Ask Team Practical: Language Barriers

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.

Dear Anonymous,

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.

If you would like to ask Team Practical a question please don’t be shy! You can email Liz at: askteampractical [at] apracticalwedding [dot] com. If you would prefer to not be named, anonymous questions are also accepted. Though it really makes our day when you come up with a clever sign-off!

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  • My sister is dating a Swedish guy, so they go back to Sweden for a month each year to visit his family. Her solution? Asking for Rosetta Stone (one level at a time) for Christmas. That way, she is honoring his family, and learning a great skill at the same time. In the meantime, I’d say that Liz’s answer works, but I believe that you’ll better understand your husband and his family if you can converse with them in their language.

    • Anon

      I think there’s an important distinction to be made about where the foreign language is being spoken – in your country or in the speaker’s. If the poster had moved to Russia to be with her husband, the onus would be more on her to learn Russian well – to get along with his family but also for everyday life. As this is not the case and her in-laws can and do already speak English, I think they should be the ones making the effort to communicate with her. I don’t think it is a lot to ask and am surprised that her husband hasn’t brought up the subject with them already.

      • One More Sara

        I don’t think the poster provided which country she lives in? Her Russian in-laws live 2 minutes away, and she finds herself in large groups speaking Russian which leads me to believe that she does live in Russia. However, it isn’t clearly stated which country she lives in.

        • Liz

          They live in the States.

          I do think Caitlin’s right that making an effort on her end would be great (the poster even mentioned having already learned some Russian), but the family already speaks both languages. It’s a small shift to speak a language you already know compared to learning a completely new one. Hopefully, over time she’ll be able to jump in on the Russian talks (like another commenter just mentioned about Dutch), but these guys already know English NOW. Just stinkin use it!

          • One More Sara

            Thanks for clearing that up Liz! Languages are so much harder to learn when you aren’t immersed in it. So Anonymous, don’t beat yourself up about being on the slow side with your Russian!

          • Miriam

            I have to say that I disagree. Just because someone might already know English doesn’t mean that speaking it (as opposed to a native language) is a small shift. Sure, it’s a smaller shift than learning a brand new language, but it’s not insignificant. Further down, someone posted some reasons as to why someone would want to maintain their native language at home, even when living in an English-speaking country, and I think it’s important to be sensitive to that. For example, think about someone with grandparents that speak Yiddish, and all of the cultural associations with that language that one might have related to certain mid-20th century happenings. I think the OP is doing the exact right thing by meeting the family halfway and learning some Russian, but I read your advice as telling her that the onus is on her in-laws. I say it’s 50/50.

          • Liz

            No, I didn’t imply that it’s small- just small by comparison (with which you agree).

            The native language and culture certainly can still be maintained. Speaking English when she’s around doesn’t necessitate that they ALWAYS ONLY speak English.

          • Alexandra

            Even if they still want to speak Russian around the house, it seems downright rude to me for them to pop over for a surprise visit and speak Russian around her kitchen table. At that point, they aren’t doing it because of grandchildren or anything like that, they’re specifically going into her house and excluding her from the conversation… Of 4 people.

            Maintaining it around the home is one thing, maintaining it around her home has to be overstepping some boundaries.

      • While that is a distinction is important, either way it’s just polite to make an effort to speak the common language that everyone in the room can understand.

        Growing up I saw this issue all the time with my grandmother and aunt, who speak fluent Hungarian as well as fairly fluent English and always revert to speaking in Hungarian. The problem was that my mom just barely speaks Hungarian (not well enough to translate and participate in a conversation at the same time) and no one else spoke a word of it. It was a struggle, but it was important that English was the default language when everyone was together so that everyone could understand and join the conversation.

        Because it was my mother’s mom, she took responsibility for being the person to call my grandma out on the language thing and ask her to try to be more inclusive.

      • Erin

        I thought I’d mention for anyone in this scenario (or who is just interested in learning languages!) that your local public library often has online resources for learning languages that are available to you for FREE.

        Mango Languages is the one you see most common, and some people prefer it to Rosetta Stone. It does a lot with building basic vocab, pronunciation, and the like.

        So if money is ever a barrier, be sure to check out what your library has available – it can be a good way to meet in the middle without the expense of software or classes, or having to ask your friends and family to teach you.

        • Kaitlyn

 is another great, free resource

        • Elenka

          Thank you so much for this advice! I’ve been looking for Slovak classes I can afford for years so that I can communicate with my mother’s family more easily & sure enough my library has free access to Mango Languages. I am so excited right now!

    • Abby J.

      I think it’s also fair to point out that learning language takes time. Anonymous is clearly learning Russian but it is said to be one of the most difficult languages to learn. Also, since she presumably started learning it after getting seriously involved with her husband, she started learning as an adult. After you are about 24-25, the section of your brain devoted to learning new languages shuts down. If you start an entirely new language after that point, it it much more difficult than if you had started the study as a teen.

      That being said, her family can make an effort to speak more English around her, but can also make an effort to help her with her Russian. Perhaps agreeing beforehand whether or not that night’s dinner conversation will be in Russian or English, and her husband can make a big effort to constantly remind everyone to “Slow Down!” when speaking in Russian so that Anon has a chance to listen and catch up in the conversation.

