Many times we take for granted how the use of language is so fundamental in making an impression upon people in social and business interactions. Our ability to speak clearly and articulately is undoubtedly a positive communicator of our disposition and can play an integral role in moving us forward in life. Part of my self-assuredness is derived by my ability to use language technically, artistically, elementally, complexly, sarcastically, and comically when relating an idea or concept to another person. I have spent 35 years developing my vocabulary and always keep a dictionary close at hand for expansion purposes. I have a 95-year-old grandmother, after all, who still marvels me with her words and in whose footsteps I intend to follow.
When marrying another person whose first language is something other than our own, however, how should we handle essentially starting from scratch when we are encouraged to learn the native tongue of our significant others? Some of us will never learn. We will never take the time or make the commitment to learn. Our spouses speak our native tongue and there may seem little need to learn a new language late in life. But many of us think differently. I’ve decided to break this post up into several parts. Throughout the series of posts, I will discuss the reasons it may be important to learn your spouse’s native language and I will discuss the steps that I have taken over the last four years to learn Spanish, my husband’s native tongue. I will also discuss other steps that you may take in your commitment to learn another language. If there is an interest in this topic, I will expand on this discussion in other posts.
Reasons to Learn Your Spouse’s Native Tongue
One of the most important reasons I had for wanting to learn Spanish was so that when I have children, my children could live in a bilingual household. I hoped that my husband would speak to them in Spanish and that I would speak to them in English. If I learned Spanish myself then I could participate in Spanish discussions between my children and their dad. I imagined that living in a bilingual household from birth would give my kids a great advantage in this country of merging ethnicities.
As I began to think about this more, I realized that there was another reason to be somewhat fluent in a language that my children would learn to speak. About two years ago, I began attending Spanish Meetup conversation groups. I was conversing with a girl from the group that was also learning Spanish. She told me that it was important for her to learn Spanish because her children’s caretakers were Spanish-speaking and would speak to her young children only in Spanish. She felt it important to learn at least the basics of the language her children were exposed to so that she could monitor the conversations exchanged between her children and the caretakers. She also wanted to be able to understand things that her children may have picked up from their caretakers and repeated at home. I thought this was very insightful of her and still think this is an important consideration when raising bilingual children.
Family & Friends
What if your spouse’s family doesn’t speak your first language? I think that it is important to show a willingness to communicate as best that you can with the family of your spouse, out of respect. Communication is necessary to maintain a closeness or relatability at some level with your in-laws. It is also nice to be able to communicate with the friends of your spouse that are not fluent in your native tongue.
My husband’s family lives in Puerto Rico and speaks Spanish almost exclusively. I remember being nervous initially about trying to learn a new language and attempting to communicate with them. I wrote this in another blog I used to keep a couple of years ago:
I’d already met G’s parents when they traveled to Washington, D.C. a little over a year ago. His family does not speak much English at all. Now, the impression I make will be derived solely from the little bit of broken and mostly incorrect Spanish that I will be speaking. I will be utterly reliant upon all of my nonverbal actions and mannerisms to create the best impression that I can create. But, realistically, I will be like a child that can’t express herself accurately, who can’t communicate an idea very descriptively, who can’t engage another person the way I do in my native language. I will be starting all over again, from the beginning.
I know it will be fine, but as meticulous as I am with certain details of my representation, I will not be in control of what I consider to be one of the most important components of that representation, my verbal engagement.
At that time, I compared learning and new language and communicating in that language with the simplicity of being a child, unable to express myself sufficiently. Well, it is two years later and although I have improved significantly in Spanish, I am still far from able to express all of the things that I may desire to express. Right now, I am still most comfortable with speaking in the present tense and only in certain subjects. I have a long way to go.
Despite my hesitation about learning and communicating in Spanish, however, I can now see how pleased my in-laws are that I have even attempted to learn Spanish. They go out of their way to help me communicate and I know they appreciate my effort. That is worth all of the uneasiness of starting over again with a new language.
There are other reasons why it is important to learn the native language of your Spouse and I will continue this discussion in next week’s Thursday Forum. The Thursday Forum is the forum that I have chosen to address spousal and family issues. If you’ve got a story about learning a language native to your spouse, please let me know! I want to hear all about it.