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Question for non-bilingual spouses of bilingual partners and in-laws

(40 Posts)
ElectricMonk Wed 31-Oct-12 12:35:23

Just to warn you in advance, this is a long OP because I don't want to drip-feed, and I know how debates about bilingual families often go down on this forum. I do not resent my partner's heritage, I have tried my best to fit in with his family's way of doing things and it is still making me and my dh very frustrated/unhappy. So, I would be grateful for your advice on the following...

My dh is English with foreign heritage, and his family speak a mixture of English and the foreign language when they are together. Neither he nor his siblings have a particularly good grasp of the foreign language - their vocabulary stopped developing when they were about 10, and they haven't bothered to learn more as the language is very difficult, only spoken in one country, and they don't see very much of their relatives from over there. He and his dad (the foreign parent) generally speak the foreign language when they are together, and his dad tries to insist that they speak it on the phone and via e-mail as well. Fil does speak excellent English (it's his job), whereas dh admits that he is far from fluent in the foreign language.

Over the course of the last few years, this has caused a number of problems. Most importantly, my dh and his dad don't get on particularly smoothly at the best of times and trying to discuss difficult adult issues with a child's vocabulary means that they rarely get any closer to a resolution. It also leads to many misunderstandings, which are often only realised when one party has been stressed and upset about the situation for quite some time. There is also the problem that my dh feels that he is growing away from his parents, as he doesn't see them very often and spends all his time on the phone trying to translate the bare bones of what he is doing with his days (in a very specialised working environment) rather than really talking to them. He always looks a bit sad and deflated when he has finished a phone conversation, and says that it is for the reasons above.

I also have problems as a result of his dad's insistence on speaking the foreign language. They speak it at home whenever I am not part of the conversation (even when I am in earshot), which makes me uncomfortable and also leads to situations where I miss important pieces of information. For example, my fil will tell my dh that we are all going out at X o'clock (in my hearing), dh won't realise that he has said it in a language I don't understand (because he's so used to speaking a patois of English/foreign language), I don't realise that I need to ask for a translation because I wasn't part of the conversation, and fil clearly assumes that dh will tell me later what has been said. Result: everybody else is ready to go at X o'clock and I am in the shower/on the phone to my folks/out for a walk. Other examples would be fil complaining about mess (not ours, but we are apparently expected to deal with it) to dh in their common language, dh makes a token effort to clean up after others and doesn't pass on the message to me, and fil gets annoyed with us. As a result, I'm always on edge when I am there and constantly have to ask what's going on.

Also, the whole family make passing comments to each other in their language while we are together and it feels very exclusionary. My fil has done it in front of me to dh on at least 2 occasions when I knew it was definitely about me (not ill-intended but still not very nice), and mil even made comments to her son about a conversation she was simultaneously having with my mother at a recent birthday dinner. We don't see each other very often, and it still happens every time.

We have tried to compromise on this in order to minimise the problems. I have tried to learn their language and can string together a few phrases but it is just too difficult for me to learn (there is only one national language which is more complex, according to fil), and constantly badger dh for updates on what is going on when we're there. I also take care to give them 2-3 hours to themselves each evening when we visit, so they do have lots of time to speak their common language together without me there. Dh has asked them in the past to speak to him in English on the phone and by e-mail to sort out his communication issues, and refuses to respond to them in their common language if I'm around. However, they continue to do things "their way" when we visit, and dh's request to speak only in English when communicating by phone/e-mail has been taken as a "punishment" and an "aggressive" stance by all of his family even though he did explain why at the time.

So, AIBU to think that they should respect dh's wishes to speak to him in English on the phone, by e-mail and when we are visiting them (if I am around)?

maddening Wed 31-Oct-12 12:56:34

My dad is similar to your dh but is fluent. My gp did speak in their native language when we were around but English to us. We would often ask Df to translate and that worked fine. I think you get used to it growing up being surrounded by people speaking another language so it doesn't phase me I guess.

Also had some funny meals where we had 3 languages on the go with some people who spoke all 3, some that did 2 and some with only 1 and lots of translation going on - with hilarious consequences when they got tipsy and my gran rather merrily talking to us in another language ( not her own the third language) for half an hour whilst we tried to get her to understand we couldn't.

