Good communication is central to strong relationships, but what happens when you and your partner speak different languages and come from different cultures? It should come as no surprise that intercultural and multilingual couples have higher divorce rates than couples from the same culture and language. This article will help you think through some of those common cultural and linguistic communication problems.
Research summary written by Sabrina Ariel Mikes, Master student at the University of Luxembourg.
Illustrations credit: Wilfried Cosson
(1) The art of listening
In the West, from the very beginning of a child’s life, we stress that they ‘use their words’, while other cultures may focus on listening. Try asking your partner if they find it easier to speak or to listen and which language they feel most confident communicating in. Keep in mind sometimes their preferred language may change depending on the context. For example, maybe they feel best communicating about household finances in English, but their childhood memories in French. Additionally, try learning a few words in your partner’s native language to promote a better language understanding between the both of you.
(2) Be curious about the ‘story’
Stories shape our reality, and the language we use to describe them shapes our experience. In English, we go ‘back’ in the past, and ‘forward’ in the future. In French, we ‘take’ a decision and in German we ‘meet’ one. How do these different verbs shape the way we view the world? How may your partner’s native language shape their experience of your relationship? The point is, words are precious and we use them constantly to explain our lives and behavior. However, in multilingual and intercultural relationships, our partner’s story might not be so obvious due to language and cultural differences. Try asking your partner words in their native language. Do they ‘take’, ‘make’, or ‘meet’ a decision? Talk to them about how this might affect your relationship. You may be surprised by the new stories you can write together if you recognize the words.
(3) Expand your emotional vocabulary
In multilingual and intercultural relationships, occasional misunderstanding is a given. However, we can increase our understanding of our partner when we increase our emotional vocabulary. On average, people can only identify only three emotions as they are actually feeling them: happiness, sadness and anger (Brown, 2021). This lack of vocabulary can be a serious problem in a relationship. Imagine you feel upset with your partner because they did not do the dishes. You tell them ‘I'm so mad at you!’, but really you’re exhausted from picking up after them and are feeling disappointed. Using ‘mad’ instead of ‘disappointed’ can lead to a misunderstanding and likely change the focus of the problem. Taking time to expand our emotional vocabulary can help our partners understand and respond to us better. Even better, is when we can use both partner’s languages to express how we feel.
Overall, while multilingual and intercultural relationships can be challenging, they are not doomed. With some extra time and understanding around the potential problems, you can create beautiful relationships. And get this: maybe you’ll even learn a new language.
The article is part of the initiative Student Ambassadors of the Multilingual Experience. Our students have prepared some interesting topics for you – just scroll down the project page to the section "News“ – you will find more blog posts to enjoy!).