      Years down the road, I think this time period will be full of jokes and laughter that can be made about the adjustment period. A friend of mine married a Swedish man who immigrated to the States to be with her. On one of her first visits back to his family after the wedding, an uncle offered her a glass of vodka when everyone was drinking and enjoying around the dinner table. Proud to show off her new Swedish skills, she bounced up and loudly announced, “Yes, I would like some penis.” (LOLOL) Apparently the words are quite similar. Now, about 4 years on, she tells this joke on herself. :)

      • Abby J.

        I will add here, for the record, that I realize I was very lucky in marrying into an Anglo-Indian family. All my husband’s family still lives in the Middle East or India, but they all speak English in the home, so my husband grew up with English as his mother tongue. Both my in-laws speak at least 3 languages (English, Hindi and Marathi), and some of the outlying cousins speak as many as 5 languages (Hindi, Arabic, Marathi, Urdu, Farsi and English).

        So far I have been unsuccessful in getting my husband to teach me anything other than curse words and terms of endearment in Hindi. Rosetta Stone is definitely on my Christmas wish list this year.

        • Erin

          In case you missed my comment above, you should check out your local public library – they may have a free alternative you can use to get started (Mango Languages is the most common) before putting a big chunk of money into Rosetta Stone.

        • Another suggestion (and also easy to find in libraries) is the Pimsleur language series. I used that to teach myself conversational Dutch before studying abroad.

          And I’m going to politely disagree with others about learning new languages. It is possible, but you have to put concentrated effort and commitment into learning. This means that perhaps the husband (or in laws) has to do practice sessions with the wife as she learns each new topic. And she has to commit to speaking in Russian during her practice sessions and not reverting to English.

          Perhaps the best compromise is to speak in English in *her* home, and she will practice Russian in their home.

      • Justyna

        A bit of topic, but as a linguist and a language teacher I have to disagree with the language-learning span you mentioned. It takes about two years to be fairy fluent in a given language (at intermediate level to be exact). I don’t think the age of 24 or 25 has much significance at this point when it comes to brain lateralization (it’s argued to happen much earlier); if any, it just prevents one from achieving a native-like competence in the foreign language.

        I fully support the “slow down” piece of advice, though. Even if Anon knows the language fairy well, it’s really hard to understand three natives talking in their natural pace, with idioms, etc.

        • Moz

          Thanks for this. As someone attempting a language almost from scratch for my career that thing about 24 and 25 gets bandied around a lot and is really freaking scary!

        • RJ

          I agree – the “After you are about 24-25, the section of your brain devoted to learning new languages shuts down” is a widely held myth.

          In fact it is possible to learn and be fluent in a new language – even after the age of 65, provided the speaker doesn’t have significant hearing loss.

          That said, different people have different facilities for learning new languages – some are just wired to absorb and pick it up, and others can’t even hear accents properly.

          And it doesn’t happen overnight.

        • My linguistic training supports this as well. What I’ve learned about cognitive linguistics is that if such a barrier exists, it happens very early in childhood, before age 8. And the idea that one language is harder to learn than another is just as suspect. Learning a language is based on its relative similarity to other languages that the speaker knows. There is no absolute “hard” or “easy” in language learning.

    • Lo

      I couldn’t agree more with Caitlin. I’m Italian and my other half is English. We have been together for over 8 years and will be getting married in few months. His Italian hasn’t come along as well as we both wished, simply because we have been so so busy and I tend to just speak English all the time, but it is a shame that so far he can’t easily communicate with my family (and school friends too!). Of course I translate, and of course my family speaks English to him, but he’s working hard to learn too. To just say ‘ask others to speak English to you’ although understandable it’s only going to perpetuate this ‘habit’ that English is the preferred language and the de-facto one. Also in a way, shifting to English yes helps but makes the learning even slower and harder.

      When I came to England as a teenager I was thrown in at the deep end, I had a never ending headache for 6 months while I was settling in, learning the language and taking school exams. ‘Needs mus’t as they say. Now, I’m not saying that this is the only way to do it, but how about spending a regular, few hours a week with the in-laws (or the one she feels closer to) and learn Russian with them? It may also help create a wonderful relationship (or embed it even further).

      I keep telling my other half that it’s not about taking an exam or doing it for work, it’s about learning enough to be part of family time and also to realise that it’s a long term commitment, to take it nice and easy and not get frustrated. Trying to speak the other family’s language will already be appreciated, I know how much my family loves when my OH speaks a little Italian, they can see his efforts and appreciate them dearly and help him along!

      • Sarah

        I think this response nails the issue. My husband is from Mexico and so all of his family/friends speak Spanish and prefer that. It’s important to me to learn Spanish for the sake of communicating with his family and with our growing family (when we have children he will only speak to them in Spanish). So while I still don’t understand a lot of what is being said in his family’s conversations I try to ask people about general topics, to slow down, or to speak partially in English, not make a general rule that they always have to speak in English when I’m there. I assume the Russian husband primarily sees his family in the presence of his wife, so it’s only fair that he still gets to speak some of his native language. Also, just because everyone speaks English, that doesn’t mean they are all perfectly comfortable speaking English. So I would focus on trying to learn more Russian (I know! it’s a slow and hard process) and trying to have certain things spoken in English. Also, try to decide whether you really want to hear all of the details of the family gossip — most likely knowing general conversations topics will let you decide you don’t care about all of the details.

  • Amy March

    You arent an imposition; you are his wife.

    At large family gatherings I think you’re right, there will always be times when people slip into Russian. But when his parents are visiting in your home and he is not asking them to include you, that is someones fault, and it’s not yours. I think it is gracious of you to understand their desire to speak with their son in their native tongue, and rude of them not to make an effort to include you.

