Without going into too much personal details, I’ve had my fair share of language learning with a Chinese-speaking partner. Since this is a topic that comes up fairly often and I have a few things to say about it, this is precisely what I’m going to do.
I think that many people, both native speakers and other learners, misunderstand what it means to learn Chinese from/with a loved one.
So that’s why your Chinese is so good!
One of the most frustrating statements I’ve heard (and keep hearing quite often) is that after someone learns that I have a Chinese girlfriend, they exclaim something like: “Oh, so that’s why your Chinese is so good!”
There are many ways of responding, but since most people don’t really care, I mostly just smile and nod. Yes, sure, that’s the main reason.
Of course, the real reason my Chinese is reasonably good is because I’ve studied like a maniac, lived in Taiwan for four years and taken academic courses entirely in Chinese half that time. In fact, the cause/effect relationship in my case is reversed; I would never have been together with my girlfriend now if I didn’t already speak Chinese when I met her!
The problem is that people somehow think that having a Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend means that you’ll learn the language by magic. This is just wrong. There are some real advantages, especially for daily conversation, increased fluency and (sometimes) a good model for pronunciation, but you improve mostly because you practise a lot, not because of the nationality of your better half.
In a sense, this is the same as immersion: you don’t learn Chinese simply by living in China.
Another potential problem is language choice. I think people in general tend to choose to communicate in whatever language is most convenient, which very likely isn’t Chinese if you’re a beginner. I know many mixed-nationality couples in Taiwan who speak almost exclusively English, even though they live in a Chinese-speaking environment.
This doesn’t make sense from a language-learning perspective (or at least not from your point of view), but it makes sense from a human one: Most people don’t fall in love because they want to learn a language, so they tend to use whatever language works best, not the language they are trying to learn. Switching languages can be very hard, even if both of you want to do so.
Practice makes perfect
The main benefit of having a Chinese partner is that it’s a very fun way of exploring the language. We naturally feel a stronger desire to communicate with people we love and that means that we can keep at it for much longer and with stronger incentives to learn.
A partner is usually (but far from always) more supportive of our language learning and might therefore be superior to random stranger or language exchange partner when it comes to helping you with your Chinese.
I often argue that learning Chinese needs to be fun and finding a Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend is definitely an awesome way to do it. I would personally never dream of finding one for this very reason, however, but I might be old and conservative. As long as everybody’s informed and is on the same page, I suppose it’s okay.
Another benefit with having a Chinese partner is that it increases your minimum daily study time. Just by managing daily conversations and discussions in Chinese is bound to teach you something, even if you’re an advanced learner. You gradually build up the feel for the language. Even if you’re too lazy to study, you still learn. This is harder without a partner, but can be managed in other ways, such as using games, sports or other everyday activities you don’t necessarily count as studying.
Some suggestions for how to learn with a partner
Don’t forget that your partner is a person, too. Just like friends, you can’t take them for granted and if you start treating them as your personal teacher or dictionary, you will run into problems very soon.
I’ve found that the best way to equalise this relationship is by offering something in return. I do ask my girlfriend quite a lot of question about Chinese, but I also receive a fair number of questions in return regarding English or Swedish. This feels okay.
If both of you are very interested in languages, you could probably talk about that all day without feeling bored. If that’s not the case (I know, there are some strange people out there), I suggest limiting language learning to specific times. Don’t focus on your pronunciation 24/7, instead choose a time when the two of you try to fix your tones or whatever. If your partner is willing, s/he can then later correct you, but don’t push it.
What you won’t learn
Obviously, there are huge areas of the Chinese language that you won’t learn at all just because your special one happens to be Chinese. This includes character writing, reading speed, proper pronunciation (if s/he doesn’t speak with a standard Mandarin accent), culture (unless you talk about it in particular) and writing in general. You will probably improve your ability to converse about everyday life and your fluency should increase quite a lot, but to reach an advanced level of Chinese, you need much more than that.
What if I don’t have a Chinese girlfriend/boyfriend?
