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.

Foreign Spouses and Employment (or Unemployment)

One of THE hardest times of my entire life were the first years of marriage when my husband was unemployed. He was miserable. We were so poor. Each month, I wondered how we would pay the rent! We wanted to have a normal life–a house, a car, new clothes sometimes–nothing special, just normal. But even these things were impossible!!! I was depressed, he was depressed, and as time went on, it began to seem as if life would never get easier. But thank goodness, it did. My husband trained in a new job industry–it took a few years. His English improved as well.

Now my husband has a good job. It took a long time, but eventually he learned English. He also trained in a new career. This took years. But it paid off. If you are having hard times with your spouse’s unemployment, these are my suggestions:

  1. Don’t give up hope!
  2. If your spouse needs to improve his or her English, consider private tutoring. This will do more for his or her job search than any other factor. Even if he or she can speak Spanish, to qualify for most Spanish jobs in the US, individuals need English skills too (in most cases). As a teacher who did classroom lessons and tutoring, I can say for certain that tutoring helps a lot! The most important thing is to find a tutor you like working with, and preferably one who doesn’t know your language–this way you will use English.
  3. Remember that as much as you may want your spouse to find a job, he or she probably wants this even more than you do. It is incredibly hard to find a job in a foreign country. When I have job searched in the US (my native country), it isn’t too hard for me because I know what the job interviewer expects to hear, what to wear, and of course, I know English. When I looked for a job in Russia, the process was a complete mystery to me. If your spouse is from China, rest assured he or she is probably quite good at finding Mandarin language jobs at home–but here, it’s another story. Once he or she is used to the culture and language here, finding a job will happen more quickly.
  4. Help your spouse with a resume and job searching–it is unlikely he or she knows how this is done in our culture. In many cultures, job searching is done through acquaintances and connections. Explain how it is done in the US, and help your spouse search. Some family members or friends may say “Your spouse should do that himself/herself. He/she is just being lazy.” I totally disagree with this viewpoint–I’m very hardworker and not at all lazy. I lived in two foreign countries and needed a lot of help figuring out how to get a job. Same story with my spouse in the US.
  5. Help your spouse write a GREAT resume. If it stands out as being foreign (like including a birth date or photograph as in many foreign cultures), it will be hard to get an interview. Also, no matter what the language skills of the applicant, companies expect resumes and cover letters to be completely clean and edited–no grammar, spelling, or other types of errors!
  6. In job searching, find sites with foreign language jobs. One example of a job board with foreign jobs is the one at Foreign Language Jobs. You will find everything from private tutoring in Spanish, English, and most other languages to jobs for ESL teachers in other countries. You can browse the jobs or search using a keyword (such as “Spanish” or “ESL”). If your spouse has experience in the medical field in his or her own country, search using the keyword “medical,” and you will see links to foreign language jobs in the medical field. (You can also look for specific boards for only one foreign language, such as Russian jobs.)

Children of Multicultural Families Are Not Always Bilingual

In some families, children automatically become bilingual. When a child interacts with one or more caretakers (whether parents, other relatives, or a non-family member such as a nanny) in one language, and interacts in a different language with other caretakers, the child will automatically learn both languages. However, many families speak two or more languages at home, but do not interact with their children in each language. If children do not interact in a language, they will not learn to speak it or understand it!

In many intercultural families, children do NOT become bilingual–but there are reasons this happens. If you want your children to be bilingual, they can! Just don’t assume it will happen magically. Your children must use each language you want them to know, and they must continue using it as they grow older.

We really wanted our children to learn English (my native language) as well as my husband’s native language. My eldest son spoke both languages until age three. Then, my husband went on a six-month long business trip. When he returned, my son could not understand their language. He would have regained the skills quickly, but my husband could not bare the gap in communication. He began speaking English (thought I begged him not to!). He thought they would resume the native language later. They could not. To this day, my husband’s family believes my children will somehow just “catch on” to their native language. I know from my career experience in language acquisition that this will not happen without a lot of work!

Here are a few myths that people believe about children and bilingualism–if you want your children to be bilingual, you really must not believe these myths!

