Ask Harriet: My Spouse Doesn’t Speak My Language

by expert · 7 comments

Dear Harriet,
I am from Argentina and my husband is From the US. We have always spoken English together. Now we have a 6 month old baby, Maria, and I want to raise her bilingually.

In theory my husband is in agreement but he doesn’t speak Spanish. I am worried if I speak only Spanish to Maria it will create conflict in our marital relationship.

Answer from Harriet Cannon:
In the healthiest of relationships, there will be some conflicts to negotiate as you transition from a couple to a family so take heart and make the time to talk with your husband about how your life together is changing.

You already know the reality that some words and concepts don’t translate from one language and culture to another. Your intuition is correct that this will highlight the differences between you and your husband when you talk to Maria in Spanish.

The emotional impact of cultural issues comes as a surprise for most bicultural couples when a child arrives. Many couples try to bury it by concentrating only on what they have in common. The truth is the two of you have to face your cultural and linguistic differences at a deeper level to raise healthy bicultural children.

The immigrant spouse has more losses to grieve than the spouse who lives in their native land. This puts responsibility on you, the immigrant, to be honest about how important your language and culture is to you including all its philosophical and spiritual meanings.

Make some practical agreements about how you can teach Maria both languages. Ask your husband to be open if he feels out of the loop. Talk about it often. Seek out other bicultural couples.

If you find yourselves unable to discuss this openly and honestly together without getting defensive, do see a professional counselor who specializes in multicultural relationships.

Photo Credit: Felix E. Guerrero

Harriet Cannon is a Marriage and Family Therapist and Consultant who works with individuals, families and businesses in life and work transitions. Ms Cannon has lived and worked both in the United States and in Chile. She has two grown children who were partially raised overseas. Please visit Ms Cannon's website at to learn more about her as well as her contact information.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 jason September 30, 2010 at 6:03 am

I think Harriet’s advice is correct, but I will add one suggestion. This seems like the perfect time for your husband to learn your native language.
Even if the husband chooses to not learn the language, hopefully, he will realize how important it is for mother and child to share a native language. Being bilingual puts the child at a great advantage later in life!


2 Marcela September 30, 2010 at 10:56 am

My husband and I have been married for almost 8 years, we have two children (4 and 1), he respects and thinks it is important for them to learn both languages but he still doesn’t speak Spanish. He understands a great deal now because he hears us (the kids and me) speak all the time. My son asks some times “daddy why don’t you speak Spanish?” and I enjoy while he tries to find an answer for that 😉 I know @ some point he will have to give in and just learn it… I hope…


3 Marcela September 30, 2010 at 1:13 pm

My husband and I have been married for 15 years, he is American and I am from Argentina. We have two children (12 and 7). When my first one was born I started with the Spanish, to me was natural and real to speak to my child with “real feelings”. He perceived that, and started hearing us playing and giggling together. He heard and started to understand the language , when my second child was born he was almost fluent! Now, We have a bilingual family!!!


4 Diane H. September 30, 2010 at 4:41 pm

So I’m the spouse that doesn’t speak the foreign language. My husband is french Canadian, and I really respect that he has been dedicated to teaching them French.

For me the biggest adjustment was figuring out that it was o.k. that I didn’t understand the conversation going on in my house. That felt very wrong at the beginning (can you tell I’m a touch of a control freak?) but then I figured out that nothing happened that I didn’t know about and I relaxed and enjoyed learning some animal words and other kid stuff.

It definitely required a bit of coordination, especially when it comes to discipline, the husband needs to let me know the consequences he’s assigned so I can back him up, but we figured it out.


5 Ana Lomba September 30, 2010 at 6:31 pm

I’m from Spain and my husband is American. Ever since we started dating I spoke to him in Spanish. Back then, he spoke only a few words and I could have spoken to him in English, but hey, I felt that if we were going to be together he had to learn my language–and he was glad to do it. Now he is the most adamant advocate for home/world language education 🙂 Our kids are bilingual too. When we go to Spain, he can talk to everyone and have a great time, instead of being the outside loner.
In the case of Spanish and French is even easier! I’m sure you will pick it up quite fast, if you haven’t already.
BTW, you may be interested in reading my latest blog post: Three Things Even Princeton’s Bilingual Parents Should Know About Raising Their Kids in The Home Language, at I mention this issue among many other things.


6 Juan October 1, 2010 at 10:09 am

Hi everyone. I’m from everywhere now, since I was born in Nicaragua and grew up in the US, and live in Taiwan with our 3 year old son. Before our child arrive we did a lot of changing. By change I mean communication. We needed to develop a stronger bond so that we can introduce Chinese, English and Spanish to our child. Since we enjoy eating food from all over the world, our languages should follow that path. I stuck with English and my wife speaks to him in Chinese. We introduce Spanish through songs and simple poetry. His Chinese is better than his English, however we communicate. That’s vital when learning a language, communication, specially nonverbal communication. Keep at it with an abstract mind. You both want the same thing except when you vocalize it, that’s where it becomes all mixed up. The only pressure that I saw in this was change. Can you both handle the change in a positive and nurturing way? I think that helps the family function better…


7 Terri Carder October 3, 2010 at 3:43 pm

It is in your child’s best interest that you share the gift of bilingualism. If your husband understands the value of being bilingual, he will embrace your gift to your child. I learned Spanish as a second language and taught my children. My husband never learned Spanish, but was proud of my ability to speak and read Spanish and that I taught our children. Our daughter now is a mother married to a Japanese man and the plan is to teach Izumi English, Japanese and Spanish. Think of how many Europeans are bilingual and often trilingual or beyond.


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