How to teach your mother tongue to your spouse (part 1 of 3)

logo blog post about teaching one‘s mother tongue

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NB: this series of articles has been written for couples whose mother tongues are different. However the tips provided can perfectly be used in other situations. The only prerequisite is that the teacher and student spend a lot of time together.
Also do note that we’ll talk about teaching and learning to speak the language, not to write it.

Update 2020: unfortunately my relationship referred to throughout this article ended in 2019 after 8 years. However the methods and mindset highlighted here proved their effectiveness since she indeed could speak French and I got good basis in Chinese (my shortcomings being due to a lack of practice rather than the wrong methods). So whatever my next long-term relationship ends up being, I will most certainly follow my own advice.

With hindsight however I want to insist once more on the need to communicate enough in your common language: communication is always a challenge (as anyone who’s been/currently is in a long-term relationship will confirm), and a strong focus on learning/teaching a foreign language can create a distance between partners, simply because they don’t speak well enough. It’s perhaps the most difficult part: moving the process along while retaining a strong connection…

Expatriation because of work, business trips, exchange programs during higher education or international agreements that facilitate international mobility (the Schengen area for example); it gets easier and easier to travel and build relationships with people from other countries who, more often than not, don’t speak the same language as you. And while 10 or 20 years ago most trips were business trips (meaning quite short) or touristic travels (meaning mostly superficial contacts with the locals), things have changed indeed and it’s now much more common to build your life in a country different from where you were born. Or at least to spend an extended part of your life abroad.
And thus we naturally see the rise of couples whose members come from different countries and have different mother tongues!

Learning & Teaching a Mother Tongue – Why?

In general international couples have a common language (otherwise it would be difficult to understand each other!). Sometimes it’s the mother tongue of one of the two if the other one has learned it already, but often they use a third language. For example I knew a Swedish-Indonesian couple who used Chinese to communicate! They had met during their studies in Taiwan before going back together to Sweden. A similar story with a Swedish-Taiwanese couple using japanese. But as far as I’m concerned my situation is a more classic one, with English as the common language.
At any rate, very seldom will both persons know their spouse’s mother tongue, and thus the question of whether to teach your language to your spouse comes up. An important question, if there ever was any, since speaking your partner’s mother tongue has many advantages, among which:

  • Being able to communicate with the in-laws and/or friends of your spouse who only speak their mother tongue.
  • Easier to find a job and to handle the everyday life (administrative tasks, in the shops, relationship with the neighbors…) when living in one of the partners’ country.
  • Allowing the children to learn both parents’ language by using both at home (not just one, not a third language).
  • Getting to know your spouse better: a language, through the expressions it contains, the words we pick and so on, reflects a culture.
  • Allowing for richer communication: using your mother tongue instead of a language you learned very often leads to deeper conversations. Picking the right words and expressions, play on words…
  • Having a language people around don’t understand: it comes in handy the day you want to say something to your spouse only!
  • Etc.

Learning & Teaching a Mother Tongue – Why Not?

So if we all agree more or less that speaking an additional language, and especially your partner’s, can only be beneficial, then why isn’t everyone doing it? Besides, the learning conditions seem ideal: no expensive courses, possibility to practice regularly, possibility to apply what we learn and thus see how useful it is…
It’s actually quite difficult to answer this question and it certainly deserves a little survey: dear reader, if your couple has two different mother tongues and you do not intend to learn/teach them, why?
In any case here are a few thoughts on the matter:

  • Lack of methodology: not everyone is a pedagogue and it can be difficult to know how to handle the problem.
  • Worries: how can we learn and practice a new language (meaning accepting to understand nothing for a while) and still maintain a proper relationship? Decisions to make, arguments, experiences to share, planning…
  • Discouragement (of the one learning or the one teaching): the process is a long one and can seem unfeasible. And besides, why bother since we already understand each other?

You’ll find below a couple of tips to make teaching your mother tongue to your spouse as efficient and enjoyable as possible, so you can benefit from all the advantages it brings while decreasing as much as possible the inconvenience of the learning process.

How to teach your mother tongue to your spouse

Memorizing VS Logic

The method I propose, which is the one I use to teach my mother tongue (French) to my partner (Chinese), is based on repeating and remembering words and sentences rather than logic (grammar, conjugation, spelling rules and so on). In short this is how children learn their mother tongue, which is a different methodology compared with how they learn foreign languages afterwards: courses at school, at work, etc.

So the first and most important thing to do is to speak your mother tongue to your spouse as often as possible!

Don’t hesitate to use the common language when one of you is tired, to communicate important information (decisions, planning…), during an argument and so on. It is indeed important not to pause your relationship while training to reach a satisfying level in the language taught. However do have the discipline to speak your mother tongue whenever possible, without looking for excuses (and without letting your partner find some for him/herself!).
And if both of you wish to learn each other’s mother tongue, alternate between a day when you speak yours and a day when s/he speaks his/hers. That way you’ll make sure you don’t mix up everything while still practicing as much as possible.

Unfortunately the process is much longer and much harder for adults because on top of being slower than children we also have many automatic, unconscious mechanisms which make learning a language all the more difficult. If we take the letters of the alphabet for example, you’ll notice that we spontaneously pronounce them as in our mother tongue. That’s where our accent comes from when we speak a foreign language! Or even expressions or sentence structures from our mother tongue that we’ll use, properly translated, in the foreign language whereas natives would never say that!
In short your work as the teacher consists in going around those limitations to make it possible to learn. And better say it right from the start: simply talking (like we do with children) won’t cut it! It may even discourage your partner who won’t understand and learn a thing.
So 50% at least of the total amount of work is yours and this is what we will talk about here mostly. On the other hand the student’s role is mainly about actively listening, asking questions, using what s/he has learned and trying to learn more (reading panels, adding subtitles to movies, talking with other people…).

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  • This was so helpful! I have struggled to teach my husband (Italian) my native language (English) for so long. I’m definitely going to try some of the tips you mentioned! It is also hard for people outside the relationship to understand why it is so hard to teach him.

    • Thanks Christine for taking the time to leave a comment and glad you found these articles of some use!
      Agreed, people outside the relationship and especially people who don’t have the experience of a multicultural, multilingual relationship can have a hard time understanding what it implies.
      Good luck in any case! Learning English shouldn’t be so hard if your husband is motivated!

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