  • One More Sara

    Anonymous I know exactly how you feel!!! Dutch is much easier to learn than Russian with the cognates and all, but the first time I met my boyfriend’s (now fiancé’s) family, I went on a wintersport trip with not only his mom, dad and sisters, but also aunts, uncles, cousins and grandmother. In total, there were about 20ish people there for me to meet without speaking a lick of Dutch. Since I was new, they all knew they had to speak English, and sometimes the conversation would slip back into Dutch, and someone would just yell out ENGLISH! And everyone would adjust. I was also never the one to yell for English, because I also felt bad about 20 people changing their language. I don’t know if something like this could work for you, but if you get, say, 3 family members to be on team English and to remind everyone to switch back, I think it won’t feel like such an imposition.

    On a seperate note, I’m now more or less fluent in Dutch, and when family members start speaking to me in English, people around them yell NEDERLANDS! It may take a few years, but I promise you’ll eventually get to a point where everyone can speak Russian to you. Their speaking English is only temporary.

    • How long did it took you to learn Dutch?
      I am in the same boat, and could relate to the writer, however as I am living in NL, it is for many reasons needed and I also want to share a language with my husband and new family (just as much as he is learning Spanish).
      Anyway, by now I understand most of it and I can deal with simple conversations, but when I really want to debate / argue or people just start talking fast I lose concentration easily…

      • One More Sara

        I’ve been here for almost 2.5 years. I’m still reluctant to speak. (The Dutch are really not used to hearing American-accented Dutch, and they find my pronunciation funny sometimes… HELLO! NOT HELPING!) I can understand about 95% of everything. If you have questions about classes to take, you can email me at aronsara2013 at gmail dot com.

        • Another Thea

          Another Nederlandse Amerikaan here! We moved to the Netherlands for several years when I was small, but I remember my parents being fluent after about 12-18 months. I think pronunication always remained a difficulty, but where we lived it wasn’t remarked on much. But then we were practically on the German border and there were a lot of complaints about German visitors not learning even basic Dutch, so perhaps they were more enthusiastic about people making an effort?

          BTW, highly recommend “Dubbel Dutch” as a useful guide to pronunciation and some (now slightly dated but still helpful) colloquialisms.

        • Kate

          Oh man, I so feel you on this one! I studied abroad in NL in high school. Lived with a Dutch family, went to a Dutch school, etc. Because I was fully immersed I was able to understand almost everything within 6-7 months, but even towards the end I felt reluctant to speak because there would be a comment on my accent! After a while, I figured that it’s just a cultural thing and made jokes about their English accents right back, but whew, it was tough to come to that understanding!!

          Veel geluk!

      • I found the Delft Methode super helpful for learning Dutch. I am not fluent (I only studied abroad for 4 months), but I could speak enough to get by with no issues. Delft Methode focuses on practical language skills. I took group classes with an instructor, and I would highly recommend that if you can make it work.

        • Oh I hated the Delftse methode. It is true that for very basic conversations (supermarket and so on) it gets you speaking very fast and it helps with vocabulary.
          But it does not explain grammar, rules, how to actually construct a sentence and you end up repeating like a parrot. I guess it is a good starting point but when you want to master the language (as in being able to write at a professional level and having conversations) I found “real” classes (with an instructor, where the focus was on reading texts from newspapers, and then discussing ) and also touching on the basic rules a LOT more useful.

          • Alana

            Another in the same boat – it’s been almost two years in Rotterdam for me and I haven’t progressed much since the original speedy learning period. I can usually make myself understood, but it is always hard work!

            I have an English language job, and husband’s family are all as comfortable in English as in Dutch (though we too have the inevitable drift into Dutch, with my husband sporadically yelling ENGLISH!), so on the plus side, I’m not too inconvenienced by my poor Dutch. On the minus side, I’m not too inconvenienced by my poor Dutch! I’ve tried a smattering of Hugo Dutch and Delftse Methode, but not really applied myself. And now work is willing to pay for classes but I can’t find anything at an intermediate level in Rotterdam… So I drift fecklessly onwards…

            Still – if anyone knows a good private teacher or course in Rotterdam (or Utrecht, en route to work), let me know!

            PS – Amanda, the blackboards and lanterns looked GREAT at our reception, I will send you some pictures! Unfortunately, it rained in the evening and the paper lanterns sort of died. But gloriously!

          • One More Sara

            @Alana: The favorite class I took was from Dutch Courses Amsterdam ( It was really small and kind of shady, but that’s what helped keep the cost down. I think they will do on-site classes at offices. Are there many Americans in your office who want to learn? You might even be able to get your company to pay for a portion that way too.

          • Hey Alana, I’d love to see those pictures , and you know what they say about the rain and good luck… wet knot, harder to untie !
            I took classes at DirectDutch (they are in Den Haag Laan van Noi, which is very well connected with Rotterdam) and I found the professors (specially Petra) great. Now I have to study super hard and pass that NT2…

            Oh and here’s the link to the school

          • We can agree to disagree. I found it pretty helpful for making new sentences and putting stuff together. Then again, I really like languages and have pretty good pattern recognition, and I did some work on my own. I also did have a teacher for the class who was working on some grammar rules and structure things. I mostly appreciated that it wasn’t a class where I memorized verbs and conjugations and did nothing else. We did both, so I felt like I could talk really soon AND was ultimately learning grammar rules. Did you take a class, or did you just use the book? Perhaps that makes a difference.

