Talk to me

How much does language really matter? A lot, in some ways – and not at all in others. In the very first months at the international high school I attended, I briefly dated a Colombian boy. Neither of us had much experience, and it was all nervous, trembling excitement combined with hormones and living away from home for the first time. Our adolescent emotions spiked and dropped like crazy, and in the midst of all that confusion I was the last person in the world to know what the hell I actually wanted. He didn’t speak much English yet, and my Spanish was ok, but we thought it was all we needed. The language of love conquers and all that. We would laugh at each other’s accents and found many ways to occupy our time that didn’t involve talking. But of course, that can’t last very long. After about a month I realized we never had real conversations, didn’t actually understand each other as people, and were on completely different pages about what our relationship was going to be like. So with all the aforementioned drama I broke it off and took away what I considered a valuable lesson: I promised myself I’d never try to date someone again who didn’t share my native language.

No matter how fluent you become in another language, I’m convinced that there is a certain level of linguistic intimacy that only native speakers can share. The ability to play with words, toy with infinite shades of meaning that arise from the way you construct a sentence, the vocabulary you choose to adorn it with. It’s the same way you can never truly enjoy a book, I mean sit back and get into it and let your imagination run away, in a foreign language. Banter. Poetry. They also say that different languages express different worldviews; that the way a language molds nebulous thoughts into coherent phrases actually changes the way you think and conceive of reality. Something I’ve noticed in myself is that my personality changes slightly when I move from English to Spanish. In English I’m a little quiet at first, preferring to listen before I express my opinion, often not knowing what to say and wishing I was more eloquent. In Spanish I become more outgoing, bolder, joking and interrupting in the necessary ways to participate in an Argentine conversation. Despite the fact that my vocabulary is of course smaller and my grasp of the language slipperier, I find the confidence to say whatever’s on my mind. Maybe part of this change arises from the worldview theory, but I actually think it’s a combination of two factors: first, a survival strategy for living in language not your own. If you show fear you’re done for. If you stop to think about whether you can use that word, that grammatical construct, you’ve lost the conversation. If you want to say anything you’ve got to say everything you can think of. The second factor is the blissful obliviousness to hints and implications of the non-native speaker. You’re kind of in a happy bubble that makes self-doubt impossible because you don’t even know the meaning of that authentic-sounding word you just threw in there, much less its emotional implications toward whoever you’re talking to.  I sort of like that freedom. But just as much, I hate never being able to say exactly what I wanted to, often having to circle around an idea with overly long descriptions for lack of the right words. It’s not the simple interactions that are the problem, (“I’ll have three meat empanadas, please”) but the profound conversations. Which is why at the age of 18 I swore off trying to have a relationship across the language barrier.

Obviously it didn’t last. But it took me a while to come around, and it’s still a daily struggle, a daily source of worrying that at one point or another, it will just get too hard. I changed my mind because I realized that with the right person, it’s not only possible, but worth it. If you find that spark of connection between two people, whether friends or lovers, not in words but in a manner of being, in a communication of the soul (rare enough already), then the hardest part is over; everything else is an obstacle that can be overcome. And while the overcoming is exhausting, it also keeps things quite interesting. Ironically enough, in such a fast-paced world, speaking another language with someone, or letting them speak to you in yours, slows things down enough to really listen, to really try to understand, to pay attention in many ways to cues that are not only spoken. I used to worry that I couldn’t speak fast and joke with my boyfriend the way he could with his friends, until he told me that on the contrary, with me he loved the incredible tranquility of our slightly slower conversations. The constant challenge makes it more interesting, funnier, crazier – but also much, much more frustrating and prone to misunderstanding when relationships are hard enough as they are. I often wonder if the language that two people speak in leads to a power dynamic between them. It seems logical that whoever gets to speak in their own native language has got the upper hand, right? Or is it the one who’s bilingual, because they have access to more roads of communication? Can you have a truly equal relationship if one of you must constantly live in the other’s world? I can’t even imagine what it would be like for a couple who, not sharing a word in their native languages, conduct their relationship in a third common one, though at this international school I witnessed several such perfectly happy pairs. So as romantic and absurd as it sounds, there must be something that can be shared on a profound level for which no words are necessary, and that sort of deep, unspoken understanding is what couples work their entire lives to achieve, multilingual or not.

But before reaching relationship nirvana, comes a lot of feeling silly and child-like, experimenting with a hundred different ways to communicate, whose successes are as numerous as the failures. With the novio, in our determination to practice the language of the other, we often find ourselves having ridiculous conversations in two languages at once, sometimes without even noticing. But aside from that, we have a language we make love in, a language we fight in, and a language we talk about the weather in. I think we laugh equally in both.