Even though there seem to be some advantages with trying to communicate with people you love (as opposed to trying to communicate with a stranger or a language exchange partner), I’m convinced that the main advantaged with having a Chinese-speaking partner is that it makes studying more practical and enjoyable.
As I said above, it’s a little bit like living in China versus staying in your home country. Going to China will make a lot of things more convenient, you won’t need to try as hard as if you stay at home. Still, there’s nothing that stops you from creating an immersion environment at home!
Similarly, there’s nothing that says you can’t learn Chinese very well without having a partner who speaks Chinese, but it means you need to be more active and involve Chinese in your daily life as much as possible in other ways. This is not impossible, it’s just slightly more inconvenient. Try to find other things that motivate you to learn and that makes learning Chinese a joy, then make them parts of your everyday life to as high a degree as possible.
In my article about the three roads to Chinese mastery, “having your social life in Chinese” is indeed one of the alternatives, but you can achieve that without a partner who speaks Chinese and there are two entirely different options available as well.
In short, learning Chinese with a partner is indeed very good, but it’s not a magic bullet that will solve all your problems. You will still need to study, you will still need to practice, it’s just that some of the things you need to learn will be more enjoyable and you will hopefully be more motivated to learn. That’s worth a lot, but you can find other fun ways to learn and other things to drive you forwards.
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You forgot to mention the hazard that girls will happily teach men feminine language. Then, when this big hairy foreigner opens his mouth, he sounds like a ponce. I remember this one man would say “讨厌！” whenever he didn’t like something. Ugh…Chinese people always laughed, I felt sorry for him.
I didn’t really forget about it, I chose not to bring it up because I think it’s a minor problem. The only case when this would be possible is if you ONLY speak Chinese with your girlfriend. That’s bad language learning for many, many reasons and perhaps the topic of another article? It does happen, of course, but it’s much less of a problem than in some other languages (e.g. Japanese, at least from what I’ve heard).
Yes, my father has mentioned that this is an issue with learning Japanese, but as you say it mainly applies to people who learn exclusively from their girlfriend (or boyfriend I suppose, though that might be less weird in Japanese since some Japanese women chose to talk in a more ‘masculine’ style). My father always mentioned this with regards of Americans who only practiced Japanese with their girlfriends. Back in those days, my dad had a Japanese girlfriend too, but he was also studying with a textbook and set of audiotapes, so his problem was that his language was often too formal (which his girlfriend found amusing).
I have also heard that this is an issue with Thai, though in Thai it is a matter of both gender and class (i.e. many foreigners learn how to talk Thai like a minimally educated bargirl who grew up in a province far from Bangkok).
Interesting! Things like this certainly makes learning a language a lot more complicated, so in a way, I’m happy that the differences are comparatively small in Mandarin. I don’t deny that there are difference, but they are much, much smaller than in some languages (of which you mentioned two).
Yeah, I think the usual mistake people make is they assume that a Chinese boyfriend/ girlfriend is also a willing or capable teacher. My girlfriend has been an invaluable source of practice and a great aid to my Chinese ability. However, she rarely has the patience to sit down and teach me words or correct my mistakes unless she doesn’t understand what I am trying to say.
I also know many Taiwanese women who don’t even like helping their partners to practice Chinese, simply stating that they feel awkward speaking Chinese to a foreigner. Thankfully my girlfriend isn’t one of those!
As for the speaking like a girl issue, I don’t think you need to solely speak with your partner to be influenced by the way they speak. When I first started learning Chinese I was often told I spoke effeminately. This was also due to the fact that all of my Taiwanese coworkers were also women. I obviously had some contact with Taiwanese men, just not enough to learn from the way they spoke.
I don’t think being a willing and capable teacher is necessary, simply being prepared to speak the language is of great help (of course, teaching would be even better, but a lot rarer as well). I agree with what you say about female vs. male speakers, the education system is full of women and most people who are interested in foreign languages are also women. Therefore, it’s quite natural to listen to more female than male voices. That’s true for me as well. Still, I don’t think this has made my Chinese girlish at all, but I’m not sure why. Wide variety of input, perhaps? Linguistic awareness?
