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.)

Challenges in Intercultural Marriages

I just read an excellent article on obstacles for partners in intercultural marriages. The author is Christine Benlafquih. This article is SO true of the obstacles my husband and I had.

If you are thinking about marrying a person from a culture or country foreign to your own, I strongly recommend reading this article. I wish I had seen more information like this in the early days of our relationship!

Cross-cultural Marriage Advice: Tips for Successful Intercultural Relationships

People from any two cultures are likely to face these issues. This author focuses on the issues that form cultures and makes cultures different. It’s these differences that most excite people in the early stages of intercultural relationships, but challenge them in later stages!

Unemployment

Unemployment is a Reality for Many Foreign Spouses
Unemployment or low-paying, difficult employment is a reality for lots of foreigners in this country and all countries. BUT many people manage to do what it takes to earn a good living. For us, it was a long road. For some of our foreign friends, it was much, much shorter!

Personal Experiences

  1. My husband had excellent credentials when he came to this country–job experience at well-known companies abroad, master’s degree, and so on.
  2. STILL, it took 5 YEARS for him to get a full-time job with benefits (but he had contracts and part-time jobs during that delay).
  3. The good news is that he’s doubled his salary in 2 years–so in this way, he has certainly made up for lost time. He’s earning more than any of my friends or relatives our age.
  4. A big part of the problem was his English. It STILL isn’t anything to write home about (but it’s okay).
  5. Another huge part of the problem was his resistance to change. He didn’t want to accept that he’d have to do things the American way–like wear a suit to an interview, answer dumb interview questions a certain way, and son on.

Rejection after rejection, and it didn’t sink in! He kept thinking if he bettered his skills, he’d get a job–this was partially true. He did better his skills, and it was eventually noticed. But by that time, he had also learned to dress for interviews and learned a lot of English.

Some Spouses Go With the Flow
Hopefully your spouse will be a little more open to change than mine was. Most Americans know the basics to finding a job–speak English well, wear a suit to an interview, ask questions, be prepared with answers, and so on. My husband REFUSED to do any of it. He insisted on wearing casual clothes, felt certain that his English made no difference (though he knew almost NONE), and almost said nothing during his interviews–well, how could he? He didn’t know English:)

We have a lot of foreign friends who found good jobs MUCH more quickly than my husband and who learned English a lot more quickly. They got jobs and never really had a terrible time of unemployment or anything like that. I am still not sure why my husband refused to change and listen to everyone around him for so long. It wasn’t like people were telling him to forget his native language–goodness, just wear a freaking tie! But eventually he figured it all out. Thank goodness. I hope your spouse does too. But remember it is a very scary process for some of them. Even for some Americans.

Light at the End of the Tunnel
After four years, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. How we made it that long without my husband having a job and still managed to pay our bills on my measly dinky little salary, I will never know. But I’m glad I did because for the past four years, life has been really grand!! We are so happy now, and staying with my husband through that time of resistance and unemployment–totally worth it.