Language and relationships: why is it hard to switch languages once you’ve established one?
“Do you guys speak English or German together?”
I wish I had started counting the number of times I’ve heard this question and put a euro into an investment fund every time. Then maybe I wouldn’t get so annoyed by the frequency of this question; I would have the money to comfort me.
If you are in a multi-cultural/multi-lingual relationship, I am 150% sure you have also been asked this question by friends, family, and acquaintances. And I’ll admit that I’ve been on the other side of this interaction by doing the asking myself, although I try to hold back unless I’m asking a good friend.
People are often intrigued to hear that my partner and I speak English exclusively unless we are with German-speaking friends or family. I’m not sure what they’re expecting to hear – I think there would be a follow-up question regardless of my answer. I explain that when we first met, I didn’t speak any German, therefore we got to know each other in English. It’s hard to explain why, but it’s simply odd to switch languages after speaking a different one with someone for years – at least that’s how it is with my relationship as well as most of my friendships.
So why is it so weird to switch?
My theory is that there is some sort of window of opportunity, similar to first language acquisition. For the first 6 months of our life, we are able to distinguish differences in all human speech sounds. After this 6 month mark, it becomes harder for babies to perceive and discriminate between speech sounds that they are not hearing every day from their caregivers. Of course children and adults alike can learn a new language and become fluent at any stage of life, it just becomes more difficult as time goes on. I have German friends who I speak mostly English with, and of course we could switch to German if we wanted to, but we both agree it’s not so natural. We just get used to it being one way and there’s no real need to switch, so why make it weird for no reason?
I think it also depends on your fluency and the fluency of your partner or friend during the very beginning stages of the relationship. I have a French friend who speaks both English and German. She prefers speaking German together because she feels her German is more fluent than her English. It’s a unique friendship that I truly cherish because not only is she a wonderful person, but we both speak a foreign language that acts as our lingua franca and it would seem a bit unnatural for us to change languages at this point.
Now some of you might be saying to yourself, ‘Ok actually you’re the weird one for thinking it’s weird to switch languages.’ I totally understand that because at my core, I know this shouldn’t be strange, it just IS. A friend of mine regularly code-switches between 3 languages with his partner and says it’s normal for them, even though they began their relationship in English. So what’s the difference between them and my relationships? I have yet to come up with a solid theory on that, but I’ll let you know if I think of something.
This is all to say that you should simply do what makes you comfortable in your relationships and friendships. There’s no right or wrong way to go about communicating with those closest to you as long as the intended message is understood in the end.
I’m curious to know how you go about multilingualism within your friend groups and loved ones. Leave me a comment here or let me know on social media.
*Bonus points if you take a drink every time I use the word ‘switch’ in this article!