Rates of intermarriage have been climbing steadily for a long time now. Up from 3% in 1967 and 7% in 1980, intermarriage doubled to 14% in 2015 (Livingston & Brown, 2017). The current figure is likely even higher. Millennials are leading this trend, with more millennials than Gen-x’ers in multiethnic relationships. The trend is particularly evident among married black and hispanic millennials, of whom one in five are in mixed couples.
Intermarriage is defined as marrying someone of a different race or ethnicity. Quite often, this also means that although you may communicate in English, one partner may have grown up speaking another language. Sometimes it means that they grew up speaking English, but speak a different language with their family. If your partner or anyone in their immediate family speaks a different language, there are a myriad of benefits to learning at least basic conversation in that language.
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Cultural Understanding (and Your Prenup!)
You can understand a lot more about your partner’s culture if you can understand the language of that culture. Linguistic nuances often lay bare pieces of the mindset inherent in a particular culture. For example, one indigenous group in Australia is famous for organizing spatial reality not in terms of left or right, but in terms of the cardinal directions north, south, east, and west. Asked about the location of an object, they will tell you it is to the southwest of [xyz], or to the north of [abc] (Giang, 2018). Because their language organizes spatial reality in this way, they have a keen sense of orientation and are constantly aware of their position in relation to the cardinal directions, just as we are aware of where ‘left’ and ‘right’ are. Language exerts an extremely strong influence on how we perceive reality (Giang, 2018). It is likely that if your partner speaks another language, you feel and perceive certain aspects of reality completely differently based upon the language with which you were raised. This will affect how you communicate with each other.
Therefore, you’ll likely develop a much deeper understanding of your partner’s background, conditioning, and even personality and behaviors if you have a basic understanding of their language. The same goes for your in-laws. This is a very important relationship, and you are likely to develop a deeper sense of connection and understanding with them if you can speak their language.
When it comes time to write your prenup, speaking your partner’s mother tongue is particularly helpful and may have far-reaching consequences. As aforementioned, learning a language gives you invaluable insights into the culture and values of the people who speak that language in an intimate way unmatched by merely reading up on that culture. This kind of cultural understanding is particularly vital when discussing a prenup. Knowing at least some of their language, and especially being able (as a result) to consume media such as movies and articles in their language, may give you insights into very important big-picture questions related to your premarital agreement. How are gender roles and expectations perceived in their culture? How does their culture view marriage? Is it regarded more as a religious matter or a civil matter? How does their culture view divorce? How does their culture treat infidelity?
Oftentimes the process of writing a prenup can also lead couples to discover new things about one another. They might unearth views and preferences they hadn’t expected if they haven’t talked in-depth about such matters before. Knowing their language will not only provide you with the cultural understanding to be able to grasp where they’re coming from a little bit better than otherwise, it will also allow them to express themselves at least partially in their own language. If you’ve ever tried to express complex and emotionally-charged ideas in a language that is not the most natural way for you to communicate, you probably know how much of a relief it is when you can express these things in your native language. The nuances of emotions especially cannot always be captured adequately when expressed in a second language. On a similar note, there is a subtle power imbalance when one partner has a better command of the language being used than the other. Discussing an agreement as important and far-reaching as a prenup in a mix of both of your mother tongues can also help to level the playing field.
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If your children are only able to speak the language of one partner, there may be imbalances in parenting roles (Koyfman, 2018). Along similar lines, if your potential future children can speak the languages of both parents but one parent does not understand the discourse between their kids and their partner, imbalance can also occur.
People who have had arguments because of things getting lost in translation will be able to sympathize with this one! You can eliminate a lot of misunderstandings that come from language barriers if your partner has the opportunity to clarify things in their native language sometimes.
If your partner speaks another language that you can’t understand, you’re likely no stranger to the feeling of frustration that can come up when you see them speaking to their family or friends…and you have no idea what they’re saying. Although they may try their best to translate for you when possible, it isn’t realistic to expect constant translations, nor is it healthy for the relationship (Koyfman, 2018). Imagine how much more ‘in the group’ you would feel if you could understand the gist of these conversations.
Tips for Learning Your Partner’s Native Language
-Don’t be a perfectionist. Focus on understanding and being understood, not on having perfect grammar. The most important thing is to speak and listen as much as possible. As long as your message is clear, don’t worry too much about whether your words are also how a native speaker would express that thought. Mistakes encouraged!
-Your partner may become impatient if they have to constantly repeat expressions 3 times or wait 10 minutes for you to string together a sentence. This kind of thing can also break the flow of natural conversation, so set aside a specific time for practice every day or a few times per week. It doesn’t mean you have to sit down and do a formal lesson, but you can do any activity together (which maybe you normally do together during that time) and speak only your partner’s mother tongue whenever you interact during that time period (Gabrielli, 2019). Choose a low-stress activity in which miscommunications do not have tangible consequences. Think playing Scrabble or going on a walk together rather than cooking dinner, for example. Of course, you should also study on your own outside of this designated time.
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-Some people find that they feel more shy practicing with their partner than with a stranger. Your partner’s opinion of you is important, and of course you want to impress your other half. They’ll probably be impressed merely by you trying to learn their language, but if you do feel shy, know that you’re not in the minority. If shyness stops you from speaking with them in their mother tongue, practice with a stranger or another friend who speaks that language until you gain enough confidence to show off your skills to your partner (Gabrielli, 2019). If you don’t know anyone you can do this with, there are a multitude of apps which can help you find a language exchange partner, such as Tandem.
If your relationship seems to be moving forward and you haven’t started learning your partner’s native language yet, there’s no time like the present! Grab a cup of tea and a textbook or your favorite language learning youtube channel, kick up your heels, and jump in. When your partner gets home, surprise them with a few phrases in their mother tongue. They’ll surely appreciate your effort, and your relationship will grow even stronger as you gain the ability to communicate in their language.
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Giang, V. 2018. How Language Shapes Our Perception of Reality. Retrieved from: https://www.fastcompany.com/40585591/how-language-shapes-our-perception-of-reality
Koyfman, S. 2018. Does Learning a Partner’s Language Increase Your Odds of Staying Together? Retrieved from: https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/does-learning-a-partners-language-increase-your-odds-of-staying-together
Livingston & Brown. 2017. Trends and Patterns in Intermarriage. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2017/05/18/1-trends-and-patterns-in-intermarriage/