語言障礙 – language barrier

I think I can bet on that aside of culture differences, international relationships mostly struggle with language barrier. Lion’s share of the AMWF relationships I know communicate in English or in a native language of one of the partners, but in 95% of the cases there’s at least one non-native speaker.image (35)

Probably you’ve been in a situation you just don’t know how to express your feelings. It’s especially annoying during the argument, in my mind I have so many good points, I could easily crush my husband with them but I just don’t know how to speak up. Then I make upset face and win anyway, but I wish he knew how brilliant my argumentation can be.
Or sometimes I just go ‘full-blond‘ and ask my husband like I was Peggy Bundy

You know what I mean… Babe, you know, that flat things we put food on?
That’s dining table.

One thing is when it’s only between you and your partner. You can always say ‘That’s not what I meant’ or ‘Give me a second, I don’t know how to put it’ or simply just make up a word or phrase, but it gets really bad when it comes to you and your in-laws.

image (33)My biggest fear when Momzilla came here was that I won’t be talking to her at all. It took us two hours to go from San Francisco International Airport to our home and we didn’t talk at all. Two hours of awkward silence. To make things worst, Sing goes out to work at 8AM, comes back after 7PM – strangely, since she came he has much more overtime at work… That basically gives me 55 hours a week of time alone with her.
At the beginning I tried to go shopping every other day but since AC Transit changed the fare I cannot do it more than once a week. So what two people who technically don’t speak the same language (and I mean have a real proper talk, not writing or using a dictionary) can do?

As you might notice I’m studying, more or less, Cantonese and I’m not a native English speaker, but I can write well enough for you to understand me. My mother-language is Polish, which gives me ‘cute accent‘ – at least according to people in 85C Bakery in Newark, but they might say it since I’m their faithful client also known as the Black Forest Grapefruit Green Tea Lady.
My mother-in-law speaks Cantonese, but with very heavy accent, that I’m the only one who image (32)cannot understand, because she had a 2 hours long conversation with a Hong Kong lady she met on the street. She also reads traditional signs, but she’s native for Shanghainese and raised with simplified Chinese.

Years of living in Hong Kong taught her British alphabet so she has some base, comparing to the relatives in China. I remember once Sing’s outside-grandma had a talk on the phone and had to give us some passport information, but since she didn’t know the alphabet she just described the letters. I lost it when I heard ‘beede’ (sorry, that’s the closest pronunciation I could make) which is ‘queen‘ in Shanghainese. Yes, grandma was describing ‘Q‘ you can find in the stack of cards.

I kinda admire her – she went to Hong Kong with Sing’s father not knowing Cantonese, then she went to Europe to see my family not knowing English. Her flight was cancelled because of the bad weather and she managed to stay informed without our help. She even got a visa to America and passed the immigration with just a letter we wrote for her (if you are in similar situation with your family click here to get a sample of the letter you can give to your relatives). That’s impressive for a 58 year old lady.

So there we are. Awkward and silent. Can’t be worse, can it? All until she picked up a book, ‘Cantonese for everyone’ by Chow Bun Ching – great book given by my dear friend – that includes ‘Immediately Useful Expressions’‘. She went through it, pointed at us and said ‘Me Gwóngjàu Wah, image (31)you English‘. Since that time we go with the rule ‘One day, one phrase’. She stopped to teach me speaking Cantonese, since according to my husband I’m killing it with double-non-native-accent, but she helps me in writing and everyday encourages me to spend little time either reading an articles or working on my handwriting. Momzilla on the other hand made a huge progress.

Would you believe that a woman in her age can be so eager to study? Everyday after lunch she grabs the book and ask me to teach her. She cannot say full sentences yet, we still go with simple words, but it’s just adorable when she walks around the house or our neighborhood, points at things and say ‘cat’, ‘sun’, ‘bus’. She greets my husband with ‘How is it going?’ everytime he comes back from work. Of course she also learnt things like ‘Chocolate no’ or ‘Cold no’, she wouldn’t be herself if she didn’t. Now she can deny my right for a dessert in 3 languages.

The thing I was scared the most actually brought us together. We spend more time together, we have more interaction that also includes sign language. We no longer try to avoid each other. I feel much more relaxed being around her and I feel closer. It also gives us a good laugh, I’m pretty sure even thought she didn’t say that, but I could see a smile on her face when I mispronounce things. It’s a shameful confession, but my Shanghainese pronunciation is much better than Cantonese.  In 2012 I said so many times ‘Don’t know, don’t eat, full’ that I became fluent in those 3 phrases.

