Living in a family or even as a couple where you both have a different primary language throws up a whole array of pros and cons, and is something our stay at home counterparts would never expect let alone experience.
When I first arrived in Thailand a dozen or so years ago, I spoke very little Thai and more often than not the Thai girls I met had limited English too. It was not only tough to communicate but just plain awkward. You would sit having dinner and just not know what to say or do. I hated it, but I was living in Thailand so just took it as part and parcel of things.
Over the years, of course, my Thai language skills picked up and I also moved away from the bar scene. My quality of life and conversations therefore dramatically improved.
Fast forward to today and I am very happily married to a Russian lady and have two kids. But it is the same set up as with those who have Thai partners – not culturally – but in having two languages spoken within the household.
It has its advantages but also disadvantages and I wanted to share how I have found the experience.
When I met Elena’s parents for the first time it was almost to a wall of silence as neither of us could communicate with each other. Jokingly, it does have its advantages now as when I am in the same room as them I don’t even need to try – as we all accept we cannot talk to each other – so I can stay watching the television and not have to make small talk! I am sure others reading this in the same boat can relate to that last point!
My wife and kids can talk in Russian to each other without me really understanding what they are talking about. Although I do recognise key words now, I certainly cannot join the discussion.
Possibly a small drawback is my wife is not as well versed as speaking English as I am, it stands to reason. But it doesn’t prevent us living a normal partnership.
I am quite sure when my kids become adults it won’t matter how many languages you speak, the technology already exists to immediately translate language in conversation. Roll on 10 years and efficient simple technology will exist so we can talk to anyone in any language.
However I think to be able to speak multiple languages – my kids currently speak English, Russian and Thai – unlocks new possibility with your brain functionality and power.
Research has shown that there are many benefits to being able to speak more than one language. Learning multiple languages challenges the brain and improves cognitive and social-emotional development, learning, and the chances for long-term success.
The US Department of Education put together an informative document on the benefits of being bilingual and bi-literate. In it, they explain that bilingual people and children:
- Have an easier time: learning other languages, thinking about language, developing strong thinking skills, and growing in other areas of cognitive development.
- Benefit academically: they are able to switch between languages, helping them develop a more flexible approach to problem-solving It was also noted that, “The ability to read and think in two (or more) different languages promotes higher levels of abstract thought, which is important in learning.”
- Diversify society by using their second language to build friendships.
- Have more job opportunities than monolingual adults.
Something related by default to dual-language relationships is the fact you are with someone not from your own ‘culture’/country. I have found this hugely empowering for rejecting and deciding what belief systems to have. When stuck in your own society it is difficult to know even when to reject something – as everyone is the same.
You also see just how odd some of the idiosyncrasies are from country to country. We are fine to drink cows milk but would shun drinking human breastmilk designed for us, religious beliefs – full stop, putting a safety pin over your belly if pregnant (Thai belief) or throwing a coin into the sea when leaving a location for good luck and to hope you will return one day (Russian belief). Really the list is extensive and each one as barmy as the next.
What you eat also changes as you will start to eat much more of the food from your partners, and that, on balance, is a good thing. Although there is only so much Russian food I can eat!
I really like the new world and experiences being outside of a ‘Britsh’ partnership brings. You break free and live that little bit more on your own terms, or at least that is how I feel about it.