Oye, rubia: The language of love

Oye, rubia: The language of love

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Blogger Kristen Bernardi asks: Just how important is it to speak each other's language when in a relationship?

Relationships are about communication; everyone is looking to find someone who 'speaks their language'.

But what about those couples who can't, and yet, it doesn't seem to matter?

Every expat knows at least one such couple in their circle of friends: a bi-cultural couple where one half doesn't speak much Spanish, and the other doesn't speak much English.

Often the foreign partner has been in Spain for years. And the Spanish partner obtained his or her 'first certificate' years ago. They get by with poorly conjugated verbs, a lot of hand motions, and clearly, a sense of commitment.

That, and the sex must be really, really good.

I often marvel at these couples. The romantic side of me thinks: “Wow, look at that. Words don't really matter; it's the connection that counts. They get each other.”

But sometimes, I don't get it. It's hard enough to find someone that you get along with and can communicate well with in your own language, but when the person you love can't understand everything you say and you can't understand them either, how does it work?

Sometimes too much communication can be a bad thing:


(To be clear, I'm not suggesting that both partners need to speak both languages. As long as the couple can communicate thoroughly in a language – any language – mazel tov. I'm talking about long-standing couples – sometimes relationships that last for years – and the folks in question don't really have a grasp on their paramour's mother tongue. Just their literal tongue. Zing!)

An American friend of mine took this belief a step further.

David's Spanish was intermediate at best, and he was open to dating someone who didn't speak much English, but he quickly had a change of heart after an innocent little exchange that spoke volumes.

One day, he and his Spanish girlfriend were watching television with their feet propped up on the coffee table. She was hogging the space, so he said: “Move your tootsies.”

A silly little choice of words turned into a 10-minute explanation in broken Spanish of the word 'tootsies' and its various uses. The thought of a future of having to explain every little reference to each other made him shudder, and he ended it. Sounds Seinfeldian, but it's true.

That's an extreme case, but this one isn't: A former British coworker of mine spoke middling Spanish, and her Spanish husband, Francisco, spoke almost no English. One day I asked her what the couple had done at the weekend, and she told me that Francisco spent the weekend studying.

"What is he studying?"

"I don't know. It's for some course."

"Right, but what's the course on?"

"Who knows - he tried to explain it to me but I didn't really understand what he was on about."

I can say with a fair amount of certainty that this would never happen if they both had the same native language. Most people would like to know the fundamentals about their partner – you know, those little insignificant things like what the person does with their time and what they do for a living.

I think some of these relationships can last because it is ridiculously easy to live in Spain without speaking even the most basic Spanish.

You can surround yourself with expats, watch football at Irish pubs, have easy access English radio, TV and films and teach English classes for a living.

Most would agree that you have a richer experience in your adopted country if you learn to speak the language fluently and interact with the natives, but it's certainly not expressly necessary in Spain. The country is getting more international by the minute.

But how important is it to really, truly learn a language when it comes to matters of the heart?

It doesn't always have to do with language, but the little idiosyncrasies of one's speech and background can make a difference, too.

A woman I know from Argentina, who has lived here in Spain for nearly a decade and has dated a handful of Spaniards, recently started seeing a fellow Argentinean.

"We have the same background, we watched the same cartoons growing up, we miss the same food from back home. I don't have to explain anything to him," she told me. "I've been explaining myself for almost 10 years. I'm exhausted."

So, Expatica readers, just how much do you and your partner have to understand each other to get by? If one of you makes the effort to learn your partner's language, do you get resentful if they don't learn yours?

And finally, can you say it all with a meaningful look, or do your looks have to have meaning that you both explicitly understand?

Kristen Bernardi / Expatica

Kristen Bernardi is an American journalist living in Madrid. She has contributed to various travel publications including Fodor's, TimeOut, The Insider's Guide, Spain Magazine and InMadrid, and most recently assisted in 2008 Spanish presidential election coverage for CNN International. She is on a constant search for the perfect tortilla española, and will consider returning to US soil once the Pittsburgh Pirates make the World Series. Kristen writes a blog, Oye, rubia, on a wide range of topics for Expatica on fortnightly Fridays.

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