Advice,  Language & Culture

How to teach your mother tongue to your spouse


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 with 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 so we naturally see the rise of couples whose members come from different countries and have different mother tongues!

Learning & Teaching One’s 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. And I’ve seen a similar story with a Swedish-Taiwanese couple using Japanese.

I’ve personally used English as the communication language despite being with non-native English speakers, which is perhaps the most common scenario. But the point is that 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. And it’s an important question, 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 of origin.
Allowing the children to learn both parents’ language by using both at home (not just one and not a third language).
Getting to know your spouse better; a language – through the expressions, levels of politeness, grammatical structures and so on it contains – reflects a culture.
Allowing for richer communication: using your mother tongue instead of a language you learned very often leads to deeper conversations through being able to pick the right words and expressions, add play on words…
Having a language people around don’t understand – always handy the day you want to say something to your spouse only!

Learning & Teaching One’s 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 the mean time, 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?

So now that we’ve had a look at the situation in general, feel free to read through the remainder of this post to find some 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.

A Word of Caution
This article was 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.

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  • Elise

    Super article !
    Exactement ce que je cherchais.
    Mon copain est Japonais, et on communique 100% en japonais. Il a des bases d’anglais (puisqu’il l’a étudié à l’école) mais c’est très limité.
    J’aimerais lui apprendre un minimum de français pour qu’il puisse communiquer avec ma famille. En partant de zero, cela semble insurmontable cependant.
    Au bout de combien de temps pouviez-vous avoir des conversations simples en français avec votre partenaire ?
    Votre article m’a motivé !

    • David Gay-Perret

      Bonjour Élise et merci pour ce commentaire ! (qui était perdu au milieu des 110 spam… T_T Heureusement que, pris d’une inspiration, je suis allé regarder de plus près !)
      Honnêtement je ne me souviens plus très bien du moment où on a pu plus ou moins discuter, toutefois je me rappelle avoir débuté en janvier de manière très (trop ?) intensive, et quand mes parents sont venus en juin ma compagne pouvait discuter avec eux. Sur des sujets simples bien sûr, et ma mère a un don pour parler lentement et s’adapter aux étrangers tandis que mon père parle anglais et pouvait donc traduire les mots difficiles. Mais c’était tout de même une belle victoire !
      Le plus important est de commencer et de persévérer. Il est très facile de remettre à plus tard ou d’utiliser la langue commune “juste pour cette fois parce que sinon il faut 3 fois plus de temps pour se comprendre”. Mais résultat dans 5 ans rien n’a changé. Autant s’y mettre le plus vite possible et passer le cap galère tôt pour ensuite se faire plaisir (car ce cap ne va certainement pas disparaitre avec le temps !).

      Quoi qu’il en soit bon courage et n’hésite pas à revenir faire part de ton expérience si tu appliques les quelques conseils de cet article !

  • Christine Crews

    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.

    • David Gay-Perret

      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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