My husband and I have been married for almost two years, and things have been pretty awesome. He is Russian, and has always spoken Russian at home. Just about everyone in his family also speaks English, but at home, it’s 100% Russian.
I’m having a really hard time lately with the language barrier. I can communicate fine with everyone if we’re speaking one-on-one, but if we’re all in a group, everyone speaks Russian and I can catch maybe 1/100 words. My husband tries to translate for me, but then he can’t really participate in the conversation, and I feel like I’m interfering and messing up his family time. Occasionally he’ll ask people to try and speak English, but then I feel bad/embarrassed that they’re ALL changing the way they interact for my sake, and I’m just one person.
I’ve learned a little bit of Russian, but I am far from being able to keep up with fast-paced adult conversation. I get so discouraged and frustrated! His parents live two minutes away from us and last week they stopped in for a surprise visit, and the four of us ended up sitting around the table, my husband and his parents speaking Russian, me wondering what the hell was going on, smiling stupidly even though I was way too tired to even try to keep up.
I feel cornered, it is simply exhausting. And it’s nobody’s fault! I can’t magically speak fluent Russian, my husband can’t translate and participate at the same time, his entire family can’t totally change the way they communicate and relate to one another. I know there must be other couples out there that deal with this, what do they do? I WANT to have a close and loving relationship with his family, they are truly wonderful people, we just don’t speak the same language.
Let’s face it, in-laws always bring a few issues to the party. I think that’s why we call them “in-laws,” maybe. To remind ourselves yep, you really are stuck with these people legally, so make it work. And although it seems like it, you’re definitely not alone. Not everyone has bilingual family, of course, but one of the major transitions after marriage is getting used to how your in-laws relate to one another (whether they’re speaking in Russian or not). All families develop their own means of interaction, have their own way of communicating, and often share a special culture unto themselves. When you marry into a family, this can seem like a big adjustment. It’s really easy to feel like an outsider, even though you’re now “one of the family.”
I understand why it might feel self-centered to ask everyone to take extra steps to make you feel included, but lady, that’s what families do for each other! And just like you’re stuck with them, they’re legally stuck considering you family, too. Speaking in English around you is not just a matter of allowing you in, it’s also about involving you in the conversation so that they can get to know you better. You’re not making them change the way they relate to one another, you’re just asking them to include you in it whenever you’re around. This is not a huge request. Say that out loud with me. “Not a huge request.”
If this were about, say, inside jokes instead of a language difference, I’m sure you wouldn’t feel as awkward. When my family is all around, shouting and pushing and enjoying one another, sometimes someone will shout, “Wonder Woman!” and we’ll all collapse in laughter. I’m sure the first time my future sister-in-law heard that, she thought we were all weirdos (to be fair, she probably thinks we’re weirdos more often than that). But because we want her to feel included, someone at some point turned to her and explained the back story of this one inside family joke. Next time, she can laugh along with us and even join in the teasing, throwing “Wonder Woman!” around whenever she wants.
Was there a little extra effort involved in explaining the whole joke to her? Sure. More work than I was willing to go into for this post, even (just take my word for it; it’s funny). Was it worth it to engage her in what’s happening? Absolutely! That’s all you’re doing. You’re asking for someone to let you in on the joke—not stripping away their ability express themselves the way they usually do. Just to open the conversation to you when you’re there.
As with all things in-law related, it’s your partner’s job to settle the matter. He’s the liaison here between wife and family, and it’ll make things go a lot smoother if he handles it for the very reason I’m talking about. He speaks their language— not literally, Russian; but the familial cultural language. He knows how to address things with these folks without stepping on toes. Of course, running to his parents with a, “My wife said…” isn’t what I’m talking about. That sort of thing just lends itself to drama. This is an issue for him, too. He should present it as such. “It bothers me that my wife doesn’t feel involved in the conversation. Can we try to speak in English when she’s around?”
Of course, if speaking in Russian is as habitual as you say, don’t be offended if someone slips up from time to time, even after your husband makes his request known. “I’m sorry. Can you say that again in English?” reminders now and again might help (especially because, let’s be honest, needing to say things twice is really irritating).
This is tough stuff, but you can handle it! And as annoying as it is to ask your new family to speak in a way you understand, it could be worse. You could be adjusting to kissing everyone on the mouth or terrible holiday traditions involving ugly sweaters.
Have you struggled to feel included by your in-laws? How have you navigated adjusting to a new family culture (even if you do speak the same language)?
Photo: Emily Takes Photos.
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