Talking to you in English is like touching you with gloves.LAUREN COLLINS — „WHEN IN FRENCH”
Have you ever wondered how the relationship with someone who speaks a different language looks? Or rather — with somebody who doesn’t speak your mother language?
I was considering for a long time, how this type of relationship is built. Moreover, I was also thinking what relationships are generally based on, if in the case of a bilingual couple we are devoid of the power of running jokes, which are generally only understood within the confines of a specific language or some shorthand’s characteristic in a given culture. As we all know, understanding these casual shorthand jokes and witty answers may be the key to the first steps of a relationship. Cultural differences are another issue and this is only one part of the difficulties we have to go through at the start (and at further stages too, of course). However, I’m going to tell you about these things later.
To piece this puzzle together, I got involved with a foreigner. I’d like to write that I know everything now, I understand all of the hints that are dropped within this relationship and I have a full understanding of bilingual love. Unfortunately, bang went my presumptions. My relationship hasn’t answered even one of my questions. Besides, it told me that it is possible.
Let me give you a quick picture: my English was terrible when it came to active communication. I could accomplish all grammatical assignments without a problem however, I had a large language barrier. I paid too much attention focusing on the correct tenses and grammatical forms. I was capable of having a short conversation but longer conversations were a true struggle for survival. I constantly was confused with all these constructions and every single thing that I wanted to say in English, I reconstructed from its original Polish counterpart. I stuck to this strategy wilfully but it didn’t make a lot of sense since Polish sentences I formed in my mind were too difficult to translate. In a nutshell — drama. Just imagine that you go out with someone and every second sound from their mouth is: eeeh… oh, you know! Yeah… I’m pretty sure he knew a lot from my speech.
If it comes to the first stage of our relationship, I have to kind of disregard what I’ve written in the introduction of this article. Why? Because I cannot say that our beginning was difficult. My boyfriend was extremely patient. When I already wanted to kill myself and dig in deep underground and put the tombstone with the “She did not speak English” dedication, he was quick to “calm down”, your English is getting better and better every day. He always took my speech seriously, not paying heed to numerous mistakes. The most endearing thing was that he always knew what I wanted to say and when I was close to running out on the battlefield, just like my phone from constantly checking the dictionary, he just lightly suggested correct words.
However, the biggest storm was playing in my mind. In short, I was feeling like a dunce.
What’s it called?
On our second date, he brought me to the oldest bookshop in Dublin. We walked around bookshelves talking about books and recommending various titles to each other. Everything was great until we came to the history department and I wanted to tell something about The Second World War. It was like diving into deep water without the lifebuoy and suddenly realizing that overall, I can’t swim. After a few minutes, I was so embarrassed with myself that I stopped my monologue and informed him that it’d be better if I’d just send him a Wikipedia article or something.
What is it called, how can I say that, what do you mean etc. were on the agenda. Luckily, he always believed when I was saying that I was really smart but – only in another language ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
My vocabulary deficiencies turned out to be quite easy to make up. The largest issue was when our conversation concerned a subject which required the specific vocabulary. For instance, I had a problem explaining the exact symptoms of my illness or talking about the book linked with neuropsychology. Not to mention the situation when he asked me about healing properties of honey and why the honey water is better when it stays for all night and other trivial conversations just like this one. These questions just smashed me. And I only recommended him drinking honey water…
I’m not going to lie that the first months were a real terror for my self-confidence. Every time I opened my mouth to say something I felt like the most stupid creature in the world. It didn’t matter that I knew an answer if I wasn’t able to talk about that. And when I finally said something it was at a very low stage and oversimplified to the limit.
Meet my friends
Another challenge I had to face was the first meeting with his friends. At the beginning, I completely didn’t know what they talked about. They spoke very fast and used a lot of slang which I couldn’t crack. Moreover, I’m an introvert and my biggest issue is finding myself in the group where everyone already knows everyone. There were two barriers to break then — the mental and the language. At the opening, I felt the large powerlessness. As I couldn’t understand them, I felt like I wasn’t really there. My boyfriend and his friends did their best to get me out of this trance but I felt like I’d have surrounded myself with a ten-foot wall.
Honestly, looking at myself from this perspective, I couldn’t see anything attractive or interesting. I strongly believe in the power of conversation and I wasn’t able to fully use it in English. My awkwardness and even stodginess in speaking, made my confidence go down and gave me a sense of powerlessness in most situations.
Let’s talk about our feelings
The real problem began when we wanted to explain what was going on between us. In one of the articles about bilingualism, I’ve read that emotionally marked words are much easier to express in the language you just acquire. Cursing or declaration of love seem to be significantly less complicated to say when you’re not speaking them in your native language. I can relate to that. It’s very easy to speed up with words which you can’t really feel. I would say it’s a strong paradox — you can feel language barriers but you can’t feel any limits on self-expression. For me, the English language is just empty, without any life or emotional connotations. It wasn’t with me when I felt the anger, disappointment or joy the very first time.
My relationship forced me to externalise by language which had never touched my inner side before. At the same time, I was building my most intimate relationship with a tool I couldn’t use properly. How was I supposed to talk about feelings to someone if I couldn’t feel spoken words? The only thing I disposed of was practical knowledge from the dictionary. This language blindness got me to some embarrassing situations, for example when I said too much during one of the gentlest talks that couples have.
Maybe the things I wanted to say were more important than the way I said them? It reminds me of the movie, Lost in Translation. An extraordinary bond originates between the characters, even though there is a lot of silence and understatement. At the same time, both of them are demonstrating that they want to spend time together and they’re always ready to support each other. Their subtle conversations are the coherent part of this sensual background and they’re creating something beautiful altogether.
Or maybe is it like with foreign songs? We’re not always able to fully understand the lyrics but despite this, we let the melody carry us away.