4 responses to “Talk to me

  1. I totally agree! For many years I dated native Spanish speakers and no matter how much I immersed myself in the language and culture I will never (and had a hard time accepting) be a fluent Spanish speaker. With prior boyfriends there was always some missing link that I couldn’t quite put my finger on break up after break up. Although I felt that I was perfectly communicating in Spanish I will never be able to truly understand how I come off. I have also been told in Spanish I am more aggressive, direct, and serious as opposed to in English where I can be silly, play with words, and talk about some many cultural things that I cannot talk about in Spanish. I think anyone who tries to speak another language, and date someone of that culture, goes through the same frustrations and confusions and I commend those who make the relationships work.

    I have found someone now who is a native speaker of both English and Spanish having been raised by a Mexican father and American mother. We joke that my Spanish is better than his (as least grammatically) and we are able to incorporate the parts of Mexican and American culture that we love and leave parts out that we don’t like so much. For example, we love exploring Little Village (La Villita in Chicago) and buying ridiculous cowboy boots and eating delicious barbacoa tacos and at the same time we pass through mainstream society without “the burden of ethnicity” (quoted from my boyfriend). Being able to do this is a huge (undeserved) privilege and both of us with college degrees and full time jobs are not going through most challenges that Latinos (namely undocumented) are going through in this country. My boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend is blond and speaks no Spanish and gets much more crap than I do when it comes to dating a Cortes boy. That was a little off topic but something that I think is crucial to understanding cultural and language dynamics between interracial couples. I once asked a friend if she thought our relationship was interracial and without hesitation she responded “no.”

    Anyway we are off to watch the Bears beat the Packers I would love any comments!

  2. Um Elli??? Haha sneaky sneaky…

  3. Hey sugah,
    So I’ve thought about what you wrote quite a lot in the past few days, and I’m still not sure what I feel about it. As a non-native English speaker, I’ve had the chance to experience both worlds, once upon a time with an American novio, and now with my Israeli boyfriend, and I can’t say for sure that one is better than the other just because of the language we spoke/speak.
    Yes, many times with the American boyfriend I’ve felt like he had some sort of a “lead” on me, because it was his language we spoke, his culture we interacted. I used to get so embarrassed whenever I made mistakes, and sometimes I even felt that I didn’t have an “equal” side in the relationship because I was foreign to his culture, because I didn’t belong 100 per cent, even though I pulled off the best American accent I could :). On the other side, as you said, that huge gap between us was also what made our relationship special. I’d like to think that he appreciated that difference between us, just like I did, and didn’t see it as a barrier. So yeah, I agree with you that a cross-cultural relationship is not also doable but is also very exciting and unique. I remember that the first time I actually felt that the language barrier was becoming more of big brick wall, was when he came to visit me in Israel and entered my world. For the first time, he saw the Hebrew version of me and not only did he not understand who that person was (as he didn’t speak a word of Hebrew) but I think that also made us grow apart. When we were both living his English speaking world, it was nice and easy (and the international school sure helped), but feeling that he could never really relate to my original true world was also very difficult and it definitely affected our connection. Today however, as you said, I do feel that with my Israeli boyfriend, there are many benefits to speaking the same language that I’m now just discovering. I never feel not even the slightest barrier when we talk. The true me, my sense of humor, my thoughts seem to just flow out of me effortlessly. I feel funnier, wittier, even more confident when I speak Hebrew. I know that when something saddens me, I can just pick up the phone and call him and just shoot out the words without even thinking, and even as I am sobbing away, he’ll probably get every word, every emotion I was experiencing. But still, when I look back at this relationship compared to the other, it really doesn’t matter at the end of the day and I know that both relationships were (one still is..) based on a much deeper connection than that.
    Good night my love. Boys-Shmoys! We are the living proof that you can have a true Chibur with someone who speaks a different language than you. Love you!:)

  4. Hi Trill –
    You raise so many good points on cross cultural relationships, and as you know, I am in one, with my Irish/English/German/California background and his African/Chinese/Native American/Chicago southside background.

    One of the nice discoveries for me has been encountering so much of the richness of African American culture(s) in the United States. Families seem very close, very supportive. I love getting that text message from his sister reminding me (and 50 other extended family members) that it’s so and so’s birthday today, or to call Aunt Dot to see if she’s feeling better.) Funerals are, strangely enough, a real celebration, with laughing, singing, praising the person’s life (and of course crying, too). And church – well, that’s a whole topic in itself that’s amazing.

    But reflecting on all this, it seems that those of us in personal cross cultural relationships are a microcosm and model of who we can be in our potential as a global community. The personal is the political, right? And the step from reaching and loving across personal cultural differences can be a logical from to reaching and loving across community and domestic identities, in the constant creation of the world as we envision it to be.

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