Social Question

Foster12's avatar

Should one pursue a romantic relationship with someone who doesn't speak the same language well?

Asked by Foster12 (90 points ) September 30th, 2012

I would like to hear others’ ideas and personal experiences that may help me determine the real potential of my current romantic relationship. For months I have been dating a man whose native language is Spanish. Although he has been living in the U.S. for decades, his grasp of English is not great. He is aware of this and has turned down job opportunities because of his weak English skills. He speaks well enough to get along in many everyday situations. He stopped attending school at a young age; his reading skills are at a sixth grade level, and his writing skills are perhaps at a third grade level. I am a highly educated, intelligent, and highly communicative person—the kind of person who enjoys talking at length about many topics and uses conversations to deeply connect with others.

I am sincerely questioning whether I can sustain a real relationship with a person who cannot communicate at my level. In every conversation, I have to define several words and/or remind myself to use a bare bones vocabulary. I am conflicted because this man is very loving, sweet, affectionate, respectful, etc., so I do not want to hold it against him that he doesn’t know English as well as I. Are there any fluther members who’ve had success in such a situation? Am I making too big of a deal out of communication? Am I at risk of not really getting to know the man deeply enough if we can’t speak about things in a sophisticated, nuanced way? I appreciate any insights you have to offer.

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20 Answers

gailcalled's avatar

It’s really your question, as, of course, you know.

“Am I at risk of not really getting to know the man deeply enough if we can’t speak about things in a sophisticated, nuanced way? ” You have already answered this, it seems. Eventually, won’t you find that using a bare-bones vocabulary will become exhausting?

Does he have any interest in returning to school to work on his English and other language-related skills? Do you think he would be more forthcoming, more erudite and more interesting if he were able to use Spanish? Or, as it sounds, is he resistant to all intellectual stimulus?

(A litte nit-pick here. Am I making too big (no of) a deal here…?)

Foster12's avatar

Gailcalled, I thank you for your response. I do worry that using a bare-bones vocabulary will become increasingly exhausting and frustrating. I’m hoping to hear from others who’ve been in such relationships whether that frustration grows or wanes in time.

He does have some interest in getting his high school degree equivalent. I’m truly not sure how much more forthcoming and sophisticated he is in Spanish. I have a difficult time getting a read on his intellect because of the language barrier.

Trillian's avatar

The key word is; communication. How can you share common interests and goals if you are unable to effectively communicate? The fact that you are able to communicate some things to each other is not enough to formulate a basis for a foundation for a solid relationship based on mutual affection and understanding.
Couples who speak the same language have trouble communicating the information important to a relationship. How much more difficult will it be for you?
The fact that you realize that this is necessary is a good sign. You may wish to decide whether the prospect of possibilities for this relationship are worth pursuing. If they are, you have to decide what you are going to do to facilitate it.

JLeslie's avatar

Is he interested in the same topics as you, to the depth that you are, and insufficient language skills are the only barrier? Or, are education level and interests in general a big mismatch? You mention his writing and reading skills, is that in Spanish also, or just English? Do you speak any Spanish?

Considering he has been here many years, his English will possibly not get much better. Unless, he works in a Spanish speaking environment and most of his friends and family are Spanish speaking, then being with you his English skills might improve. If you have some Spanish skills you can use some Spanglish between the two of you to help communicate. Maybe you already do this.

Honestly I think it will be tough from what you have explained so far, but how can I really make a judgement considering just a paragraph on fluther.

My SIL is first language Spanish, her English is very good, and her first husband was first language Italian, and his English was good not great, I would say a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10 with a heavy accent. He eventually learned Spanish, and Spanish became the primary language spoken in their home. You never know.

Jeruba's avatar

I was in a similar situation in more than one romantic relationship, and there wasn’t even a foreign language involved. We just were not on an equal footing in our command of English.

It might not have bothered me so much (maybe it would have bothered me more over time), but it bothered them a lot. When I just spoke in a way that was normal and natural to me, they felt that I was putting them down by choosing words they didn’t know and using complex sentence structure. They complained that I was deliberately trying to make them feel inadequate. Why would I do that? I didn’t ask them not to be good at whatever they were good at, even if I couldn’t keep up.

I pretty much speak the way I write, in long paragraphs with lots of subordinate constructions and parentheticals, and that’s just the way it is. And has been since I was in high school.

I’ve always read a great deal and absorbed language as readily as some people gain athletic skill or musical competence. It’s no put-down of someone else for a person to do something well. But it was a barrier in those relationships.

To avoid that kind of conflict, I had to watch what I said all the time, and I couldn’t be caught at it or I’d be accused of condescension. It was a losing proposition, and like you I sometimes felt worn out by it.

There was no such problem with the man I married.

Only you can say what compatibility means in your romantic relationships, but I’d say you should also bear in mind that even if it’s not a problem for you, he may in time become resentful of the constant feeling that he doesn’t measure up.

