Thought for the Day

Among international couples I’ve known here in China, two observations hold as the relationships develop:

  • Either the Chinese partner becomes progressively better in his/her partner’s language (usually English), or
  • The foreign partner becomes progressively better in Chinese.

Rarely do both partners improve their foreign language skills during the relationship.  Why?

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4 thoughts on “Thought for the Day

  1. Well, in my case, when we met, I already spoke Chinese well enough for a relationship to be conducted in Chinese (mostly) and she wasn’t very comfortable speaking English. Therefore I fit into the second category. Her English has improved, but from work and my monolingual friends, not from me.

    Also, in my experience, in those couples where English is the default language, the foreign partner is generally monolingual and too lazy to learn Chinese (and good at coming up with excuses).

  2. Yes, I see a lot of what you say in your second paragraph among older expats who are together with Chinese men and women. Oftentimes their partner speaks exceptional English so they just let him/her translate everything.

    Oddly enough I’ve known a few mixed couples where the foreign partner did want to learn Chinese, but didn’t want to learn it from his/her boyfriend/girlfriend. Not surprisingly, this caused problems when the expat was male and their Chinese teacher was young, female, and pretty.

    In my case, I fall into the latter category in my post while my girlfriend falls into the excuse-making niche you mentioned. Though she always complains that she wants to improve her English, I’ve tried to make “English days” for us and asked her to try watching an English movie every now and then instead of vegging out to Chinese sitcoms, to no avail.

  3. We’re in the second category. For the past half-year we’ve been doing alternating English month/Chinese month, but if it’s any indication of how that is going, this month for the first time we are repeating English month because “your Chinese is too good, so you don’t speak enough English during English month.” I swear I’m trying.

  4. I would say that in the vast majority of relationships (including friendships) between Chinese and foreigners, a sort-of default language is soon established, and it’s very difficult to break from that precedent.

    For instance, with my Chinese friends who speak better English than I speak Chinese, we’ll speak Chinese for awhile before lapsing into English when greater sophistication is required. It works the opposite way with Chinese friends whose English isn’t as good as my Chinese.

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