Last update on January 30, 2019

Communication is key to a good relationship but what happens when you don’t share the same language? International couples share tips on what makes their relationships work.

You might dance and flirt with someone you’re attracted to without having a conversation; you might even fall in love at first sight, before the other person has uttered a single word. But can you actually develop a relationship without sharing a common language?

Jem and Inés have been together for a year and fell in love at first sight. “The evening we met, a friend translated for us,” says Inés.”The first time we met up on our own we went on a walk and even though we couldn’t understand each other, I could feel the intimacy and connection between us. Love can be expressed in many different ways – words are just one of them.”

Max and Sophie are two years into their relationship now. As Max said, “Not speaking each other’s language forced us to communicate more not less, I think it actually brought us closer together and although we still have the odd communication mishap – we sometimes have to check what the other means – overall it seems to be going pretty well.”

While you might not be able to discuss world politics or the meaning of life in any great depth on day one, falling in love with someone from another culture can be a wonderful experience. For a start, the lack of common language may help physical and emotional intimacy develop, even at the most basic level: “We spent a lot of time kissing because we couldn’t have a proper conversation,” says Max.

It may mean it takes longer to get to know someone – their background, beliefs and views – but not knowing this sort of thing right from the beginning might mean you don’t jump to conclusions or make superficial judgments.

Coping with the language barrier can be enjoyable – even if it sometimes makes communication more protracted. “I think you have to accept in the beginning that any type of communication is going to take more effort,” says Sophie, “you need to be patient and to persevere – there may be misunderstandings sometimes, or things may come out in the wrong way, but you can end up being more in tune with your partner because you can’t rely on words alone to work out what’s happening between you.”

“Neither of us are anywhere near fluent in each other’s language but between us we make it work,” says Max. “Often it’s fun to work out what the other is saying, although it can be frustrating (and time consuming) too.”

It may not just be the language that’s different – you’re also entering into a relationship with someone from a cultural background that may be completely alien to your own. Learning about life from a different cultural perspective can make a relationship fresher and more interesting. “I find the cultural differences give you more to talk about,” says Jem, “and because we don’t share the same cultural references, we never slip into those ‘conversations’ that are really just reminiscences of old TV shows! I think our conversations have been fresher as a result.”

Being able to trust someone is one of the most important aspects of a relationship. Some people say that not sharing the same language enables you to be more honest with each other. “In some ways, not hiding behind words feels more honest,” says Inés, “I couldn’t lie to him or hide my emotions because I couldn’t talk freely to him! Everything is out there in the open – once we’d gotten used to each other, when we’re together, all I have to do is look at his face to know what he’s feeling.”

Jem admits that when he was dating women who spoke the same language as he did, he could talk his way around any situation and get away with a lot. “I just can’t do that in this relationship. You can’t gloss over things,” says Jem.

So what tips can they give?

1. Learn each other’s language

Cross-cultural relationships: How to communicate when you don't speak the same langauge

Make the effort to learn the other person’s language – and try to use it whenever you can, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and ask your partner to repeat or say the sentence again or in a different way if you can’t understand the first time round. And try not get despondent – you’re probably picking it up quicker than you think.

2. You’re in a relationship, not on a language course

While it might be easier in the short term, try not to rely on your partner to translate for you all the time or to teach you their language. Of course it’s useful to have someone to practise with and pick up colloquialisms and slang expressions, but to learn the language well, it’s better to find a proper language class or use reputable computer software or language textbooks. When you’re with your partner, don’t turn every time you’re together into a language lesson. Unless your partner asks you to do so, try to resist correcting every little mistake he or she makes. If your partner corrects you, try not to get irritated.

3. When you’re together

Some things – perhaps even the most important things – can be communicated in other ways, like your body language and the tone of your voice. According to psychologist Dr John Gottman, author of The seven principles for making marriage work, how something is said is more important than what.

So face each other when you’re talking. Pay more attention to non-verbal clues – body language, gestures, facial expressions. When your partner is talking, give him or her time to finish speaking without interrupting before replying – you could ask yourself: am I really listening? Or am I just waiting to speak?

4. Be patient

It may take longer than usual to have a conversation, so be prepared! In the early days of their relationship, Max and Sophie found it hard to have a ‘proper’ conversation: “We struggled to communicate. It seemed like we could never fully express ourselves.” So at the outset, expect there to be some misunderstandings and try to be patient and not get frustrated when you don’t understand each other.

5. Stay chilled – don’t take offence

Bear in mind that different cultures have different ideas about what’s taboo and what isn’t, and also some cultures are more direct in their speech than others. So what might come across to you as hurtful or insensitive might not have been intended in that way at all.

“Try not to get offended too easily,” says Jem, “if your partner says something and you find yourself thinking ‘surely she didn’t mean that!’ assume the slight wasn’t intentional – and move on”. So, it’s better to ask your partner for clarification before getting upset – you might have misunderstood.

6. Always ask

If you don’t really understand or are not sure about something your partner says, it can be tempting just to nod in agreement but say nothing and hope you’ve got it right. Jem and Inés agreed at the outset of their relationship that they wouldn’t do this: “We promised each other that we’d always ask if we didn’t understand, even if it does disrupt the natural flow of conversation. It means you can venture beyond the basic level of conversation – and you can stop worrying all the time about not being understood.”

7. Use a dictionary!

Keep a pocket-sized dictionary to hand or use an app on your table or smart phone. Very useful, especially if you’re having an important conversation and you really want to make sure your partner understands exactly what you mean. “I used to pick out a few synonyms,” says Max, “and say ‘I mean this, or maybe this, or even this…. do you understand?”

In other languages, there may be many different ways to express the same thing – Spanish, for example, if someone says ‘me encantas or te amo’, does that mean they are passionately in love with every last fibre of your being, or are they just being affectionate? (Answer: if they say ‘me encantas‘, don’t rush out and buy a wedding dress just yet).

Beware of using colloquialisms your partner might not understand – you run the risk of being taken very literally. For example, asking the question ‘where do I stand?’ might prompt a ‘right in front of me’ response.



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