          • I took a class , but I guess the group was too big, we were 12-15.
            The classes I took later were with smaller groups and the focus was on conversation, and we had a REAL good teacher which I think made all the difference.
            I am able to speak , what “bothers” me is that I am not able to reach an almost native level the way I did with french after 1 year, for instance.

          • Alana

            Thanks for the tips guys – I’d prefer something in Rotterdam, but will look up the schools you mention!

  • Erin

    My husband’s entire family is musical. They all play multiple instruments, they sing, and they’re in various choirs and musical groups together. Most family gatherings involve, at the least, a group gathering around a piano, and sometimes things turn into an open mic night with a sound system and stage lights.

    I can sing, but I’m shy, and I don’t play an instrument (unless quitting flute lessons in 5th grade qualifies me). The family is huge and close knit (my husband has 21 first cousins on his mom’s side, and sees almost all of them regularly). At family events, I see the aunts and uncles who have married into the family sitting by themselves or in a group, not participating. They seem content to be on the sidelines, to watch family happening, even when what is happening isn’t related to music. I’m not content to be half part of the family. I want to be included. I’ve had to fight to show them that I AM talented, that I DO have things to bring to the table, because they don’t value other talents and abilities the way they do music, and because they’re also a bit snobby, especially about music. I still am not totally satisfied with things, but we’re working on it.

    All of which is to say that I totally know how Anonymous feels, even if my in-laws speak the language of music rather than Russian.

    • Totally! I 100% get this and resonate with your description of being shy to perform but really have something to offer. I feel like this with my future in-laws all the time. As the response to the poster mentions beautifully, we don’t need to be talking about a literal language to be talking about making a communication adjustment.

      I’m still getting the hang of communicating with my future in-laws. My fiance’ is not used to thinking about communication in any other terms than language, so when I tell him, “I’m not sure how to effectively communicate with you mother.” he sometimes has a hard time understanding what I mean. To him, that communication is second nature, but I have to learn it. I don’t know how his parents will react to certain opinions or news. I’m not talking about telling the future, but every family has communication norms that indicate respect etc. It’s been a crazy, slow-moving process full of lots of faux pas.

  • Kaitlyn

    I’m on the other end of this in a big way – my husband only speaks Spanish and is working hard to learn English, but struggles to communicate with my English-speaking family and often feels left out. I try to translate for him, but it’s hard to keep up and also hard to decide what is worth translating (he understands this because he had the same experience of struggling to include me when his family slipped into Quechua, and I sat there blankly staring).

    The thing that makes a difference is that my family members value his participation and do the best they can to include him, searching for whatever scraps of Spanish they remember, and giving me time to translate when something is interesting or important. One of my sisters also speaks decent Spanish, and helps me to translate and make my husband feel included.

    Maybe the poster has a sister-in-law or other ally in the family, who could sit next to her and help her husband to keep her involved – like my sister does for my husband and I?

    • Alicia

      You beat me to it, Kaitlyn!

      My husband is a native Spanish speaker and has lived in the U.S. for a while now. His English is pretty good, but given that he has never had any formal education in English, he makes mistakes and sometimes can’ t always follow rapid fire conversations. If he gets lost, he tends to ask whomever he is sitting next to help him understand the topic of conversation. He does really well with one on one conversations, but big groups are difficult. As someone who is fluent in three languages, it is still hard to understand large groups having multiple, loud conversations all at once, no matter what level of fluency you have.

      Try and ask the person sitting next to you to help you understand. That will make them aware that you want to participate but that it can be hard in a large group setting. Also, if you learn a new concept or vocabulary in Russian try and ask his relatives how to use the concept or vocabulary correctly. Engage them in your learning of Russian and they might be more sympathetic to your position.

      Also, as a side note, I think asking his family to speak only English around her can be unintentionally rude. Imagine that you and some of your friends all speak the same foreign language. If you try and communicate in only that foreign language, you won’t communicate the same way, it just doesn’t happen. There are nuances to our native languages that can be really hard to translate.

      • Emily

        I don’t think its rude for someone whose first and only language is English to ask her bilingual family to speak the language she understands. As previous posters have pointed out, learning a language is very difficult, especially as you get older, and although it would be a really nice gesture for the poster to work on learning Russian, I think it is the family’s responsibility to include her now that she is a part of their family, and that means speaking a language she can understand when she is around. You are right about the group of friends who all speak the same foreign language–why would they sit around and talk in it when they communicate better in another language? But suppose you and your friends were all native English speakers who also spoke Spanish well enough to converse. And suppose you had a friend with you who spoke only Spanish and barely any English. Why would you choose to only speak English, completely ignoring the Spanish-speaking friend, when you have the ability to include her?

  • kckp

    My husband’s family is Gujarati. His parents have been in the US for almost 20 years, but his mom mostly hasn’t worked outside the home and isn’t good at English. His dad is better at it but has a very strong accent, and he’s much more comfortable in Gujarati. I don’t think it’s rude that they aren’t good at or comfortable in my language. They’re people in my family and I need to communicate with them. I’m learning. They’re learning too, but I’m a bit faster at it.

    Cultural preservation can be a big deal, and a reason why people would want to keep speaking their native language within the family. A lot of transplants intentionally speak their original language at home so that kids can learn it. Language carries a lot of “metadata” that helps create cultural identity. It also allows inclusion in the wider diaspora community. I’ve always just assumed our hypothetical future kids would be bilingual, because they’ll need Gujarati to communicate with their grandparents, aunts and uncles.

