My boyfriend and I go to dinner. The waiter tells us about the specials. I listen attentively; I'm vegetarian so I'm vigilant about ingredients, and our waiter is speaking Spanish so I have to pay close attention to understand every word. The waiter names a dish featuring something called "pulpo."
"Qué es pulpo?" I ask.
"Pulpo," he says. "Es pulpo."
I look at my boyfriend, hoping he can better explain what pulpo is.
"Pulpo," he says with a shrug.
I am the only one who doesn't know what's going on. I look at the waiter again.
"Pulpo!" he says with more enthusiasm, but still does not deepen my understanding of pulpo. Apparently pulpo is beyond words.
Finally, my boyfriend says to me, "No comes pulpo," and our waiter takes his leave. I still want to know what pulpo is, if there even exists a language capable of describing this mystery ingredient. My dining companion pauses a moment to think and then says to me in an accented English, "Octopus."
I am the ESL one in my relationship. Although in this case it's español as a second language, not English. We speak Spanish together, his native language, my second, all day, all night, all the time. It's not by conscious choice, rather circumstances have formed our relationship this way; I went on a semester abroad in Argentina and after initially finding it comfortable and easy to speak English with the other ex-pats, made it a goal to carry out any interaction I could in Spanish in order to get to the point where maintaining a conversation would no longer be a headache-inducing exercise.
I’ve since decided to stick around and even began a romantic relationship with someone who doesn’t speak English. Or speaks very little I should say, but so few have our exchanges in my native language been that I don't even really have a handle on how much English he knows; somewhere at the level between knowing the word octopus and being able to hold a conversation, I suppose.
But no matter, Spanish is our shared language; that does not mean however that we are always on equal playing fields, communication-wise.
I don’t mean to say that his lack of English is a hindrance or detraction to our relationship; on a purely selfish level, I can say it’s benefitted my Spanish skills immensely. We were always able to speak very easily, I just know that I speak more fluidly since we've been together, and that I've been forced to stretch my vocabulary. (I don’t know about yours, but my high school Spanish classes left a lot to be desired when it came to, for example, communicating to your partner what you want in bed, or maintain an intellectual discussion on feminist theory).
On the plus side for both of us, we can learn a lot through each other because of our different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. He looks at "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" on the Spanish language version of TLC and half-jokes that this is how my people are seen from the outside. I look at it and say how much cultural context is lost because their rural Georgia accents are dubbed over. He informs me that it may not be Georgia, but the Spanish dubbing definitely uses a rural accent. I struggle to say the word "rural" in Spanish (I have trouble with my r's).
While it’s great to be the person that can explain what the “T.G.I.” in T.G.I. Friday’s means, there is also a feeling of alienation that comes with living with a language barrier. It can make small frustrations exponentially more frustrating; a trip to the central post office to retrieve a lost package, or to immigrations to obtain a student visa, really anything that involves poorly designed bureaucracy, multiple lines, and handing over large amounts of cash, can easily turn nightmarish and panicky when I don’t understand some crucial step someone has barked at me and I’m left feeling quite stupid.
Having a partner who is a native speaker can help mitigate some of these situations. I don’t mean I use him to speak for me, just that it’s nice to have someone there for backup if I’m going into territory my Spanish has never gone before, such as when he accompanied me to the pharmacy to buy some meds for a yeast infection.
But while he helps me manage situations where my language barrier is a hindrance, our relationship can occasionally bring more about. I’m doubly the outsider when hanging out with his friends because I can’t quite keep up with the jokes either for language or for contextual reasons, or both.
He asked me recently if I felt differently about our relationship because we don't speak English together. I have the occasional fear that things I say aren’t as meaningful in Spanish because I don’t have as strong of an association to their connotation (like, why does merely typing the phrase “making love” produce an icky feeling but saying “hacer el amor” out loud feels only a little bit weird?).
He said he would like to one day have a conversation with me in English, an interesting prospect but one I’m not one for which I’m holding my breath. Languages are not neutral; it’s not so much that I am a different person in English, but the language I have at my disposal does influence the way I speak and interact with people, and the way they see me.
Bilingualism is fairly new for me, so I did not consider until relatively recently the possibility of having a relationship in a language besides English, or even the fact that all relationships take place in a language to begin with. They do of course, it’s just easy not to notice until say, as a German friend of mine said she had to do with her Aussie love interest’s letters, you have to pull out a translation dictionary to get the full gist of your lover’s heartfelt words.