Sunny2's avatar

He has lived here for so long and has not taken an ESL class is an indication that the gap between you is greater than just the language. It speaks to his taking the initiative and His reasoning powers. I can not imagine moving to a country where I don’t speak the language well and not immediately studying and learning the language. In this day and age, you can have a romantic relationship with whomever you wish. I would not consider marriage and would make that clear from the beginning. fwb is the way to go, unless you want to get married to someone soon, in which case, you probably need to stop seeing him. That may be more easily said than done.

ucme's avatar

Wee Wii Oui.

augustlan's avatar

I don’t think I could do it, personally. Not for a serious relationship, anyway. Like @Jeruba, I’ve had difficulty even when English was the shared language. If our language skills were too dissimilar, we just couldn’t communicate well. Are you at all interested in trying to become fluent in Spanish? It sounds like you might have a better shot at bridging the language gap than he. If you’re wildly attracted to him, it might be worth the effort.

Coloma's avatar

Yes, I couldn’t do it either. My ex husband was not a deep guy even though he was quite literate and spoke english well. It was like the Grand Canyon between us on an intellectual and conversational level.
He would become immensely frustrated with me because I craved deep conversations about a myriad of things.

I was left unfulfilled and he felt overwhelmend, it sucked, lol
I really, really, need a mind mate.

Shippy's avatar

Perhaps to ask this question, already signals your frustration? It is a difficult call. I do enjoy that a person can understand my little nuances and humor within a conversation. It makes me feel the person “gets me” which is so important.

2davidc8's avatar

I agree with @augustlan. Why don’t you learn Spanish? It seems that you would have a better chance of learning Spanish well compared to his chances of learning English well.

Bellatrix's avatar

I feel you are asking for justification to say “This isn’t working, I need to move on”. I don’t mean that in a harsh way, but the information you have included here and your phrasing says to me “I can’t see myself being able to stay in this relationship but I don’t want to be cruel”.

Personally, I have been in a relationship with someone who was not my intellectual equal. I had to modify my own behaviour and activities to suit him. I wouldn’t do that again. I know I need to be able to talk to my partner and to debate issues of interest to me. I also want to be with someone who has a similar hunger to live their life well.

I get the sense from your post that he isn’t interested in improving himself. If it was purely a language barrier that can be fixed. One or both of you could take language lessons as has been suggested. When you say he stopped going to school at a young age, was this in his own country, in his own language? Can he read and write in Spanish? If not, this problem is bigger than just a language barrier it is a broader literacy problem. His lack of motivation to learn, despite it hindering his employment and advancement prospects, would frustrate me no end.

So, I couldn’t live with someone who was choosing not to improve their literacy, whether in their language or mine. That says he lacks drive, ambition and the desire to get the most out of life. You on the other hand sound like someone who is a high achiever.

poisonedantidote's avatar

In my town there are two guys that I know, called Manolo and George.

Manolo is a Spanish man, who speaks zero English, and George is an English man who speaks zero Spanish. The two guys have been best friends for over 30 years, neither has any idea what the other is saying.

Stranger things have happened

Kardamom's avatar

He might be a very nice man, but it will become extremely exhausting to talk to him and communicate in a meaninful and rich way, which is something that you probably want. Unless you learn fluent Spanish, it’s always going to be difficult. But even if you learn fluent Spanish, it’s still going to be problematic for the two of you to exist on an even platform.

One of my closest friend’s mothers (who recently passed away) lived in the U.S. for over 50 years, which means she lived in the U.S. longer than I have been alive, but she spoke Spanish and never learned to speak English. Her Dad, however did learn to speak English. It was always weird and awkward to go over to their house, because her mother would hide in her bedroom anytime any of my friends’ non-Spanish speaking friends came over. So I only saw her once or twice in passing. She never spoke to me. I had a lovely relationship with her dad, though.

My aunt is from Ecuador, she learned fluent English in Ecuador. But when her family moved to the U.S. when she was still a kid, her mother never learned English (she also spoke only Spanish like my friend’s mom) so everytime we had family gatherings, my aunt’s mother never spoke to any of us and would kind of sit in a corner by herself. My aunt would have to run over to her and translate things. I could tell she was somewhat hurt by the fact that we all spoke English. It was very awkward.

So imagine not just your own life with this fellow, imagine how awful it will be for him if you try to invite him to a family gathering or a gathering of your friends (if none of them speak Spanish). He probably won’t want to go to movies, it will be hard for him to navigate stores, or go on a trip and stay at a hotel etc. etc. etc.

And like some of the others have said, it seems like his motivation level for trying to learn to speak English is pretty low, so he’ll likely want to stick around home most of the time.

Haleth's avatar

It’s very hard to express yourself in a second language. If you try to learn Spanish, you’ll probably experience this yourself. He could be a smart, thoughtful man, but it sounds like he hasn’t had many opportunities for education.

Honestly, if you haven’t tried to pick up any Spanish before now, that shows a lack of empathy that is probably the deeper problem in this relationship. You said he “can’t communicate at [your] level,” but have you tried communicating at his level? The tone of your question seems full of contempt, and that makes me sad for him.

