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Feb 25, 2013

Tongue Twisters: Language Considerations when working with Bicultural Couples

Movies and books about cross-cultural relationships just wouldn’t be complete without the jokes about language misunderstands and mishaps. Who can forget the scene in “Lost in Translation,” where a Japanese woman is asking Bill Murray to “lip” her stockings, rather than “rip.” Or in “Under The Tuscan Sun,” when the protagonist confuses the Italian word for single with the word “celibate.” At times jokes of this nature can cross the line, but as with jokes of all genres, there’s no doubt a grain of truth in the awkwardness felt on both sides of a couple that just can’t understand each other.

As in any melting pot city, Shanghai has it’s share of bi-cultural couples. In many cases the couple met while living here, other times they met during a previous overseas work or study experience. While the most common combination would be a Chinese individual with a western partner, the variety certainly doesn’t end there. It’s not unheard of to meet entire families where each of the four or five members were born in a different country.

Naturally, much of this diversity sees it’s way into my office: I would estimate that approximately 2/3 of the couples that I counsel here in Shanghai are bi-cultural and that a vast majority of these have different native languages. Due to my own lingusitic limitations, the couples’ therapy is conducted in English, which in cases where one partner’s native language is English and the other isn’t, can feel a bit unequal. I often have to pay special attention to my relationship with the non-native speaker so that we don’t get into a situation where they are feeling I am more aligned with their native-English speaking partner.

When working with bicultural couples there are a number of other challenges to which I have to pay attention in order to be be cross-culturally sensitive. The first and most important of these is in the area of communicating during conflict. For any of us who have ever had an argument in our second or third language, we most likely found it difficult at some point to express the nuance of our argument, especially once our brains are flooded with the stress chemicals of adrenaline and cortisol. In order to cope with the effects of this emotional flooding, I find it really important to help bicultural couples to really work on slowing down their arguments. Quite often, the native English-speaker may have considered that their partner has more difficulty than they do to argue in English but may easily forget it when angry. Giving the non-native speaker space in the therapy session to discuss their linguistic concerns (and making sure the native speaker hears them!) can go a long way. Empowering the non-native speaker to ask for a timeout or moment to think can also be really helpful.

When first doing conflict management exercises with couples, I also try to make sure I use some printed materials. Since I mostly pull from my training with the Gottman Institute when working with couples, this isn’t too much of a challenge as the Gottmans equip therapists with some really wonderful materials. Even when working with a couple who are both native English speakers, having written instructions for the exercise at hand helps keep the couple focused on trying a new method and less likely to slide back into destructive conflict patterns. Although of course for many couples, it also takes a lot of guidance on the part of the therapist. But I find that with bicultural couples having printed materials can be particularly helpful for the non-native English speaker as they can ensure that he or she has fully understood the exercise in the same way as the native speaker and is also provided with any vocabulary needed for this aspect of conflict management that may have been missing from his or her repertoire before.

As a corollary, using some printed material for conflict management also gives the non-native speaker a chance to do some mental rehearsal of what he or she may want to share. Once this is out of the way, some attention has been freed up to be listening more carefully to what the partner has to say. As in any conflict, if we’re too wrapped up in preparing our next point, we aren’t going to understand very well whatever the other person is trying to get across to us. Naturally, the couple probably won’t have the intervention instructions around whenever they get into their next tiff, but having rehearsed doing things differently in the counseling session can make them more likely to give a more constructive approach a try.

Lastly, I would recommend that if English is the language used between the couple at home, and one of them is not a native speaker, it’s important for the native English speaker to make efforts at learning their partner’s language. Fluency may not always be an achievable goal due to any variety of factors, including the level of difficulty of the other language or the lack of exposure to it. If the non-native English speaker is at least able to use some words from their mother tongue in discussions, it can go a long way towards helping him or her feel understood. And so much of time, just feeling understood is really half the battle, isn’t it?

Christine Forte is a counselor to the international population in Shanghai, China. You can learn more about her work here:

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