I’m from the UK and my husband Gastón is from Argentina. When we first met neither of us could speak much of the other’s language. But in many ways, speaking different languages helped us get together. And now, years later, not sharing the same mother tongue can be a source of arguments (occasionally in Spanish and English at the same time). However, the vast majority of the time, sharing two languages in our relationship makes life more interesting and fun.
Our Story of Love in Two Languages
When Gastón and I met, I had only been learning Spanish for five months so my level wasn’t very good. But, when it came to our first date we ended up speaking Spanish as he knew even less English. I remember being proud of myself as the date lasted about four hours. It was a real achievement for me to speak in Spanish for that long.
But, the date didn’t go very well. Gastón was a little pushy and criticised my level of Spanish, so I decided not to see him again.
At that time I was living with two Spanish housemates. One of them wanted to practise his English and the other one spoke to me in Spanish,. Not only was his accent hard to understand, he often found fault with my lack of vocabulary and bad pronunciation. So more criticism was the last thing I needed. I was going to Spanish classes and I would always do my homework and more. But when it came to speaking, I often froze and couldn’t get any words out.
Then, one night, after yet more criticism from my housemate, I knew I needed to find a way to practise speaking Spanish.
I contacted Gastón to see if he wanted to meet for a language exchange, known as an intercambio in Spanish. Intercambios are essentially a long conversation in two languages. They usually involve meeting in a bar and talking in English for an hour or so and then switching to Spanish.
I thought Gastón would make an ideal intercambio partner as, unlike other native Spanish speakers I knew, he couldn’t speak English. My logic was that if my Spanish is better than his English, I wouldn’t be as shy about speaking to him in Spanish.
To my surprise, he agreed to meet. I’d been ignoring him for a few weeks so I expected him to say no. But, he would be getting help with his English from an English teacher, so there was something in it for him too.
But Gastón had other ideas. We met at Encants metro station and instead of going to a bar, we ended up at his flat. He’d bought wine and made dinner as a way of making up for our first date. So it was a language exchange with a difference from the start.
Not that it was a language exchange at all. Nothing happened between us that night or the following times we met, but we rarely spoke two languages. We spoke Spanish almost all the time, and only ever spoke in English for a few minutes now and again, despite my attempts to help Gastón improve his level.
During this time I also continued taking Spanish classes, which I would highly recommend. This helped me learn more about grammar and when to use different tenses. And then my evenings with Gastón were more about using Spanish in a conversational, real-world setting. We would play board games, watch films, have dinner and chat, but he enjoyed helping me learn, even if it was frustrating at times.
For around the first six months or so, I considered Gastón a friend. Then over the next year we became more. He was kind and considerate, much more so than any man I had met before. He was also patient with me and helped me to become more confident, both when speaking Spanish and in general. And so, I fell in love with him, in Spanish.
What’s different about our story of love in two languages is that neither of us really spoke the other language when we first met. Usually with bilingual couples, one partner already knows the other’s language, and more often than not, that language is English.
So, the fact that we have always communicated primarily in Spanish has been invaluable for me. It’s meant I’ve been able to learn it and practise it every day. I had wanted to speak Spanish for as long as I can remember, even before I came to Spain. So, I love being able to say with confidence that I can speak Spanish, rather than mumble, ‘I’m learning’, as a way to preempt mistakes.
I also love learning words specific to Argentinian Spanish from Gastón and his friends and family. This makes me feel closer to his culture and roots. And it’s helped me gain more of an understanding about the differences between people here and there, despite them sharing the same language.
I’m very grateful that Gastón and his mum Mirta have always been very patient with me. They will always go out of their way to explain words I don’t know to help me understand. I’ve been very fortunate with them as many native speakers didn’t have the patience to speak to me while I was learning.
But, occasionally Gastón forgets what an effort it is for me to speak Spanish for hours on end. Or maintain a conversation with lots of people speaking with different accents. If I’m tired, it can be a struggle to even follow a conversation in Spanish, let alone join in and make intelligent comments.
And, although I don’t have a problem with people correcting me, there is a right way to do it. I don’t like it when someone interrupts me mid-sentence to correct me. Especially if the mistake was a slip of the tongue rather than an actual error. And some days it’s harder to find the right words, so I don’t need this pointed out to me.
Soon after we became an official couple, I started to help Gastón with English and his level improved a lot. Since then we’ve been able to go weeks at a time only speaking in English. This helped him practise for meeting my parents and when we visited the UK.
And now, my friends and family can speak to Gastón directly rather than through me as a translator. Gastón also needs to pass the FCE to get his degree, so he has a lot of incentives to learn. But, he will often switch to Spanish, with the excuse that it takes too long to explain in English.
Of course, I never had the option to switch to English when I was learning; I had to make myself understood in Spanish. It’s true that there is less chance of a misunderstanding if we speak in Spanish. But, I remind him that now I don’t need the practice as much as he does.
Speaking two languages has led to a couple of minor arguments for these kinds of reasons. I’m still sensitive about my level and don’t always handle criticism well. And Gastón can sometimes be lazy and reluctant to speak English. But, more often than not, speaking two languages makes our life together fun and more interesting.
We both have the same sense of humour, so rather than being a barrier to our relationship, communicating in two languages has provided us with a lot to laugh about, from made-up words like ‘thinkative’ (instead of ‘thoughtful’) to inappropriate mispronunciations. And, even after all this time, Gastón still delights in my inability to roll my Rs.