    I think the OP should try Caitlin’s trick of asking for Rosetta Stone (or some other resources). If your in-laws live 2 minutes away, go visit them for “Russian Dinnertime” periodically to practice. Sure, at first you will have to just talk about how “spinach is green” and “I like potatoes,” but it’s a start. Having them nearby is a resource. I’ve been feeling like it’s fun and enriching to finally get in on the “inside joke.” Things do get lost in translation. But also, they need to understand that learning a new language is hard and it’s more important for you to be part of the family than for them to speak Russian.

    I guess I’m not saying this well. What I mean is, don’t feel shy about asking people to switch for you. You deserve to be included. But also, they’ve already put the work in to learn your language, and you might have fun if you learn theirs.

    • meg

      I think this is great advice. She’s also already working to learn Russian, so I think she’s on this over the long term, but the short term solution is more the issue. Anyway, I love this comment.

  • 39bride

    I’ve got a very similar situation, but in this case, one of the family members (mother) speaks very limited English. She’s a wonderful woman and I know a little bit of her language but she speaks super-fast (so fast that even my modestly bi-lingual FI can’t keep up sometimes). I’ve asked her to slow down, expressed my concerns/apologies about not being able to communicate well, etc, but she doesn’t seem to want to do anything differently.

    It’s very upsetting to me that this interferes with our ability to get to know each other. By all other indications she thinks I’m wonderful and is thrilled that we’re getting married, but it makes me so sad to see this barrier between us and her apparent lack of interest in bridging it. I’m trying to brush up on my skills in her language (which used to be much better), but wedding planning is not conducive to it (to put it mildly, haha!). Maybe after things die down I can work on my language skills, but with her speedy speech, I worry it won’t make a difference…

    • Jo

      See… I am dominican, and we dominicans not only speak loud, cut words, use made up words but also speak FAST, as in REALLY FAST. You can even look it up “dominican spanish” It’s crazy.

      My cousin’s boyfriend is polish and although he actually understands a lot and can actually keep a conversation one on one if the other person is only speaking to him, there is no way in hell he can keep up with any of us once we have got into a subject and we are “on a roll”. It is hard to slow down, because we don’t even hear or think we are speaking fast. For us is normal and even though I might try to slow down when he asks me to, at some point I just kinda forget and keep my babling nonstop! It is hard. Remind your future mother in law, whenever possible, that it would be great if she could slow down a little bit and it would help you a great deal, but also keep in mind that if she doesn’t or does but just for a little bit it might not be something she is doing *on purpose*. Old habits die hard!!

      • I was just about to comment on a Dominican host mother I had when I studied abroad there during college. :) She spoke fast like all Dominicans, but she also mumbled like crazy. For the first 6 weeks I had to ask her to repeat everything and even then didn’t always understand. Then I spent 6 weeks in the campo immersed in Spanish & when I came back…I could actually understand her! It was amazing. I guess my point is that these things become easier as your language ability grows.

      • Not Sarah

        My French coworkers preferred it when I spoke in French because a) I speak ridiculously fast in English, especially when I get a really great idea and b) for many people, my French (close to fluent) was much better than their English. I still spoke quickly in French when I would get a really great idea, but they could at least understand me when I spoke quickly when it was in French.

        (Note: this was in France, so it makes more sense that switching to French would solve the problem.)

    • 39bride

      Thanks for the encouragement, everyone! I’m hoping when the wedding craziness dies down, I can brush up on my foreign language skills and maybe make some progress in connecting with her. She’s so sweet and wonderful that I really want to get to know her but the language is a huge barrier right now. Thanks!

  • Andrea

    I live in France with French in-laws, so I definitely think it’s more of my responsibility to learn the language fluently to be able to contribute to family time. I completely agree with the fact that if you are the one choosing to live in a foreign country, you should try your best to integrate into the culture–married or not. However, if Anonymous’s in-laws are culturally Russian but happen to live in the States, I don’t think that the whole group should be forced to speak in English all of the time just for her. I completely get that feeling of loneliness in a room full of people speaking a language you don’t understand–it sucks and it’s tiring and makes you feel like everyone thinks you’re stupid and will never know your true personality.

    That said, I think a mix of “Franglais” worked fo rme–those people who could speak English would try to explain what they could, and I made myself participate in (my very limited at the time) French. I also learned not to sweat it if I didn’t catch everything, and would ask my guy later to fill me in/explain any notable jokes or stories.

    Have patience and keep studying the language! The hardest part of learning another language is learning all of the expressions and familiar jokes. Maybe she can also meet with smaller groups of family members to work on her confidence speaking?

    • Yes! I am also a native English speaker who married a native Francophone. And I agree with what you said.

      We live in my husband’s country. I think location is an important factor, and in my situation, I feel like it’s my responsibility to do my best to linguistically integrate into their French-speaking family. (If his family lived in an English-speaking country and spoke more English, and I did not speak French well, I guess I would hope for bilingual conversations (or conversations that are half in English, half in the other language) during my learning time, with the goal of hopefully being able to handle conversations in only the new language.

      I already spoke French, but my husband’s family has been really supportive of me as a non-native speaker who is still learning. His mother only speaks to me in French, and has been great about speaking clearly and answering my questions when I don’t understand something. I speak mostly French with the rest of the family, though sometimes in English with my husband’s siblings. I find it is the people who will only speak French with me (with patience and understanding) that most help my French develop.

