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Ask Sahaj: My boyfriend’s family speaks another language in front of me

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Hi Sahaj: I have been with my boyfriend for about a year now, and everything is going great, except for interactions with his family. His mom’s first language is French, but she speaks English fluently as well. My boyfriend and his younger sister were both raised speaking French in their household since birth, yet grew up here in the U.S., so they both speak English otherwise. Meanwhile, I don’t know anything past “Bonjour.” Whenever I go over to his house and speak with his family, it’s okay at first, but then his mom inevitably makes a few side comments in French to either my boyfriend or his sister in front of me, which turns into whole conversations, and I’m stuck sitting there awkwardly.

This became even worse when I went on a family trip to France with them recently. I was overwhelmed with the amount of speaking in a language I couldn't understand, and added onto that they were constantly speaking French among themselves. I understand that French is the primary spoken language there and it may be what they're used to doing, but even in their house with me in front of them they almost always spoke French.

His mom is incredibly sweet and is generally very accommodating, but speaking French in front of me all the time was frustrating, especially when they were talking about my flight details or activities we would do that day. My boyfriend’s dad does not speak French either. He seems to be okay with them speaking in another language around him, but I’m not sure I can turn to him for advice.

How should I broach and handle this?

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Stuck in Translation

Stuck in Translation: It sounds like you are feeling excluded. It also sounds like your boyfriend and his family are not intentionally being rude.

With you being brought into the family dynamic, everyone has to shift a bit — including you. This does not mean that your boyfriend and his family should stop speaking French to each other, but it’s reasonable for you to want to be able to understand what they’re saying, especially when the conversation includes or involves you. This means that you have a frank and honest conversation with your boyfriend about what you’re feeling.

This can sound like, “I understand that speaking French is more natural for your mom and you when you’re together, but I feel like it makes it difficult for me to be involved in the discussion and it’s important to me to be able to share in some of these conversations.”

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When using I-language and broaching this with the intention of wanting to share how you are feeling, it opens the door for a bigger conversation about your boyfriend’s role, and it can also help you feel less alone in the experience and your relationship.

Keep in mind, though, that it’s not just a different language you are navigating, it’s a different culture, too. Each family has a familial culture with norms and values, and each language is rooted in a larger culture with its own norms and values. These impact communication styles as well as interpersonal expectations and behaviors.

As someone who has parents who tend to speak Punjabi at home and an American husband who doesn’t know the language, I have had to be more intentional about asking my parents to speak English when longer, or larger, conversations are being had. However, my husband has also had to accept that expecting my family to not speak Punjabi around him is unrealistic.

Someone who is bilingual or a nonnative English speaker may think in a different language; therefore, it may be natural for them to speak that language rather than translate their thoughts (no matter how well they speak English). This might be why they are inclined toward speaking French when together, and it certainly makes sense when in France.

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Since there’s already a precedent of someone not speaking the language in the family, your boyfriend and his mom might believe that acting the same way around you is perfectly acceptable. While your boyfriend’s dad might be okay being more passive in these conversations, it seems like you may need to be more active. This might look like asking them directly, “Can you tell me what you’re talking about?” or “I missed that, can you translate it for me.”

Finally, you may have to build a tolerance for the discomfort of being out of the comfort of your own culture while figuring out what you can do to ease the transition. It may be worth considering how serious of a future you have with your partner, and whether it might benefit you to learn French.

Remember, being in an intercultural relationship requires both parties to be flexible in bending their own cultural understandings, norms and values to make room for their partner’s.

Sahaj Kaur Kohli, creator of Brown Girl Therapy and a mental health professional, is answering questions about identity, relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more. If you have a question for her, please submit it here.