Jeruba's avatar

I don’t see the contempt, @Haleth. It’s very hard to say what @Foster12 was trying to say without being misunderstood. But I thought she managed it very well. If this man has been living in the U.S. for decades and has not made any effort to improve his command of English, I don’t see how the burden could be upon her to master the language of his native country. This would be a different story if she had gone to live where he came from.

JLeslie's avatar

@Jeruba I also mentioned that if the OP knew some Spanish it might help their communication. I think if the OP really likes this guy, and his language abilities are limited in English, then her willingness to learn Spanish could solve her problem. Unless, his command of Spanish also isn’t great. That is why I wondered about a mismatch in education level and interests in general. (not that formal education is always necessary for someone to have strong knowledge and grasp of a topic, they can be self taught of course).

Although, when they are in social situations, maybe she will still be frustrated among her friends that he doesn’t communicate well? Or, maybe they live in a place where there are plenty of Spanish speaking people to go around and he will always connect wellwith some people at a social gathering.

Foster12's avatar

I want to thank everyone for giving such thoughtful responses and questions for me to ponder. I have been out of internet contact for a few weeks, but I am delighted to get connected again and see how much great advice I’ve been given on Fluther.

@JLeslie His education level is quite low in Spanish as well. He can get by verbally in Spanish, but he cannot read or write well. As for our interests, we do diverge somewhat. The impression I get is that he finds all the sophisticated topics I mention to be intriguing, but he doesn’t have enough experience with them to sustain long conversations about them.

@Jeruba I appreciate your warning about his potential feelings of inadequacy. I do take that quite seriously.

For those suggesting I learn Spanish, I’m afraid I’m not very good at second languages myself. I’ve tried, but I think at this age, my brain just doesn’t adapt too well. Perhaps that is why this man is having such a difficult time improving his English, as he is quite a bit older!

@Bellatrix and others who made similar comments: Indeed this man did stop going to school at a young age in Mexico. And, yes, we are mismatched in that I am a high achiever while he is someone who has struggled for decades just to make it in this country. His job doesn’t require him to improve his English. He is a hard worker and has consistently sent money home to relatives, but I suppose he just never realized it was within his reach to achieve more in this country if he’d become educated. I don’t judge him for having low motivation. I simply believe that he came from an entirely different upbringing and perspective than I. I was raised to believe that education must be put above everything else. He was raised working in fields and striving for daily meals. While he isn’t the intellectual partner I always imagined I’d have, the strength of his character, the compassion, the commitment to supporting and loving those in his life, and the tremendous gratitude for everything he has are all qualities that leap out at me as incredibly special. I’ve never known one of my intellectual/educational equals to have such amazing qualities as this man (and I don’t even have them to the degree that he has). This is humbling to me and strongly draws me to him.

My general sense from reading everyone’s posts—and I have now read them at least five times—is that there is a good chance this will become increasingly difficult for me. As time passes, I may crave the deep communication I’m used to and will have to end the relationship. For the present moment, I’m going to try to stay a bit more optimistic and open-minded because I do feel a respect and love for him that is really important to me. Again, thank you all for your deep thoughts!

Bellatrix's avatar

I hope things work out for you @Foster12, whatever that ultimately means for you.

It sounds as though you love this man very much and he has some wonderful qualities. If you can find intellectual stimulation elsewhere, perhaps that could be enough. Of course, only you know that. I should say I don’t think being your intellectual equal means your equal in terms of education. My partner is nowhere near as educated as me but he is my intellectual equal in most areas of our life. Intelligence comes in many forms. Also, strengths like compassion, caring and emotional intelligence should not be underestimated. I would say having someone you can debate with in no way outweighs having someone you trust and feel loved and secure with. I think trying to just let things be and living in the moment is a good plan. Don’t try to second guess the future. Be happy.

JLeslie's avatar

@Foster12 I feel fairly confident his second langauge will never be equal to or better than his first. If he struggles with Spanish, he will probably always struggle more in English.

In relationships our partners can never be 100% of what we need. You have colleagues at work who you can discuss some of your interests probably, and friends. You have to decide if his language skills are enough for you to feel staisifed to even discuss less technical things, every day discussion.

My inlaws are Mexican, they have 5th and 8th grade educations. I can’t remember if I wrote that above. My paternal grandfather probably stopped school when he came to the US from Latvia, when he was 14. It isn’t that they don’t value education usually, but those immigrants typically are providing educational opportunities for their children, not for themselves. They come to the US to work. Why would your boyfriend think about a higher education in English when his literacy is poor in Spanish, and he struggles verbally? You are highly educated in English and can you imagine trying to take a class in college that is in a foreign language?

Is this someone if you stay with him you would want to have children with? If so, that could easily be a deciding factor. I really cared that my husband be on board with paying for college for our future kids. If the man you are dating has no appreciation for education, that is one thing, but if he just was not able to attain it for himself, that is another.

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