There are also a whole slew of difficulties that come with trying to use the more challenging language with one’s partner when there is an easier fallback. My wife is Taiwanese, and I have found that my imperfect Chinese is often frustrating to her given her English is pretty much perfect; the potential for misunderstandings is much greater when we’re speaking Chinese, and the pace is much slower. Thus for ordinary daily communication and talking about serious or complicated topics in particular, it’s much easier and more pleasant for her to use English with me. The stakes are also much higher than in casual conversations with strangers are friends. If I lose track of the conversation with a stranger, it merely makes the interaction more awkward, bizarre, or incomplete. But with my wife, it has the potential to create distance between us or inject a tiny amount of extra stress into the relationship.
As a result, the first few years were were together and even after we were married, we spoke primarily English and my Chinese improved only very slowly, and primarily through my own efforts. And like Olle, most of my practice and improvement predated my wife and I getting together. However, we had a son two years ago, and we’re raising him bilingual, and try and primarily speak Chinese in his presence. This has been a huge boon to my Chinese abilities, and they have now resumed the steady ascent. My son’s tones are already much more consistently correct than mine and it won’t be too long before his vocabulary is larger than mine. Time to pick up the pace.
Thanks for your comment, Kevin! I agree that the ease of communication is very important. We communicate primarily in Mandarin because that’s the language where we have the highest combined fluency, so it’s not as tricky for me. However, I observe this from the other direction when my girlfriend tries to learn Swedish (where she can still be considered to be a beginner). Obviously, we can’t communicate well in Swedish and it is hard to change habits and speak more Swedish, but we keep experimenting (blog post coming up about this).
I also want to say that I agree with what you say about advanced language and studying on your own. Everyday conversations cover a very small part of a language and the rest you need to pick up on your own.
I have been told on multiple occasions to get a Chinese girlfriend. It’s always awkward because I worry people think I’m in it to chase girls. I once mentioned that I want to go to Chongqing, the Chinese girl was like，”oooohhhh, I see, you heard that’s where all the hot girls are.” If people could see me blushing I’d have looked like a tomato (I have an honest interest in the place, naturally I’d heard things but come on.)
I do think this would help things, I’m doing everything in my power to avoid the (generally) exorbitant cost of lessons but I struggle with self studying and keeping to a schedule, goals etc. But I digress. Yeah, a partner who is patient and willing to help would be amazing!
That’s not really your fault, though. She would probably have said that regardless of why you intended to go there. You’d need to be quite liberal to find a partner just to study Chinese, but if you live in China and integrate 100% with locals, it’s not unnatural to find one, is it? It’s quite likely if you’re open for it. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Really interesting post. I think in some ways a significant other might even hinder your language learning. I was often laughed at – not in a discouraging way, they found my mistakes “cute” – but it still was frustrating and made me reluctant to speak in front of them. Plus I cared more about what they thought about how I spoke than I did with others so it made me more self-conscious as well.
However, when they are a willing teacher and correct your mistakes, they can be a great motivator for learning.
My experience was a little different in that I started learning Chinese only after knowing my wife. My wife spoke Chinese as her first language. After more than 20 years of being married, my Chinese hadn’t improved one bit while her English improved by leaps and bounds. She now speaks fluent English and you wouldn’t know that English was her 2nd language.
I on the other hand only decided 8 months ago to try and learn Chinese to some level of fluency. People said, “Oh! you can just pick it up from your wife and and watch Chinese movies … ” etc but I think that’s impossible. Just like Olle, the bulk of my learning effort is not through my wife but mainly through on-line courses and constant practice on my own. After about 8 months of hard work, I estimate that about 30-40% of my daily conversion with my wife is now in Chinese. Like Kevin, because my wife now speaks fluent English, that works against me in my effort to learn Chinese. Its just too easy to revert to English whenever the going gets just a little bit tough.
Having a cooperative Chinese wife or partner is a huge, HUGE help. Whatever I learn through a structured course can be put to practice. I don’t expect my wife to be my private tutor to sit down with me to teach me tones and pronunciation but she does give me invaluable feedback when my pronunciation or tones for some words are not right.