So there’s my advice for anyone who’s struggling with the same thing as I did: try teaching them your language, the language you use to speak with your partner or make a language exchange! Any kind of phrase book could work. It can only make things better, even if your relationship with in-laws won’t get better at least you will know more and you might even be able to know if and what they talk about you! Or at least kill that silence, you can always point at something and teach them a new word. I’m so lucky and glad Momzilla thought about it because it’s week 5 of her stay here, and even if she’s sometimes annoying and just being a Momzilla, I start to feel I will miss her once she goes back to Asia.

At the end I want to share my favorite mispronunciation by Momzilla. Luckily she cannot share with you how bad my Cantonese-speaking skills are, but I’m pretty sure she could say the same thing about me. God bless there is no need for voice input on the phone and I can just write things because I would be screwed! In the end I think it’s super-cute and sometimes super-funny!image (30)

  • Take care – taker
  • University – newspaper (to be clear – she still doesn’t know a word ‘newspaper’)
  • Cat – catSSSSSS
  • Mainland – Maidan
  • How – wh…, term used to describe a prostitute…
  • Question – cusion
  • Island – iron

Was a language barrier ever a problem to you? Any funny or interesting story you can share? Can’t wait to hear them! 🙂

36 thoughts on “語言障礙 – language barrier

      1. I understand. Sometimes I say the simplest of things and people look blank. Having so many tones is difficult but often I think people misunderstand deliberately. I was complimented on my Canto by an Esso attendant yesterday as I asked her to fill the car up with unleaded petrol. And the Starbucks girl loved it when I said ‘ho noi, m’ho geen’ (long time, no see).


  1. Man I was learning Mandarin full on Thinking I would meet mainland guy. And well we all know what happened !! All I can do is swear in canto and say yes and thank you ! Sigh my mandarin is solo much better . He speaks that too but of course likes his language. Sooooo hard !!


  2. I really respect your mother-in-law for studying so hard and learning new words every day. It’s so easy for young children to learn a new language. For adults …not so much. When I was 49 years old we went to Magadan in the Russian Far East to visit our daughter who was working there. I thought I would learn a little Russian before we went. I bought a tape, but I didn’t learn much. It seemed as though the words went in one ear and out the other.

    You have a big challenge with so many languages to learn. Your English is very good. Too bad I can’t hear your cute Polish accent.

    I’m glad you’re starting to enjoy your mother-in-law. It must have been very uncomfortable when you were riding back from the airport and you couldn’t talk to each other.


    1. at least you try and that’s already impressive 🙂 a lot of people just give up, even I sometimes have moments I want to put my books away and just say ‘Oh, screw it!’ but now since she’s here she’s my motivation as well. If a 58 year old can do it, I should be able to do it too! And I must say it’s really fun when I try to explain her something, then she tries to do the same thing. A lot of laughing, if someone told me 5 weeks ago that I will be happy with her staying here I would choke while laughing 🙂


  3. Wow, your mother-in-law actually seemed like superman compared to my mom’s family. At 58, she’s still willing to learn? That’s amazing plus the fact that she can maneuver a foreign airport without assistance, that’s superb. I remembered the first time my aunt came to the U.S., she couldn’t even maneuver LAX without calling me for instructions. But I know what you mean about the language barrier. I recently been through that myself with my boss speaking mandarin and me speaking cantonese. I can speak mandarin but not very good so I just laughed my way through the conversations.


    1. my husband’s co-worker has the same problem – big boss speaks Taiwanese-Mandarin and the Mandarin from China but Ken only speaks Cantonese and English so they simply talk in English.
      you know what they say – Evil won’t be stopped by the devil (Momzilla and the airport) haha 🙂 try the letter thing next time if needed! I waited for the call, but she just handed it to the immigration officer and got 6 month long stay, even thought we asked only for 3 months. and I hate LAX, very… just ewww. Didn’t impress me and it was so crowded! I waited there 3h in the line, but in SF Momzilla waited only 40 minutes


  4. You are lucky Momzilla makes an effort!
    My Lai Lai makes no effort what so ever……we lived with her for a year and she lived in the UK for decades but she has made no effort to learn any English in her entire life.
    My Cantonese from studying for 6 months is better than her English will ever be.


