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Foreign Spouse and Learning English

Ugh, English almost caused our marriage to end! My husband refused to learn English for several years. This baffled my family, made it very hard for my husband to find work, and to be honest–it just really felt unfair to me–not only did I have to work full-time, plus study in the evenings, but I also had to pay all the bills. So my husband could sit around and not work? It felt like he had all the choices, but I got none. It was infuriating and unfair, but looking back, I realize it was really hard for him too. My husband refused to learn English for several reasons, which I understand now, but did not understand then:

  1. He was afraid he couldn’t learn English.
  2. He felt embarrassed trying to speak English–he didn’t know words or how to put them together.
  3. He couldn’t accept reality–he tried to hold onto hope that he didn’t NEED to learn English. (Eventually he understood that this was wrong–but only after he’d learned the language!)
  4. He hates studying, always did, always will.

So how did he learn? He learned on the job. He had very difficult jobs, and there he had to communicate in English all day. At first, he could barely do it, but each day over the course of four years, he spoke each day and learned. I also tried to speak with him–but he always answered me in Russian. (Neither of us speak Russian natively but it’s the language we use together). So I gave up…

It can feel really hopeless when a spouse can’t speak the language around you–it can be embarrassing for you and your spouse in social and professional situations. The temptation is usually to pressure the spouse to learn the language. But remember–your spouse wants to learn the language around him or her much more than you want this! It’s very difficult to be unable express oneself or understand what people are saying due to a language barrier. I’ve been there. I experienced this in both Russia and Spain–it was very stressful for me, and I LOVE language learning! I like the phrase “When in Rome…” In Italy, you need to speak the language to find Italian jobs–it’s the same here and everywhere else.

Language learning will happen as long as your spouse is exposed to English (or the native langauge of whichever country you live in). Try to be patient and encourage your spouse to be in situations where he or she can hear and speak the language. Also, examine why you have this dynamic in your marriage–I never did this because our situation changed; however, if unchanged, it could easily lead to a burdensome, unbalanced marriage even for two people who are very in love. People need time to adjust to a new culture and accept the reality that learning what they need to might be hard. If all else fails, try putting yourself in your spouse’s place. What if you suddenly had to move to Brazil, adjust to the culture, and find Portuguese jobs? It’s so hard adjusting to a new country.  However, it’s important that the patterns change at some point so that responsibilities are shared–it’s too much for one person to do everything.

8 Responses to “Foreign Spouse and Learning English”

  1. I married my husband Marcos and he does not speak English either. I actually learned Spanish so that I could talk to him. LOL
    He wants to learn English but it is hard for him. We have been together 2 years now. I feel that the reason it is hard for him (as well as others) is because when he goes to work they speak spanish, he watches spanish tv, in most stores they speak spanish and all his friends speak spanish. I have to remind myself to speak English to him because when with him I only think in Spanish.

    It does not bother me at all that he does not speak English but he needs to learn in to be able to function when not with me. I tell him that he is only a shadow of the man that he could be if he could speak both.

    I know that my Spanish is not perfect but it is good and I am sure it will never be perfect. I never expect him to be perfect with English either but he needs to know enough to do things on his own if I am not there.

    English is very hard to learn because we form our sentences so differently. The placement of the words…

  2. So happy to learn I am not alone… like you Sam, my partner in no idiot…. something I remind him when we see other latinos with very little education but still manage to be bilingual.

    He has been in this country for 9 years and still refuses to learn English, he feels latinos don’t need to and if I try and tell him how he could get a better job or anything else that would make his life easier I am just a racist gringo who insists that the poor persecuted latinos speak english and instead I should be grateful that there are latinos in this country because without them the lazy gringos wouldn’t be able to survive.

    He has a job that pays almost nothing but is happy and everyone in the office speaks spanish, he watches only Univision and Telemundo and reads the weekly spanish speaking nevwspaper.

    He won’t take classes or study with me because he says he is to tired after work and on his days off manages to find other excuses.

    After almost 8 years of being together it’s really getting old. When I go visit his family in his home country I speak Spanish with everyone and try to adapt as best I can to the culture. To me I feel he is being very discrespectful because he refuses to extend the same courtacy. I am really at my wits end.

  3. I don’t have answers for anyone, but it helps to read other’s experiences. I am from the United States and my husband is from El Salvador. I lived in his country for about 8 months. When we first met I struggled greatly with my Spanish, which I hadn’t really studied since high school, but I read books for pre-teens in Spanish and studied and read every sign I could and asked what things meant and practiced.

    At first he did all of the talking for me in restaurants, hotels, etc, but after a month or so I realized that my Spanish would never improve unless I spoke more and to more people. So, I did most of our talking. I talked to lawyers about our immigration paperwork and doctors when I had an eye infection. I would study the words before we went somewhere and then use them.

    I was able to explain the whole immigration process to him, even though it was hard… learning the words in English and then translating for him.