The biggest help comes when I have some words or phrases I need that were not covered in my on-line course. I simply list them in English in my Anki deck. When she has the time, she goes through my deck and records the audio for it in Chinese and fills in the Pinyin and Hanzi fields. This way she doesn’t have to repeat the word over and over again for me (I know that will just drive her crazy). Within a month or two that word or phrase will be committed to long term memory. With her help, I can easily fill in all the missing bits from my on-line courses and my progress is significantly accelerated this way.
Yes, having a cooperative and patient partner is of course a great help, but I think it’s a great help simply having a native speaker around. My philosophy in general is to apply language question triage as much as possible. I could ask my girlfriend a lot of questions, but unless we’re both studying or it’s very convenient for both of us, I usually go elsewhere with my questions. This is true for all people, not just partners, of course.
Having a girlfriend is not like going to school or studying Chinese on your own. It’s a relationship with another person. Even if your goal is to improve your Chinese, you will probably improve faster within the confines of the relationship than trying to use your girlfriend as a dictionary and language learning object. Ideally your Chinese is good enough to take advantage of being in a relationship with a Chinese person. Usually people pick a language of interaction and stick to it. Being at a low level in Chinese and trying to date a Chinese person, the chances are you will be speaking mostly English. But talking with a Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend day in day out is a wake up call for how limited our grasp of vocabulary and grammar really is.
This summer, we’re doing a bit of experimenting when it comes to changing the language we speak. As you say, it’s easy to get stuck in one language (Mandarin in our case), but I’m sure there are ways out of it and that’s what we’re experimenting with, different ways of changing conversation habits from Mandarin to Swedish. I will most likely write a blog post about this later!
I really enjoy reading your post Olle. It’s great to read everyone’s comments as well. What is curious is that there doesn’t seem to be any first-hand comments from the partner’s point of view – though I believe that perhaps you might have all shown this post to your loved ones. In fact, this is how I came to it.
My husband is learning Cantonese and we don’t live in a Cantonese speaking country. We live in an environment where English and Arabic are spoken, so speaking Cantonese is almost pointless. For me, though Cantonese is my mother tongue, I haven’t spoken it much for almost twenty years apart from the odd time when I went home to see my relatives. The fact is that my dominant language is English and most of my identity as an adult is in English. I only ever speak Cantonese when I see my family.
It seems that everyone agrees that the key is not to take your partner for granted as a living dictionary. This point cannot be underestimated but the reality is that it often gets forgotten temporarily when the enthusiasm to learn just takes over. What often happens is that the ‘learner’ gets frustrated when the partner reverts to the language in which both parties are ‘competent’ so communication is the most effective. This is the point when it becomes totally out of order when the ‘learner’ gets frustrated that the partner has reverted.
People, especially bilinguals and multilinguals, use a certain language by choice. It is important to respect that language choice because when you are speaking to a loved one, you are having a human relationship with them. As Kevin said, the stakes are high and the potential for frustration increases when one of the partners fails to express and understand what is trying to be communicated. It takes a lot of patience and understanding for the partner so he/she can be and stay accommodating.
We respect the fact that our partners are trying to learn ‘our’ language to get closer to us as people but it does not give it a special status so the ‘learner’ then has the right to ‘legitimately’ get frustrated when your partner is being ‘unhelpful’. Our primary concern is that of communication. When we talk to our partner, we are ‘communicating’, not ‘being practised on’. If this understanding is not there or even temporarily forgotten, it damages relationships. I am exaggerating a little to get my point across.
I’m not suggesting in the slightest that before you’ve embarked on this journey of learning the language of your partner that you haven’t had to ‘endure’ the perhaps less than perfect language your partner uses to communicate with you. But the situation there was different, there was no choice because one of you didn’t understand didn’t understand the other language at all or enough for you to be able to interact on a level desired by both parties.
