Having lived here for over two years now, it is only natural that I happen to have a Catalan boyfriend. I never once imagined I would find myself in a relationship with someone from another country, let alone be IN that country itself, but what I wanted to explain was how we function, or at least, attempt to. I obviously have seen international partnerships, even lived with one, in my first year here, but I had yet to experience how it was to spend a rather large amount of time with someone who (frankly) didn’t really speak my language, never mind let myself fall for them.
My Spanish has come along in leaps and bounds during the last year. Being with someone who doesn’t speak much English, and not allowing myself to fall back on it has come in very useful, particularly for my grammar, which has always been atrocious (largely thanks to actually learning Spanish grammar being atrociously difficult…subjunctive, anyone?). I learn more and more every day, and surprise myself by coming out with conjugations I either didn’t know, or had just half-guessed at, and turned out to be right. One thing I never wanted to be was someone’s student, and I always thought that being with someone from another country would prove difficult in the sense that you wouldn’t want to be taught all the time, in order to actually be able to communicate with that person. There is that awful cliché that tells us we don’t need to be able to speak perfectly to understand the language of love (oh, please), but I think there is only a certain amount of truth in that. My ability to communicate in another language isn’t altogether bad, but I always start to unravel when I have to explain anything which goes above the daily grind, which causes me to think in tenses that are a little more difficult. You obviously must have some basic knowledge of the language to be able to relate yourself, your being, to another person, and for them to appreciate that and understand it. I never felt myself in Spanish, because I’m largely quite expressive, and I just don’t have the vocabulary to be that person in another language.
However, I feel like I’ve formed a different version of myself, that isn’t really that different, but different enough to be noticeable when I speak to my boyfriend, who knows ‘me’ so well. We spend a lot of time together, so of course he knows my stories, knows my little mannerisms, incredibly well, but speech gives us so much of ourselves, shapes our personality, that the difference is strikingly obvious when I talk to my English-speaking friends in front of him. The first time we went on one of our dates and I was told to speak English that night, by the end he told me I seemed a completely different person. One he liked, but one he had never seen. As I grow with Spanish, I become more and more myself, but I cannot truly do so, because of those moments where I have to stop and pause, I search for the word, or I genuinely can’t explain something that is a very important belief of mine, a momentous occasion, a particularly memorable childhood story.
How is it that language shapes us so? Maybe many would argue with me, tell me that cliché is true, a person loves a person, not the way they speak or the way they express themselves; but I can’t entirely agree. Sure, we can know that the person is good, the person is kind, but you need to have that degree of human, level-minded communication. I know I’d go mad if I couldn’t have that.
I have never been happier. I live in a fantastic city, I love my job, and to speak candidly, I am finally in a place where I can say I’ve been lucky in love – but I am not my true, whole self with this person. I very much like my Spanish-self. She’s funny, interesting, a little silly and stupid; but this is because she has to be, to provide entertainment which is lacking without an ability to make puns, jokes, spin great comedic stories. She’s clever, but clumsy in the way that she speaks, because she can’t find the words to express what she feels. But that part is understood. Although I cannot express my true self, here is where I think the cliché holds true: others can see what we really want to say, what is really underneath – it is only lack of knowledge in a language that doesn’t permit me to do this. That said, one needs so much more than just awareness of another’s personality to truly love them.
I wonder what other international pairings feel about this. I do not read so much about what it was like for them, only soppy love stories of feelings conquering all language barriers, but I would like the nitty-gritty, the deep, real detail. I often imagine what it is like for couples who speak two very different languages, so spoke in English when they first met to communicate; was it frustrating for both of them? Or is it a gift for us, that we slowly get to unfurl ourselves to another person, giving piece by piece of information slowly as we learn how to do so, instead of having that ability to let the other know all about our innermost thoughts and emotions? I had the difficult side; the one speaking in another language all the time. However, doesn’t that mean he has to be the patient one?
I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’m learning, and growing with this person, not only in personality, as we all do, but also in language skills. The time will come when I can return the favour in English, We are giving each other so much more than just company and enjoyment. We are earning life skills and making the most of them together. And, the best part really is, that when arguments arise, at least we can both just pretend it was because we just didn’t understand what was being said…