  1. Myth: As long as my child hears us speaking our language, he will learn it.
    Truth
    : Hearing a language will do nothing for the child’s speaking skills, and little to help him understand a language if he isn’t required to respond by speaking in the language. For a child to be bilingual, he or she needs very frequent practice hearing and speaking a language. Many people can passively understand languages they cannot speak. (The linguistic terms for this are receiving comprehensible input in a language and producing comprehensible output. There are many ways to practice new languages, but these two activities MUST occur for a person to learn to understand and speak a language.)
  2. Myth: Once my child has learned a language, he or she will never forget it.
    Truth
    : Children often lose languages they do not continue to practice. This happens all the time. To be bilingual for life, be sure your children continue to practice their languages either with you, playmates, other family members, or in close and frequent social circles like church or community groups.
  3. Myth: My child will always feel proud to know and speak a second language.
    Truth
    : Many adolescents go through a stage when they reject all languages except the mainstream language, or the one spoken by most of their peers. This is painful for families, but it is a normal stage of growth. Families should continue to use the native language with children. There are gentle methods parents have used successfully to keep children speaking the native language should this occur. As an example, a child in the US may tend to temporarily reject his or her native language of Spanish. He might say “Mom, can I have $10 to see a movie with a friend tonight?” The mother can gently refuse to answer until the child repeats the question in Spanish.
  4. Myth: My child can speak two languages with me. We’ll just switch when we want.
    Truth
    : In almost all cases, children will eventually speak one language with each parent, and other languages will feel uncomfortable to speak with that parent. A child may speak one language with the mother and a different language with the father. There are exceptions to this, such as a parent with two native languages (such as a regional language and Hindi for a parent from India), or a family that speaks three languages–one all together, plus each parent has his or her own native language. In these cases, a parent can develop a clearly established pattern in which he or she uses both languages with the child, and the child will follow this pattern.
  5. Myth: Some children are confused by speaking more than one language in the home.
    Truth: Children learning more than one language at home may speak later than others, and they may do things such as insert a word from one language into a sentence they are speaking in another language. This is just because their brain is developing pathways monolingual children do not need (and will also not benefit from later!). Of course, some children have hearing problems or issues which would cause challenges in communicating in a single language (such as autism). In these cases, seek a specialist to determine the right course.
  6. Myth: My child can always learn my native language later. For now, I will help him or her learn the language of the community where we live.
    Truth: As an ESL teacher in the United States, I can tell you for certain that children learn the language of the community in school and from friends. They often lose or reject the minority language of their parent–so this is the language to enforce if you want your child to learn it. It is a great idea, of course, to help your child practice the community language too–but this can be done by enrolling him or her in a playgroup, attending social functions (such as religious services) together and using the community language there, reading stories, playing vocabulary games, and so on. Using the community language as your mode of communication with your child is not necessary for him or her to learn the community language–and may result in your child not learning your native language.
  7. Myth: My child will learn my language when he’s older because he’ll visit my country.
    Truth
    : First, if a visit is the bulk of the child’s experience in the language, he or she is unlikely to develop fluency in the language, even if the visit is a long one. If language practice continues after a visit of two to three months during which the child is hearing and using the target language each day, then this may help the child to develop fluency.

Note also that if your child speaks a widely used language, even during a visit to your native country, people may use the more common language with your child rather than your native language! For example, let’s say your family speaks Spanish and lives in Ecuador, but you live in Canada with your children. You dream of visiting Ecuador with your children so that they can learn Spanish. You may be surprised to hear your relatives using ENGLISH with your children, even those who know almost no English. Grandparents figure they can more easily say “apple” in English than they can teach your child to say “apple” in Spanish. This is a common scenario that happens because communication is important to family members like grandparents who rarely see your children, while language learning is important to you!

Take it from me: if you want your children to become bilingual, begin using both languages with them at an early age and continue using each language. Do not switch the language you use randomly! Do not think children will learn a language that they hear you speaking with your spouse. Unless you speak it with them and require them to respond, they will not learn to use the language!

Parent Reactions

My Parents Reacted…Reasonably
I learned a lot about my parents when my husband and I decided to get married.

I am sure they were nervous about his English–because they knew he would have difficulty finding a job (and he sure did). So, I am sure they felt a little panicked wondering how he and I would support ourselves.

Short-Term Reactions
Both the short-term and long-term reactions surprised me. Short-term were the opposite of what I expected. My mother totally supported our marriage and was REALLY nice to my husband (then my fiance) and thought he was the nicest man ever, which he is–almost always:) My father (whose mother is also an immigrant who came in the 1940’s) was nervous that my husband might just want a greencard. I understand that concern, as there are foreigners who scam for greencards–but I knew this wasn’t the case with my husband.

So, my parents were happy for me mostly, but both of them were very nervous about my husband’s English–I was not, but I should have been. I assumed he was going to study hard and learn quickly. NO. Instead he totally refused to study or take English classes, and to this day 9 years later, still doesn’t speak all that well. But I don’t really care because he has a good job anyway, and we don’t speak English together. He finally learned English from speaking at work (he managed to find work, very hard and low-paying). Then from there moved onto better jobs. Then really good jobs, better than mine! But it was a long, hard road.

Long-term Reactions
Anyway, the long-term reactions of my parents were the ones that really got me. Everything changed. My mother ended up HATING my husband because of the hardships I went through (financial and child-rearing mainly–that topic needs a whole different post, many of them actually). It is too bad. But we rarely see her, so it’s her problem not mine. She doesn’t treat my husband respectfully, so I refuse to go. My husband and children should always be treated with kindness, even if that means avoiding my own mother. And I have to be treated kindly even if this means avoiding his mother. Now that we avoid both of them, we are very happy. We talk to them and email, but we visit very rarely.

My father, on the other hand, became very supportive of my husband and our marriage. He learned that I chose my hardships and that I was willing to bear them because I really believed the future would be better, and that my husband was still the right man for me. Thank goodness I turned out to be right!

When my husband got really good jobs, everyone calmed down completely. I think that was a big weight lifted from their shoulders. Also, they know I am happy, which is all they wanted.