I think your dh needs to translate more for you - even if he translates everything so it feels less like a sneaky conversation. It might make them more likely to speak English with you around if your dh is constantly stopping to translate.

maddening Wed 31-Oct-12 12:58:43

Ps re fil making dh speak the language - don't know on that one if it were me I wouldn't speak to my Df in the language if it made me uncomfortable but that's between your dh and his Df.

OneLittleToddlingTerror Wed 31-Oct-12 13:25:17

I think you are in a very difficult situation. But just to let you know that it's a problem shared by many who have spouses with foreign heritage. Just to let you know you aren't alone.

I don't know your DH family, but my own language is spoken only by people in a very small geographical region. (It's cantonese if you are interested). I grew up in NZ, and so I'm bilingual, but have a very grasp of both English and Cantonese. So I don't share your DH's frustration, but I do use a lot of english nouns when speaking Cantonese as I don't know what a lot of things are called! I think whether your DH parents accept him speaking back to them in English is their own issues. It can be very hard for the parents generation to accept the lost heritage. I have fully accepted my DD will speak back to me in English only even though I'm trying to raise her bilingual. But I don't think my parents can.

My DH speaks not a word of Cantonese because 1) most far eastern languages are very difficult for English speakers 2) everyone learning Chinese learns Mandarin. And my family speaks not a word of Mandarin anyway. His way of coping with my family gathering is just to do his own thing and ignores all that's going on! He thinks it's much easier now with DD since he just plays with DD. I try to keep him in the loop, but it's not easy to translate everything. A friend of ours has a German DW and he said his bonding with in laws involves only drinking beer and watching footy!

fromparistoberlin Wed 31-Oct-12 13:28:03

this is maybe not helpful

but have you considered trying to learn the language?

My DP is Italian, and I have conversational. It means that holidays/social events are far more enjoyable

DontmindifIdo Wed 31-Oct-12 13:41:36

I have been in a slightly different situation, I ahve been in another country where DH speaks the language and I didnt, and had to deal with meals/social occasions where other people did speak fluent English but basically forgot I don't.

What we found often worked was for DH to be stood/sat next to me translating everything said, even if it wasn't directly to me. The other person often will start speaking in English as often it's not rudeness to leave you out, they genuinely forgot. Other people often join in with the translation.

When DH is dealing with a sensitive issue, he should refuse to reply in the other language but just use English in his replies. If his father starts complaining he can say "I don't know how to say this in X language so I want to be clear" His father can't control what language your DH speaks.

Cahoots Wed 31-Oct-12 13:45:37

I would leave DH to sort his own problems out with his parents. I suspect even if he were fully fluent then he would still have problems with them. As for you feeling excluded, I would probably take a good book with me when I visit and try not too worry about it. If your DH doesn't update you with important news such as when you are going out you should let him know that it's unreasonable.

If they are going to talk about you they would do it anyway regardless of what language everyone speaks, they would just wait for you to leave the room.

I have a DH with a family who speak a foreign language but I feel its up to them how they speak to each other. A lot of them speak excellent English and sometimes I wish they would include me a bit more but generally I am OK with it. I encourage my DH to visit the relatives who still live overseas on his own. It works for us.

DontmindifIdo Wed 31-Oct-12 13:49:56

BTW - I found I often understood much more than I thought I did very quickly, you might find that if you are used to hearing the other language with a running translation from your DH you will start picking more up, rather than it just being "noise" in the background you zone out.

I must say, I do think it's rude that if there's a group of people who all speak 2 languages execpt for one person who only speak one of them to then chose to speak in the language that means one person is shut out of the conversation. While yes, it's their culture and heritage, it's also very rude to you.

goodiegoodieyumyum Wed 31-Oct-12 13:52:56

It's very rude of his family to speak another language when you are there if they can all speak English, I have tried to learn my husbands language, but I found it difficult as unless I nagged my husband he would only speak to me in English and it is impossible to learn a language if you don't continously speak and hear it. We moved to another country and I am now trying to learn that language but I find it hard, I don't think I am good at languages.

My Mil insisted on having a party for my 40th birthday this year as I was visiting with my children but my husband had gone back to work. My BIl, SIL, and 3 nieces along with my PIL spoke for nearly two hours in their native language, most of the other guests hardly spoke to me at all and I wondered why they bothered coming to the party I was very upset ended up in tears and had an argument with my MIL ( I was also basically exhausted as ds had hardly slept all of our holiday). I was told by my MIL that she got my dh's 13 year cousin to speak to me in English and I should be happy and should expect to sit for hours on end at family parties not being able to understand everything, it has completely changed how I think about her as I think this is totally wrong especially at your own birthday party, which you did really want

LRDtheFeministDragon Wed 31-Oct-12 13:57:23

Oh, that's difficult.

