Dear Ms. Wai,
I have a questions about languages. I’m German but I’m fluent in English and pretty good with Chinese. My Chinese fiance can speak a little English although our main language is Chinese. (When we hang out with foreign friends he can understand a lot, but is a little shy to actually speak English.)
My problem is German. We plan on marrying this year and have kids soon after so we’ve been talking a lot about our future. Neither of us wants our kids to go through the Chinese education system, so we figure we’ll have kids in China and within a few years move to Germany to raise our family.
He’s actually more excited about this than me so I’m not worried about him changing his mind. What I am worried about is his language. If we live in Germany for our children’s schooling, he’ll need to learn German to have a chance at getting a good job. Since kids are coming within the next year or two (hopefully) now is the time to learn so when he needs to look for a job he’ll be fluent.
He agrees with me in theory, but in practice not so much. I try to speak German to him, I got him a German textbook and I even labeled things around the house with German on them. But he refuses to learn. If I speak German he’ll just complain and ask me to speak Chinese. I ask him if he studies his books and he says he has but I’m not sure he’s done anything beyond flipping through them. We’ve argued about this several times because this is really important to our future and yet he isn’t taking it seriously.
I know once we move he’ll learn quicker, but if we move to Germany and he can’t speak German it’s going to take us much longer to get on our feet. If he needs time in Germany to study, I don’t know if we can survive on only one salary for very long. The only option is him becoming fluent now, before we move, but he isn’t even trying.
What can I do?
First off I’d say stop trying to teach him. The teacher/student dynamic is much different than the boyfriend/girlfriend dynamic and it can make a stable relationship uneasy. If your guy isn’t a lover of learning languages he’s gonna feel stupid and embarrassed (like we all do when learning a language) and he doesn’t want to feel that way around his future wife. So even though you, as a native speaker, are a good resource, you need to step away.
So if you can’t teach him, you’ll need to find someone who can. Obviously you have friends, but it should be a neutral outsider to make it less threatening. If you live in a large city, or work at a university, maybe there are some classes he could attend. But if not there are always online options. You can find tutors and have video classes on Skype, or you can try the free language exchange websites like italki.
As for your part you can let him know you support him, and you can encourage him without being too intrusive. If he does online lessons don’t hover around him and correct him as he’s learning. Don’t ask him about it constantly look over his homework or correct his every mistake. It will make him more nervous about learning and using the language, and you want to make it easier for him since he is already a little resistant. Leave his homework for the teacher to correct, not you.
Also, try to use German around him, but not to him. Like, if you call your parents, do it when he is around and can overhear you. Or play German songs around the house and tell him the meaning but in a friendly way and not a “teacherly” way. Hopefully as he gets better he’ll pay more attention to it, and eavesdrop on you talking to German friends or maybe even sing along with the words without knowing the meaning.
Living in China and learning German is hard because of lack of exposure. Small cities might not have many German people much less German restaurants or shops where he can practice with other people. Since you are being very proactive and coming up with a plan (which is very commendable by the way) you might want to factor in the first six-months or longer where he wouldn’t have to work and can just focus on the language. You would need to save an extra six-months of living expenses but if it could help him land a better job sooner, it might be worth it.
It’s his job to learn German for the sake of your future, but it’s not your job to teach it to him. Encourage and support him learning it, but let him, and others, do the work. A multicultural marriage is hard enough, don’t add teacher to that mix.
Any other Germans who have dealt with the same problem? Let us know what solutions you have come up with in the comments! And if you have a question for Ms. Wai, write to her at [email protected]