      When things get more difficult, as this post mentions, is when the group gets big and the conversation is fast, with several people talking at once. That’s when I am more likely to miss something. It can be hard to feel left out (or less intelligent than one might feel in their native language) but I just try to keep reminding myself that this is part of the learning process. It will get better though, and it is precisely these times of immersion that help one learn the language. It’s hard, but an amazing opportunity. (And yes, there are days when the difficulty makes me cry and feel incredibly frustrated.)

      And when I have those times I miss large chunks of a conversation, I usually ask my husband to quickly summarize and fill me in. This one time I confusedly listened to a whole conversation about “airypotteur”– all I could guess was hélicoptère, but I knew that didn’t make sense–only to later ask my husband what they were talking about and it was “Harry Potter” spoken in a French acecnt….haha. Oh…and when in my wedding vows, I vowed to appreciate my husband’s “strangeness” instead of his “uniqueness” (for non-French speakers, they’re very similar words in French). At least it makes for good stories! :) I try to laugh about it as much as possible (though I don’t mind occasional tears too).

  • Kathy

    I’ve been studying Russian for 6 years, and this situation makes me want to curl in a little ball and cry for you. Russian is hard, and everyone around you has at least a 20 year head start, so don’t you dare let yourself feel stupid for not understanding. Secondly, it’s not at all unreasonable to ask that at least when they’re in your home, they do their best to speak English. But your husband needs to be the one to request this, not you.

    I know sometimes we get caught up in trying very hard to not be “THIS IS AMERICA WE SPEAK ENGLISH” people, but this isn’t xenophobia, it’s asking your in laws to meet you halfway in order to know more about you.

    • meg

      Love this. Also, this can totally be a temporary solution, but no one is going to magically learn Russian over night, and getting to know each other is probably the most important right now.

  • rys

    About 10 years ago, my best friend and I lived with a bunch of wonderful guys, all of whom spoke Japanese. They also had a lot of Japanese friends, so conversations often turned into Japanese conversations, which left us to wonder what on earth they were saying. We started “translating” the conversations — “Wow, our roommates are the most awesome people on earth,” “Isn’t it amazing that these two fabulous women live here,” etc. It accomplished 2 things: 1) it made us feel better and 2) reminded them that we had no idea what they were saying, which usually led to either (real) translation or a return to English. I realize that roommates aren’t in-laws, but it might be helpful to develop a signal between you and your husband that would serve as a reminder that you want to be part of the conversation.

  • Fenn

    My uncle married Thai women (twice!). At the few family events (the weddings) where I met that side of my family, the parents of my aunts spoke almost exclusively Thai…having come out from Thailand for the events. In that instance, they would speak in Thai, which my aunts and uncle speak, and my aunts and uncle would reply in English. So maybe you’re getting only half the conversation, but it’s making an effort to include anyone as best as possible.

    The thing here is, these in-laws are being rude. In fact, so is your husband. This is such a case of poor manners, that I can’t believe anyone is siding with the Russian speakers. If they can speak English, then they should. They are probably not purposely excluding you, but they are definitely ignoring you and neglecting your needs within the community. If I were you, I would’ve taken a much larger stand way sooner.

    Personally, I think you should be in their face. Interrupt the conversation in English. Constantly ask them what they are talking about so that everyone has to stop and recognize that you are there. Not even because you are family, but because you are a person within a group of people who are actively ignoring you. But, I’m kind of a jerk…often. Still, this situation is unacceptable in my eyes.

    But kudos to you for learning a new language! I hope you master that stuff!!

    • meg

      I’m not going to condone being rude, nor do I think the in-laws are being rude here. When you think about it this situation is a metaphor for what all of us go through acclimating to a new family culture, it’s just a much harder-core version of it. My family, for example, has it’s own culture. We’re not going to drop that completely, just because my husband doesn’t totally understand it yet. That’s not being rude, that’s just the process of two families coming together. It is, however, my job to be the bridge between my family and my husband, and try to smooth the edges, and get people to understand each other as well as they can, while everyone is learning how to better communicate with each other.

      • KB

        Maybe rude isn’t the right word for the situation, but inconsiderate? It doesn’t sound from the OP’s letter that they’re doing it intentionally by any means, but like Liz’s point about inside jokes and having a “family language,” forgetting to include someone in that can amount to being inconsiderate. I hear a lot of people in the comments taking issue with that, even though the OP’s frustration seems to be with creating a practical solution to the language barrier itself. I second the comments that suggest that the OP showing an interest in accelerating her Russian will probably appreciated so that they will make an effort to include her, but I think it’s also constructive to say that you’re probably going to have to remind them a lot that you’re still learning and want to be a part of the conversation. I’m sure the OP doesn’t want her silence to become a habit, even when she becomes mind-blowingly fluent.

      • Fenn

        Not really.

        There is a lot of psycho babble going on in this thread about different cultures and families mixing. But we’re not talking about, say the reader whose family went to the graveyard every year and how her boyfriend/husband felt uncomfortable but eventually joined in. We’re not talking about families who are loud versus families who are quiet. We’re not talking about how uncomfortable I feel around any large and close family because of having a totally broken family that is also mostly dead and how awkward it is for me to try to be normal when I see relatives being around each other.

        What we’re talking about is the people who are in group situations, who circle up, and leave someone outside of the circle…and no matter how many times you try to shoulder in and be part of it, they keep turning so you are excluded.