Personally, I think you and your DH should try to learn the language to a better level. I feel for your FIL in this situation. But I also think your DH needs to translate better for you - even though he is obviously in a stressful situation, it doesn't excuse him not telling you what time to be ready!

My DH is bilingual, his family don't speak my language (or rather MIL only barely). My SIL is fluent in English but it's not her first language, and her parents don't speak English. So at family gatherings it is never easy to decide which language to speak: none of us speaks all three languages. I find you have to get used to the idea people are going to speak in a language you don't follow some of the time. And equally, sometimes your family members will have to listen to you speaking a language they don't understand. It takes some give and take and you need to be very prepared to compromise and to accept a lot of tedious confusion, I think (not as much as you describe!).

But it sounds as if the balance for you has gone too far one way - your DH should be taking responsibility for stopping and translating for you, or talking to you in English so you are included. There is data to suggest this is genuinely very hard for some people (my DH hates it), but he needs to do it. And you need to keep asking him. And both of you need to tell your FIL that sometimes, you need to speak English.

ElectricMonk Wed 31-Oct-12 13:59:01

Thanks for your replies, Maddening and OLTT - it's really good to hear some advice from people who understand and have managed to make the situation work.

Maddening - I think you're right about dh having to translate everything for me, I keep telling him this but he always gives up or forgets that he's not talking in English. I think I may have to start positioning myself at elbowing-distance whenever we're all in the room together, so I can prompt him more effectively ;).

The fil/dh situation in particular is very difficult - dh has been trying for years to change it in lots of different ways because of all the difficulties it causes, but the whole family says that dh is "punishing" fil by insisting on speaking English for in-depth conversations. Things are pretty tense between us all right now, and apparently one of the reasons is that they think I'm the reason why dh wants to speak English on the phone etc (not true, unless it's a 3-way conversation that affects me as well).

OneLittleToddlingTerror - I completely agree with you about the "lost heritage" thing, do you think that language is inevitably going to be a big issue in that respect? I hoped that we could compensate for speaking mostly English by involving their culture in our lives in other ways... I've tried really hard (moreso than dh) to keep as many of the traditions going in our home as I can (their Christmas, solstice, Eurovision* type rituals, food, ornaments and decorations etc), but if it's unlikely to make them feel any better then I may just let dh decide how much of that to bother with!

Fil recently said to dh (during one of their arguments) that they only have a superficial relationship with me because I'm so distant and it made me quite sad. I really have tried my best but I always feel like an outsider when we visit them due to the language thing, and (based on various things they've said) I'm sure they were hoping that dh would have a partner from the other culture as he was much more interested in it when he was younger. I really want him to have a better relationship with his folks and I'd love to get along with them better as I think they are very nice people in most respects, but this is always going to be a sticking-point then I may as well just stop caring.

*The language is a European one, I can't say which though because my inlaws know I use this site. It is a very unusual and difficult one, though.

ElectricMonk Wed 31-Oct-12 13:59:37

Oh gosh, more replies appeared while I was writing my response - I will go back and read!

LRDtheFeministDragon Wed 31-Oct-12 14:01:03

electric, you don't have to answer, I am just a nosey sod, but when you say 'their Christmas' - they're not Old-calendar Orthodox, are they?

Annunziata Wed 31-Oct-12 14:04:34

I think it is very hard, but maybe it would be nice for you and DH to make a bit more of an effort with the foreign language. I noticed as my parents got/get older they wanted to speak their own language more, and they love my children speaking it to them.

It is rude to speak in another language when you are there and you don't understand. But sometimes it just comes it blush My SIL doesn't speak Italian and sometimes we just forget. It's not intentional. But I also think as someone said above, the problems would be there even if your DH was fluent.

Annunziata Wed 31-Oct-12 14:05:00

*It just comes out, that should be.

OneLittleToddlingTerror Wed 31-Oct-12 14:10:12

ElectricMonk in-laws issues are always really difficult, even without language barriers! I agree with someone upthread that your DH/FIL relationship might be tense even without the English issue.