As Olle says, having a designated time and perhaps some kind of returns will certainly helps. But this only works when it is 100% respected. I also like Gregory’s arrangement of Anki with your wife. Perhaps it is a consequence of my own situation, I feel that since my husband’s enthusiasm of learning Cantonese has kicked in, every time we talk, I’m always being bombarded by questions of how to say this and how to say that. That is not communication. That’s a language clinic.
You are terribly lucky if your partner is into learning languages like you, but there are people out there, like me, who only see languages and their learning valuable out of necessity. We see languages as a tool for exchanges between minds and if that’s not achieved, it is only logical for us to switch to the language that will do just that.
So, please remember not to treat your partner as a language clinic. Don’t see them as putting up an obstacle of your learning when they revert. They’re just being human and that’s what you want. You want them to interact with you as a human, not a language learner, and you don’t want to change that.
Obviously the account above was based on my personal experience under our specific circumstances. I wonder what your partner would say.
Interesting, thanks for sharing! Communication ought to be number one for most people provided that they aren’t dating someone primarily for language reasons. Our situation is a bit different since my spoken Chinese was probably better than my girlfriend’s English when we met (I have, after all, lived in an immersion environment for many years and even though she’s an English teacher, she had little actual practice before coming to Sweden). That means that for us, Chinese is always the language of choice. I have had different experience when starting to learn Chinese, though, and I understand and agree with what you say.
Another important things to note is that I think there is a big difference between asking someone to speak their dominant language and other languages. My father speaks Latvian, but he never taught me or my brother the language. Why? Because Swedish is his first and dominant language. I don’t blame him for speaking Swedish to us. Similarly, it would be hard to require a non-native speaker of Mandarin to speak Mandarin just because I want to practice!
Just a few random thoughts, thank you again for your comment!
Thanks for sharing Connie. Nice to get your perspective of it.
The fact that my Chinese boyfriend doesn’t look the least bit Chinese as he’s from the Wa people and most Chinese people seem to think he’s African makes people always comment on how good HIS Chinese is and exclaim surprise at how he even speaks the local dialect, most people we meet assume he speaks English and that I don’t speak Chinese. When they he’s actually from China and that I speak Chinese though, they just tend to be impressed, but with him I’ve actually never gotten that annoying comment that my Chinese is good because I’m with him but it often happened with a previous, Han Chinese boyfriend…rather people will comment that my Mandarin is more “biaozhun” than his. My boyfriend is an excellent writer and through keeping in touch with him on WeChat I get in contact with a lot of new vocabulary that I save in a special Pleco wordlist, but honestly I’m often too lazy to bother to really learn those words, so in that sense being with him doesn’t help me to learn Chinese – like you wrote, it’s not like you learn the language magically just by being in a relationship with someone Chinese, you have to put in a lot of effort. However, one big advantage I’ve gotten from being with my boyfriend is that I can now understand different Yunnanese dialects, because my boyfriend and his friends will never speak Mandarin just because I’m around (something that made me upset in the beginning as I felt very bored and left out, but now that I can understand what they’re saying – well, most of the time – I mostly just feel proud over my listening comprehension and grateful that I can now travel to small villages in Yunnan and interact with the locals who don’t speak Putonghua).
Yes it’s terribly disapointing when you did struggle many years learning Mandarin and you have the chance one day to practice a bit with friends or relations, you have one guy just shouting kinda: “Oh! I heard your girlfriend is Chinese, this is why you can speak so well!”
Usually people making these kind of statements never learned any second language. They don’t even know the difference between a Teacher and a Tutor and yes if it helps to be able to practice or have good advises, the most part of it is WORK and WORK…That’s it!
I remember facing the same situation a few years ago and I knew the wife of this guy was a classical artist, so I said: “I heard your wife is a fantastic violin player…” and the guy proudly answering “True that she recently played in the famous hall…” but before he even finished his sentence, I just said: “Woowww! It’s fantastic to have such a wife and obviously you must also play the violin very well! So easy to learn with your wife! Nice!” I remember the guy being a bit puzzled and I’m pretty sure he did get the message 🙂 This is a true story!