I can say that my comprension of portugues is like a native, if there are two portugueses speaking behind me very very fast, I understand 100 % like spanish, I never studied portugues in my life. When I meet with some brazilian`friends and one of them is a person who isn´t a native portugues speaker but speaks so well portugues, sometimes, if he or she says something wrong(grammatically), I notice inmediatly, you know, , My brain says me is not the correct form, it’s incredible because I never took a class of portugues in my life.

obviously, my ability to speak portugues is not too high, I make some mistakes when I speak, but I can comunicate, so for me, the most importance thing is the comprension, If you´re be able to understand every thing then you can comunicate without problems

@Friedemann: “…I have to say after the intense work I have been putting into Chinese for all these years I don’t know if and when I get myself to take on another one, but if so it will probably be from this pool: Japanese, Portuguese, maybe Dutch.”

IMO You should learn Czech or Russian! That way you’d soon have very fond memories of Chinese grammar! :slight_smile:

My hubby is British but he benefits more from my English language skills (and occasionally humour) than I do from him being born in Britain. Two recent examples include the word “slop chit” and courtesy of JayB yesterday the word “resile” :slight_smile: and he is a cambridge grad at that!
However, in his defence he is an engineer and I moved to the UK relatively early in life and studied English literature :slight_smile: so we’re even.


What! He’s Cambridge man and he doesn’t know the word “resile”…!? :-0

He should’ve studied law! (Or Latin…!) :-p

JayB - It would appear resile is not a requirement for software :slight_smile:
Oxford is better for Latin :slight_smile:

My brother’s wife is Brazilian. They speak English at home. Recently my brother decided to learn Brazilian Portuguese, but he has not told his wife this. He wants to learn a bit and then suprise her with his basic knowledge. THEN he wants to begin having basic conversations with her. I suppose this is a good strategy. I told him living with a native speaker will almost certainly be an advantage. I told him that, when he eventually starts learning with his wife, he should tell her that on certain days she should speak to him only in Portuguese.

That is a good idea.