As for the language vs culture thing. I think language is so intertwined with culture that you can't separate the two. As you have already find out, you can't really be a part of it unless you share the langauge too. (Just like you can't really be English if you can only speak French)! Have you thought about children? Will they be brought up bilingual? I'm guessing it'll be difficult as your DH has a vocabulary more like a child? If you have decided the children will only speak English, then the cultural bit without the language will still be a very good idea.

Mumsyblouse Wed 31-Oct-12 14:11:15

ElectricMonk if your husband's language is one of the ones I'm thinking of, my husband is from a similar culture.

It's very very difficult. People say 'well learn the language better'. From not living in the country, this is almost impossible, especially in unusual and little spoken languages. Even if I went to live there, it would take me 6 -12 months of hearing nothing else to get off the ground vocab wise. You don't just 'pick it up', if anything years of listening to them chatter in that language hasn't helped me at all, it doesn't have the same alphabet as us and I simply switch off (whilst nodding and looking interested, it's an art!)

It's easy to get to the polite stage, but moving on to genuinely expressing your ideas/thoughts/plans and so on, well, it's not going to happen for me or my children in that language any time soon unless we move there (which I have contemplated for the language aspect).

So- your FIL thinks you are not as close for this reason, this is somewhat inevitable, you don't speak the same language and feel cultural as well as linguistic distance. In my experience, you just have to be quite tough about yourself and your family and not spend the whole time apologising you are the wrong nationality (even though they make it clear they wish your husband had married someone from their own culture).

However, I equally don't see why the father should speak English, he clearly doesn't feel comfortable doing so, and so stilted conversations may be all that is possible.

This is way more than about language, it's about identity and the loss of that in the next generation, so try to be a little kind to the in-laws, it's hard for them, whilst realising you may not be able to be this magic daughter in law who can fix everything.

LRDtheFeministDragon Wed 31-Oct-12 14:12:41

'This is way more than about language, it's about identity and the loss of that in the next generation, so try to be a little kind to the in-laws, it's hard for them, whilst realising you may not be able to be this magic daughter in law who can fix everything.'


nextphase Wed 31-Oct-12 14:13:29

And another response while your reading the previous lot!

Another family here, where although we all live in the UK, my PIL and I only have very basic graps of the others lanuguage (English for them, and bilingual DH's first language for me).

I leave them to get on with it - and actually have pursuaded them to talk to the kids in their language, as there is no point speaking to the kids in poor English, and the kids (3 and 1) need to learn the second lanugage.

I ask DH every evening when we are together what the plans and timings are for the following day. I also only tend to ask for immediate translations if the conversation sounds like its about plans changing, me or the kids. I then get a summary at a suitable break.

Will think more, and add bits when i get home later, if the thread is still going strong.

Its hard, but your married DH because of who he is, not because of who his family are. Keep the love with your husband, and try to find a path through dealing with the in laws.

OneLittleToddlingTerror Wed 31-Oct-12 14:18:53

"This is way more than about language, it's about identity and the loss of that in the next generation"

Mumsyblouse you put it way better than I did.

OneLittleToddlingTerror Wed 31-Oct-12 14:24:37

Want to add that the translation I do for DH is usually just a summary of family news and gossips during breaks or after the gathering. It's not a line by line translation while the conversation is alive. I guess it is similar to what nextphase is getting translated from her husband.

cumfy Wed 31-Oct-12 14:47:25

It comes across that the main problem is your DH is not passing on important information to you. Nor do your PIL appear to be given feedback that this is the case.

You just need to explain this clearly to DH and PIL.

ElectricMonk Wed 31-Oct-12 14:49:15

Thanks everybody for your replies – they really have helped!

Mumsyblouse - yes it does sound like your situation is very similar to mine (may even be the same culture/language), although my fil is comfortable speaking in English normally. He’s perfectly fluent and will happily speak English in his home all evening to his best friends, without making side-comments to the rest of the family in their second language. But whenever I’m there, he’s constantly going between languages even when talking to just me and dh. He has also done it every time he has had dinner with my family, even when he is in the middle of a direct discussion with one of them. I think that's why I feel so excluded - it feels very much like a "put up or shut up" situation.