    Now he has been here nearly a year and he doesn’t seem to want to learn. He also will study for hours sporadically, rather than a few minutes a day.

    Or he’ll learn words, but his pronunciation is atrocious, to the point where I have no idea what he is saying. He gets mad if I try to help him with his pronunciation and says that I can’t expect him to have a perfect American accent… but teaching him the difference between how to pronounce the letters m and n or b and v is so different from having a perfect American accent. I’m trying to teach him the basic sounds of the letters…. and I’m patient and I say things slowly and I show him.. but he gets angry and frustrated.

    I have volunteered in ESL classes. I have a theater background and understand how to pronounce letters and how to explain it. I’m learning Italian and working with a woman who tells me the same things. I… I am just so frustrated and sad.

    I write poetry and I can’t share it with him. I love word play and double entendre.

    He gets frustrated because he earns less money than me…. (because he doesn’t speak English), and I get frustrated because I pay the bills, take the cats to the vet, translate work applications, etc. He gets bored and I’m so busy I don’t know what to do.

    He wants kids and I said that I won’t do it until he speaks English. It’s already too much…. and it ends up feeling like the relationship is an endurance test.

  4. I am Mexican-Hungarian, my husband is Italian, we live in Hungary. I learned Italian from him after 3 months, but after 8 years living here he cannot speak Hungarian! Problem is, other than not being able to communicate with my family here (which is quite embarrassing for me), he asks me everyday to call this or that person or solve him problems from work, but I am not his secretary. We both have our own different companies but work in the same office (our desks are next to each other). He is able to work most of the time using English, but when not, he asks me, and I do it because there is really no one else he could turn to. Hungarian language is really hard, its not my mother language but I speak it very well, though I am not able to teach it to my husband. I have searched him courses but he just doesn’t want to go (excuses: no time, or money). I do not pretend from him to speak it on a high level but to at least try! I feel he is being inconsiderate of my family and of the time I dedicate to solve his problems in Hungarian. On the other hand, I cannot force someone to learn a language he doesn’t want to. Any opinions? Should I keep helping him with translations, or oblige him to learn?

  5. Hi Sam,

    I totally understand. My husband has learned English, but only by coincidence through jobs, and even after more than 10 years, he still speaks with a very heavy accent and makes mistakes that I beg him to stop. (The biggest one is “What you said?” instead of “What did you say?”)

    I actually only try to get him to correct that ONE error because it’s one that comes up even initially in conversations and job interviews, so I feel creates the wrong impression–it makes him look like he can’t understand, though he understands perfectly…

    But will he correct that ONE error? He will not…

    One possible tip–maybe consider getting her a female tutor for *speaking* practice not *studying*. The speaking practice makes a huge difference–even once a week, especially if the tutor is good and told in advance which phrases and situations to focus on. It’s much funner to do that than study too–especially if the tutor has the right personality. Whatever you do, don’t go with anyone who knows Spanish…Best of luck.

  6. I was REALLY hoping you’d give some more pointers on how to make this happen. My marriage is on the rocks because my wife from Ecuador will NOT learn English. She has been in the US for 12 years and just can’t get it.

    Does she want to? Yes. Does she study? No. Is she dumb? No, she’s got a master’s degree. So why won’t she? PLEASE, someone tell me!

    It is the most frustrating thing in the world. We’ve got 3 kids which are getting to the age where they are passing their mom in language, and soon, she will not ever be able to have those heart-to-hearts with her kids because she doesn’t study, but rather complains how hard English is and what little time she has to study.

    About ever six months she will go on these English bursts (like a kid who just drank 10 Cokes) which last a good 5 days. 6-7 hours per day of studying. Then, just as quick as it came, the studying stops.

    I have told her that’s not the way to study. It’s better to study 1 hour per day EVERY DAY (or 10 minutes for that matter) than to study 7 hours per day for 10 days a year.

    But there is a total disconnect.

    Now my patience is next to utterly gone and it shows. How can you make the same mistakes after 10000s of corrections. It’s embarrassing when she says “Did you went the store?” HUH??? Why, oh why after 10 years do you even have those words come into your brain that way? “I no can espeak English.” PLEASE!

    I’m at my witts end. Ugh.

  7. Thank you for sharing! I think it’s helpful for spouses to know how stressful it is for the one who is required to change…It seems so easy until you have to do it yourself–even just taking a trip to beautiful Puerto Rico, as you mentioned, can be stressful due to immersion in a different culture and language.

  8. Although my situation is not exactly the same, I can definitely sympathize. My husband is Puerto Rican and speaks both Spanish and English. Spanish is his first language but he speaks English fluently. Since his family is in Puerto Rico and do not speak English, the pressure is on me to learn Spanish.

    I also love learning, but it can be stressful when we are there and I am immersed, although I have learned alot over the past couple of years, I am still far from considering myself to be fluent. I just have to keep practicing and know that it gets easier with time (and work).

    Good for you for practicing patience. My husband (and his family) does the same for me and I can not imagine how difficult it would be without it.

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