  5. My in-laws are Polish and we’re slowly becoming able to understand each other. My father-in-law talks to me in German/English/Polish and even after a year and a half is still surprised when I can not only understand everything he says, but respond in Polish!
    It’s so awesome that you and your mother-in-law found some common terms and she’s willing to learn. and it’s always good to be able to tell if they’re talking about you! 😉


  6. The visa thing is easy. In every country, the visa interviewers have to be fluent in all the languages of that country. The few of them in Malaysia can all speak English, Malay, Mandarin and Indian, all fluently like native speakers!
    And I think you’re gong to cry when Momzilla heads back home to Asia. Please let us know when that happens 😀


  7. I had many hours of awkward silence with my in-laws last summer which was continued this spring with MIL visiting for three months.
    Similar to you, I got rather fluent in a few base sentences already after visiting for my first time CHina “Tastes good, full, dont want to eat, dont want to drink, annoying” 🙂
    I am studying mandarin on my own and I actually understand these days most things people talk about but my pronounciation is a mess, couldnt get any worse (German accent when speaking Mandarin is not a beautiful thing).
    My wife on the other hand has less trouble communicating with my parents. She knows some base phrases in German when talking to my dad and she can talk pretty ok in Finnish together with my mom 🙂


  8. Aw, this is so heart-warming! I think it’s so great that you found a way to connect with your mother-in-law. It must be nice to always have people around you to practice with!


  9. keep at it! i’d love to learn how to speak Canto as everyone is speaking Mandarin now it seems. I try to self-teach myself Japanese and Korean which is ridiculously hard. But yes I think I may find myself like your MIL and studying languages way into my 50s!


  10. That was the biggest problem for me as well when I was living in China. On one hand I felt frustrated that nobody spoke English, but on the other hand that motivated me to pick up some Chinese and improve my language skills! Now I’m grateful for this experience!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Awwwwww, this is so cute 🙂
    I felt the same way about Ryosuke’s Mom. I did try to teach her English… but she gave up pretty early on (she DID try going to an English school once a week in the afternoon for a couple months. But then she switched to a calligraphy course).

    Mother in Laws can be so scary. But I think it’s just scary/awkward because I always really want to make a good impression!
    I’m SO glad you’re having fun with your Mother in Law ❤


  12. I love reading your blogs. I went to China just for eight days and I felt like I left a piece of my heart there. But at the same time, while I was there I was annoyed many times because I felt like they were invading my privacy. Such a love-hate relationship!


  13. Ah this is so relatable! My boyfriend is actually Taiwanese like I am, but brought up in a very white neighborhood and had no exposure to Chinese as a child (even at home). I, on the other hand, am completely fluent in Mandarin. So whenever he and my parents meet it’s kind of an awkward, butchered-English/butchered-Mandarin conversation. I’ve told him that I can teach him Chinese, so he can also connect with his estranged relatives in Taiwan who love him but can’t communicate with him as freely, but he never commits to learning. Any advice? 🙂


  14. “Now she can deny my right for a dessert in 3 languages.” Careful, she might pick up another one soon! 😮

    That’s great that you have a connection with each other though! YJ’s family doesn’t speak any English at all except granddad who occasionally bursts out with random English words freely, and no one has a desire to learn. It’s fine since I speak it (relatively) well, but I’m dreading when my parents and the in-laws meet. It’ll be some weird cacophony of random English words… Worsened by my dad, who used to come to Japan on business, but unlike your mother-in-law who is actively trying, he makes up words completely randomly, thinking if it sounds Japanese enough, he’ll eventually hit a correct word. (He can order draft beer and say thank you though, so when out eating he’s fine XD)


  15. I hear your struggles with language – I try to pick up both Cantonese and Mandarin for work purposes, as I spend quite a bit of time in the Chinese- dominated International community of Greater Seattle. However, I identify most with your challenges with accents, which I too am faced with the same challenges in my own Japanese American community. I get laughed at by the 20-something Japanese ladies as my mother taught me to speak Japanese — they think I speak like a Japanese girl, accent and all. :- /


  16. Yea I agree that language barrier is a real problem when communicating the feelings out and talking to others. I am ethnically Han Chinese born in Hong Kong, raised in Canada, who sleeps in French Class, loves Japanese culture. So I get what you are feeling, as I became a native English & Cantonese Speaker with the inability to read chinese characters, inability to understand French, and somehow understand Japanese without the ability to read & write it.
    So for me to find a partner in life, it becomes a very tough task as no one I know is as international as me. 😀
    Thanks for following and liking my posts! I will be travelling more this year, and as my writing further improves, I hope you like my posts even more than now.
    Thanks again!


  17. Fun read! It’s hard to connect, eh? I’ve also had hours of silence and been afraid to talk on the phone or make small talk while helping cook or being left alone with my relatives. Phrase books and laughing are my saviors! I’m also thrilled you and your mil are starting to get closer. It makes such a difference and I’m pretty sure you will miss each other!


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