For the posters who asked, I have tried very hard to learn the language with dh's help, using the few books that are available (my in-laws sent me one after my very first visit to them). I have quite a lot of vocabulary (I know some words that dh doesn’t), but the grammar is extremely difficult compared to other languages I’ve studied, most nouns are either shortened or merged together at will, and his family speaks very fast in a regional dialect. My mil is a language-whizz, and even after 28 years of almost always speaking the language at home (having started as an adult) she finds it difficult, although she really is as enthusiastic/protective about fil’s culture as he is. I think it will help if dh does running translation when we visit them, so I’ll start pestering him to do that again!

I get very cross with dh if he doesn’t pass on information and it does result in him making more effort for the remainder of the day, but he says he really can’t help it when they’re speaking the family’s patois because he doesn’t realise that I don’t understand. (I know it’s no excuse, but I believe him – I often can keep up if they’re using English verbs and foreign nouns, although it’s very difficult for me. It doesn’t help that fil and mil get a bit irritable when he translates and talk for longer and longer without letting him interject to translate.)

LRD – I totally agree with you that there should be a balance, but TBH there’s only so much that dh and I can do. We’re both studying full-time, working part-time and looking for jobs as it is (plus planning a move and trying to visit people), so there’s not really any time left to learn a language at this point in our lives. We have tried over the past 3 years to learn more, but it really is very hard to do from books and dh’s family wouldn’t slow down or use the standard grammar/nouns in order to help us when we visited.

The people who have said that we would still have issues without the language barrier are all completely right – it’s a very challenging relationship, and the language barrier just adds new levels to that (in terms of misunderstanding, frustration, unwillingness to compromise, being a bit disappointed in me etc). As you’ve said, nothing I do will change that so I’d just like to make sure that I’m doing all I can to help with the things I can (possibly) have any impact on. It really helps to hear that A) I’m not being precious by finding it rude/exclusionary when they make a point of speaking the other language around me and B) it’s not unreasonable to pester dh to translate more. I really want to do my best not to add to dh’s difficulties with his folks, but I also don’t want any resolution they reach to be based on conditions which make me feel deliberately excluded. It’s so hard!

TBH, I have no idea what we would do if we were to have children – we don’t intend to have any, but there is of course a chance that we will change our minds. I have a feeling that we won’t be seeing enough of the in-laws for it to be an issue, unless the growing problems between fil and dh are resolved (which I hope but doubt that they will be).

ElectricMonk Wed 31-Oct-12 15:02:06

Cumfy - over the course of writing all this, I've realised there are 2 problems:

1) dh and pil don't get on very well anyway, and the language barrier between them causes lots of misunderstandings which make them stressed/frustrated/upset with each other. My dh wants to speak to them in English about anything in-depth, personal or complicated to avoid that, but they are very offended by the idea. He's tried only responding in English and asking to switch to English for difficult things in the past, but fil always switches back straight away or ignores him completely. This is mostly dh's problem, but it's started to affect me now because the arguments are getting so bad.

2) when we're visiting pil, short-term arrangements and complaints are made to dh in their language in front of me, I don't understand/realise I need to ask for translation, dh hasn't realised that I don't understand, and pil seem to assume that dh will tell me after the conversation. They then get cross if we haven't responded to the complaint appropriately, or if I'm not where I should be because I haven't been told. If dh tries to translate as they go along I end up feeling really uncomfortable because it's obvious that his parents don't like it, and I always feel like I'm intruding when I come into a room where they're talking in their language and I have to just sit there until they switch. If he waits until later to translate, enough time will have passed that he forgets totally (he is a very forgetful person at the best of times, despite being a genius in other ways). I'm sure it's often accidental, but I have heard them do it deliberately to say things in front of me that they don't want me to hear (as I said, I can understand a little if I try very hard). I've tried just disappearing off upstairs or reading a book, but then I get accused of being distant etc when all I'm trying to do is support dh's relationship with his folks without feeling horrible as a result. We have explained what the problem is, and they deny that they even talk in their language in front of me (even though they see/hear dh having to translate)...

Inertia Wed 31-Oct-12 15:03:34

It doesn't sound as though they actually want to include you or help you learn the language - it sounds like your FIL is trying to assert control over the way everyone in the family does things.

I'd press on with getting DH to give a running translation for everything - and you shouldn't feel afraid to join in if you think you have partially understood ( e.g. I think I heard you say we would leave at 7pm, is that right ? ) .

It sounds as though your FIL expects everyone to fit in with his ideals - sounds quite wearing TBH.

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