Reaching Out to Linguistically-Challenged Couples: A Personal Manifesto

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By Alex Poole
Photo Credit: Andrea Fregnani

Bilingual couples aren’t so exotic anymore. I can count at least a dozen of them in my area (Bowling Green, Kentucky, USA), most of which involve one native speaker of English.  This fact probably comes as no surprise to those of you who are part of a bi/multilingual family. Not only are we hyper-aware of our linguistic ecosystem, but we also tend to seek out couples who inhabit a similar one.

What surely comes as a surprise to most of us, however, is that many of the individuals in these relationships — usually the native speakers of English, in my experience — resist learning even the rudimentary elements of their partner’s mother tongue. The excuses range from “I’m not any good at languages,” and “I’m too old,” to “Her parents know enough English,” and “I just don’t have time.”

As linguistic epicureans, we can’t understand why they abstain from the feast that is their spouse’s first language. So perplexed by this lack of interest, we are frequently left speechless.

After spending more than a decade of trying to persuade mostly male Anglophones to join the coalition of the willing, I have concluded that arguments based on logic and reason are largely met by deaf ears. When I recite the litany of reasons to become bilingual (e.g. increasing knowledge of the world, improving one’s employment opportunities, making international travel a richer experience) in professorial fashion, my interlocutor almost always nods in agreement and proceeds with business as usual.

While I can’t say that I have converted legions of linguistic pagans to bilingualism, I can say that I have had mild success with what is politely called pathos or the appeal to emotion. A more pedestrian way of putting it would be “going for the jugular.”

I do not attempt to instill fear, anger, or happiness; instead, I try to stir up the basest of all emotions: sentimentality. By approaching my victims after they have consumed a few adult beverages and a plate of hors d’oeuvres, I am able to coldcock them with first person narratives about bilingualism.

I usually begin with holidays in Colombia; Christmas, in particular.

I recount stories of singing villancicos navideños (Christmas songs) with my mother-in-law before our evening meals. These hymns form a key part of the holiday season and are mainly religious in nature, as opposed to American Christmas carols, which are both secular and religious.  Even when we do not spend Christmas in Colombia, I am able to understand the songs my wife sings to our two girls, ages two and four. And sometimes, despite my pitchless and rather grating voice, I initiate them.

Since I grew up in an interfaith family (Jewish father, Catholic mother), I was not accustomed to such strong seasonal rituals. Participating in this singing has not only made me feel like a member of my wife’s family, but also the more general Colombian culture. If I hadn’t learned Spanish, I would most likely sulk in my mother-in-law’s kitchen, stare off into space, or hide myself  in the corner with some sort of libation.

Worse yet is that I would not be able to fully participate in one of the seasons that delights children most in Christian cultures. It would be as if I were celebrating with my children and niece via phone or video conferencing; I would be present but not with them. Even the most minimally-engaged parent feels remorse for being absent for holidays and birthdays, so this tends to be a winning conversational strategy.

If you are like my wife, you probably think that such comments are too harsh.

To such an objection, I invoke the words of William T. Sherman, the American Civil War general, who said that “war is hell.” But even these words fail to convince those who claim that the holidays are spent with English-speaking relatives, so they are not a problem (which I doubt).

My next tactic is thus to attack them with the mundane, which is what most of life is, after all. I launch into narratives about the evenings that my two daughters and I spend cursing the two evil stepsisters and cheering on the downtrodden protagonist in the Spanish version of “Cinderella.”  I hit them with anecdotes about how we sing and dance to various Shakira tunes such as “Waka Waka (Esto es África)” and make fun of the cheesy characters on the telenovelas (soap operas) that my wife watches.

When the stiff-necked are unswayed by such sentimentality, I drop the bomb: bedtime. Even the most steadfast macho man becomes moist-eyed when he listens to our rituals of oral storytelling, snuggling, and bilingual exchanges of affection.

Not all the benefits of bilingualism, however, involve euphoric days and nights with your children. One involves something that, along with taxes, is inevitable: consoling those who are mourning the loss of a friend or family member.

I ask people to imagine that a brother-in-law has suddenly lost his wife to pancreatic cancer. He has an 11-year-old daughter, and he and his wife welcomed their first grandchild into the world less than a week before her death. Would it be better to personally express one’s condolences to him or go through an interpreter?

The answer is fairly obvious: I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking my wife to tell him how sorry I am. There are occasions in which you have no choice but to ask for an interpreter, yet they shouldn’t be with a relative that you have known for more than a decade.

Death, child-parent relations, holidays and other sentimental topics may be too personal for you to discuss. Yet, that does not let you off the hook. You have experienced the life force that comes from bilingualism.   Why wouldn’t you want others to experience that, too?

Convincing others to begin the journey is not easy, for you must do it in a way that makes you feel comfortable and plays on your strengths. However, if not you, then who?

Alex Poole is Associate Professor of English/TESOL Program Director at Western Kentucky, University, USA. His interests include literacy and Spanish/English bilingualism. He spends most of his free time reading in Spanish.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Andrew December 22, 2010 at 8:09 pm

Yup, you either have to concoct a situation where they HAVE to learn the language in question (e.g. it’s required by their job) or you appeal to emotion. You’re learning the lessons marketers learned about a century ago about what ACTUALLY has to be done to sell something to someone–logic doesn’t work worth a damn 😀



2 Kate December 23, 2010 at 2:23 am

Great post – I had to overcome a huge resistance IN MYSELF to learning Catala. My excuse was that it was a big enough task to learn Castellano and as a linguistically challenged English speaker it would be asking too much of my brain. But one day someone changed my chip, very expertly and gently. We were at a party – everyone speaking Catala except when they used Castellano or English with me. She said – ‘forget the Spanish, you are living here in Catalunya in a Catalan family and if you want to feel part of things you must learn Catalan. Would you go to Germany to learn Welsh?’ From that day I stopped studying castellano – obviously I still speak it when needed – and started to listen and learn the language that is all around me. The resistance had been blocking my ears – actually I already had picked up a lot so it is not too difficult and of course is also incredibly interesting and fun.
To all those English speakers out there – when you open your heart to a language then your brain follows….


3 abby April 1, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Love is everything! If you really love the person there is no way you do not want to learn your partner’s native language. No excuces!


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