Language learning, like a marriage, takes work: Chinglish within bilingual Couples

I just read an interesting article/interview about someone who is doing a study about semantic language use within couples coming from mixed-language (Mandarin/other) backgrounds. Does this sound like you? If so, Susanna Wickes is hoping that you’ll take a minute to complete her online survey (in either English or Chinese).  [The article ran in the Beijinger as: Scholarly Chinglish: Scottish Masters Student Studies the Semantics of Interracial Couples]

From what I’ve seen, most couples gradually shift into one language; the unfortunate reality (at least in my thinking) is that language is usually English. Chinese people as a whole have studied more of the fundamentals of English at school so, even though many don’t feel fully satisfied with their language abilities, the language barometer will more often end up shifting the equilibrium toward English.  I don’t want to speak in absolutes— I’m sure this trend is definitely better for couples living in China, but I think it’s a fair observation to say that fewer bilingual households end up primarily speaking Chinese at home.


Reading the article actually brought up some fun memories for me; when my wife and I got together, we very quickly settled into a comfortable pidgin-mix of both languages that made us feel like I was speaking amazing Mandarin and she was speaking amazing English. The only trouble was that my expat friends (we were living in China at the time) couldn’t always understand her English; similarly, I was still feeling the daily sting of having Chinese friends and coworkers around me not understand me once the conversation moved beyond superficial pleasantries, and my pronunciation wasn’t really that clear.

Before long, we had to strike a compromise: she wanted to improve her English, but I also wanted to be able to speak better Mandarin; if we wanted to work through this, the Chinglish had to stop. In the end, “English day” and “Chinese day” were born: we made a double-sided sign for the wall that we flipped on a daily basis with the promise that, whatever happened, we had to stick to the language of the day. We later tried doing it for a week at a time— it was hard, but we eventually got comfortable enough that we graduated to “English Week” and “Chinese Week”.

The process helped both of us at least get into the headspace where we could control the urge to simply slip into the other language when we didn’t know a particular word.  It was a really helpful stage, but it didn’t solve everything.   I like to tell people that my real study of Mandarin didn’t begin until we moved back to Canada and I set my sights on actually learning how to read.

If you want see my blood boil, watch my reaction when someone says “Ohhhh… of course you speak Chinese so well, your wife is Chinese”.  I always feel that the comment implies that my wife’s only joy in life is correcting my Chinese and leading my regular reading practice (I assure you this is not the case).  In turn, many Chinese people assume that I spend my days teaching/helping her with English.  Said in the wrong spirit/tone, I end up feeling like these kinds of comments belittle the work that we’ve put into the process.  We’re still a regular family with an eight year-old boy, two jobs and all the same chores and errands to pull off when there never seems to be enough time.

I’m not completely naive— of course I benefit from having lived in China at one point (no longer true) and having a Mandarin-speaking spouse; and of course my wife has benefitted from living with an English speaker and now residing in Canada, but none of that adds up to automatic language learning.  For my counter-argument, all I have to do is point to the huge number of Canadians who have lived in China for 15 or more years, with a Chinese spouse,  without really learning Chinese…

If I were being honest, I would pull out my soapbox and talk about the reasons why a bicultural/bilingual marriage and parenting can sometimes present significant challenges that don’t  have easy answers; but who ever said that any marriage was easy and effortless?  My thoughts on this subject have always been that language learning, like a marriage, takes work.  The work requires presence, patience and a genuine desire to grow.

At the end of the day, the real challenge is a little counter-intuitive, and perhaps surprising for people who aren’t in a bilingual relationship: our partners may not actually need or demand that we perfect our command of their language; the consequence is such that most families often end up settling on a comfortable compromise that just seems to ‘work’, and may not correspond with a language proficiency test.

At the end of the day, you don’t necessarily get a ‘twofer’ on this one: the work to grow a bilingual marriage doesn’t necessarily guarantee mutual fluency; nor does the work toward mutual fluency guarantee a healthy marriage—  there’s no denying that these efforts complement each other, but you can’t take it for granted:)



2 thoughts on “Language learning, like a marriage, takes work: Chinglish within bilingual Couples

  1. Pingback: Raising Bilingual Children: what’s your strategy? | Wordsummit

  2. Pingback: Raising Bilingual Children: what’s your strategy? | Wordsummit

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.