        The Russian speakers are EXCLUDING the English speaker. And maybe it’s not on purpose, but it is certainly the most ignorant and inconsiderate thing ever. I would not stand for it, and I don’t think she should. And I think you all are being overly nice for giving them the benefit of the doubt when they are just being completely rude and negligent.

        • Moz

          Can you please not refer to other people’s opinions as ‘psycho babble’?

        • One More Sara

          Partial language barriers are in no way that black and white. The poster understands some Russian, and her in-laws may be mistaken by how much she can actually understand. I think there is plenty of room for doubt, and it doesn’t matter if the in-laws are being rude or not. We are just trying to help the poster get through this really hard time in life, and hopefully feel more included at family gatherings.

    • Jaime

      THANK YOU. You are the first person who has pointed out that they are actually being rude!

    • Brefiks

      I do think the husband, at least, is being inconsiderate by continuing to participate in a full-speed Russian conversation that he knows his wife can’t follow (again, when in this situation all Russian speakers already speak English.) If my family gets down the path of a good inside joke that my husband doesn’t know, after about three exchanges on the topic I’m conscious that I’m leaving him out if I don’t explain. Sometimes it might not be worth it, but in general, I want him to know more about my family so I will slow the conversation down so he can participate.

    • Anya

      There is nothing rude about speaking a different language among one’s own family, foreign speakers or no. That is because we are different people in different languages. If you are not bilingual, I doubt I can make you understand this, but switching languages is like becoming an actor who is thrust into a strange role with a strange script they only have half-memorized. Language is the very basis of how we present ourselves, how we remember the past, and how we understand ourselves. When a person switches into a secondary language that they do not speak as easily as their native tongue, they become a different person. This is true for years and years and years. People speaking a secondary language actually do not have the conceptual toolbox (read: language) to present themselves as the people they are in the native tongue. And this can take years, if not decades, to correct for because of the prejudice and nervousness that having an accent carries.

      It is extremely rude to suggest being crass in asking people to shut up and just speak English. We can’t just speak English – Russian is part of who we are. We are no longer those people in English. The OP wants to know both sides of her family – the Russian and the American side. She should be praised for that.

      • Megan (from Nova Scotia)

        Somethings really don’t translate that well. But I hadn’t really thought about how that would make it more difficult to present yourself as you are in a less familiar language. That is an excellent point. However, if the relatives have been speaking English for a long while, and speak it well, would that really be as much of a problem. Just because you have a harder time presenting youself in another language doesn’t mean you stop *being* yourself. Your own unique quirks are bound to come out if you spend any time with someone else. Besides, they don’t have to speak English all the time-just enough to make the new family member feel included. Also, I don’t think Fenn was suggesting they abandon Russian entirely, just that it’s not wrong to make it clear that you expect some consideration. Especially since Anonymous is making an effort to learn the language. Her new relations should be glad to help her out.

        My fiance’s family speaks Latvian, of which I know only a word or too. It’s the first language of his father and grandmother, and all the other family members are pretty darn fluent. If there’s a bunch of people, it’s really no effort for one to throw in a comment in English to include me. If I want to know what was just said, I just laugh and ask if it can be translated. If it loses something in that translation, well I don’t complain, I’m just grateful they like me well enough to make the effort.
        And just as a side note, it’s not just people who only speak English who label it rude to speak a foreign language around English-only speakers. I had a friend whose family is Polish, and her mother always made it a point to have the family stick to what I could understand as much as possible. That’s because she thought them speaking so I couldn’t understand was the equivalent of excluding people from the conversation by whispering so they couldn’t hear.

        • Anya

          Coming from a family that’s Russian and a fiance who doesn’t speak it also, I can definitely say that we make an effort for him. Of course people don’t fundamentally change, but language is deeper than a lot of people realize. I’m not suggesting people stop trying to include people by speaking English – I’m just offering an analysis on what makes all of this so hard.

          My grandma has been here for over 30 years, has worked here, and has American friends, but when she wants to say something really important or emotionally charged to my fiance, she’ll switch to Russian and ask me to translate. It’s amazing how deep this all runs. It makes me sad and frustrated sometimes, but my fiance sees my immigrant background as one of the best things about me and about this country.

          • RJ

            The other thing is that sometimes a family conversation isn’t about communicating with *you*, and it’s OK not to be included.

            Accepting that you’ll have to watch people’s faces and learn about them without knowing the meaning of what they’re saying for a bit is part of the journey.

            My suggestion is to ask questions quietly to whomever’s near you – preferably not your husband – referring to whatever word you’ve picked up from the conversation – “is he talking about a dog? “or what does “ddddxxx mean”. This will mean someone switches to English, which will remind those who are in Russian that there’s a non-speaker there, and may prompt others to include you.

            Or maybe taking up embroidery so that when everyone reverts to Russian you can have something to keep you occupied?

      • Alexandra

        Russian might be a part of who you are, but if there’s a large language barrier, then the person you’re talking to isn’t getting any of that personality. They’re just feeling like you’re excluding them, and that’s not a nice feeling. And to be honest, I agree with this commenter that in the OP’s shoes, I would have long ago started being very blunt in requesting that they speak English. I can’t even imagine how the OP tolerated the parents visiting her house and sitting there politely as they talked Russian at her husband. To me, it just says “We invited ourselves to your house, but really we only wanted to talk to our son, not you.” And well, yes, it is rude then. It also says something that they didn’t even notice she was feeling excluded from the conversation. Someone should have said something there, and if no one else was willing to point out that the OP seemed lost, she shouldn’t be afraid to stand up for herself. (Like the last post talked about, sometimes you just need to be clear about what you’re feeling.)

        I mean, I understand that encouraging someone to be rude is bad, and that it is more effort to switch your to a secondary language, but wanting to be true to yourself at the expense of completely excluding someone from the conversation… And don’t forget, everything you said about not having the right toolkit to express yourself also applies to the OP learning Russian to communicate with the family. She probably feels equally awkward communicating in Russian. She’s making an effort to be more included, they should be willing to meet her halfway. Especially if the group is only her, her husband, and his parents.

        • Anya

          I agree that is the family can speak Russian, doing so at the OP’s house is a common courtesy that should be extended. I come at this from both sides – my fiance’s family doesn’t speak much English and my family, as noted is Russian. I’m not suggesting that one’s sense of self is obliterated across language lines. Rather, I’d like to offer that the experience is more nuanced than blunt back-and-forths could possibly allow for. Respect for culture and origin is key, and OP doesn’t want to alienate her in laws by acting as though their cultural identity doesn’t matter to her.

      • Moz

        Exactly. This is a very understandable problem from both sides. If we knew for certain that Anon’s husband and his family were deliberately being exclusionary, then maybe we could throw around language like rude and inconsiderate.

        Not everyone is attuned to these things, and thoughtful and considerate and inclusive all the time, *especially* where family is concerned and a dinner table is involved. That’s why Anon is asking for help! And unlike some other problems faced in this weekly column, this problem also has a number of solutions that can be reached, chances are, with some communication and compromise.

        Also, it’s actually a kind of great problem to have, I think. Being bilingual is FANTASTIC, having more than culture to share is wonderful. Especially if, as has been suggested elsewhere on this thread, Anon and her husband plan to have a family.

        (I don’t wish to imply for a second that being privy to conversations you can’t understand isn’t distressing, but if this can be resolved over time it has the potential to be pretty great is what I am saying. Hope Anon understands.)

  • Ash


    I feel for you. My husbands’ family speaks multiple other languages- none of them being English. It’s an extremely isolating feeling being surrounded by people and feeling no connection with any of them. I understand it feels embarrassing asking everyone to switch to English when you are present- but if they are fluent and able to express themselves it is only polite that they try. As Liz said, your husband could advocate on your behalf for that. I know with my in-laws they are eager to practice their English and they try, but it’s not great, so eventually they always switch back. But the effort makes me feel much more included.

    My only advice is this: Keep practicing your Russian! I (chose one language) and took classes. I read (kids) books. I hired a tutor. And slowly (painfully slowly) I started to understand. At first one word, then random sentences, then the general topic being discussed and I’m hopeful one day I’ll be brave enough to participate as well. It can happen. Have your husband speak to his in-laws about talking slowly, maybe explaining terms to you, and encouraging you to learn with them. Having a team of people rooting for me to learn and lots of encouragement when I did speak, made all the difference.

    It’s a really hard battle. But I’m rooting for you. Imagine- one day you are going to speak Russian! That’s pretty bad ass.

    • Ash

      I do want to add that guests in your home should try and speak English. It’s only polite. Not that they are rude, I mean imagine addressing your family in a language other than English! It would definitely feel strange at first. But have your husband explain that while you are trying to learn, it is necessary to speak English in your home. My husband started just answering back to his family in English, even when they were addressing him in other languages. Eventually it caught on.

      • Brefiks

        This would be a great solution, which is why I agree with PPs that the husband is being inconsiderate.

  • Oh hell yes to the family “language” even when the words are all ones you understand (mostly). We’re an international couple, but from the US and the UK and though it’s all English, there’s plenty that still is confounding, especially the way certain things come across as either rude, inflexible, etc, going both directions. The fun part is that both of our families of origin would readily point out if they heard a recording of us when we’re alone that we’re developing our own family “language” too!

    Of course, it’s not just an in-law issue either, but a family “merger” issue – my dad married my step-mother when the combined kids (6 of us) were mostly all teenagers. There were years of bewilderment when they thought we were in trouble a lot because our dad liked to talk things through with us, and we were utterly confused by shouting matches between them and their mom where nothing seemed to be resolved somehow ended up with altered behaviour. The “us” and “them” has faded over the years, but there are some things that we accept now that we still don’t quite understand. (Farting on one another as a way of showing affection is just not my style and never will be, as an example, but it works for certain of my siblings, and so as long as they’re not farting on me, I’m just glad it works for them.)

    The way I see Anonymous’s situation, given that the in-laws already speak English as well as Russian, this is no different from a situation where some people in a group get comfortable using technical language, jargon, or any bit of language that’s familiar to some members of a group but not all – if we’re asked to explain or loose the jargon, it could take time to adjust, but we’d be happy to do so. When it comes to an ancestral language, it can be too easy to take things personally, which is why it’s still important that the son bring it up with his parents, in this situation, as he is best placed to convey that no offence is meant, but it’s a concession to make in the short term that will pay off big later on when Anonymous is more comfortable with Russian and has a better rapport with them because they took the time to speak English now.

    It might also be that though they know Anonymous’s conversational skills are still a work in progress, they may not realise how little is understood, so they may not know how much they’re cutting her out of the conversation – they might be doing it on purpose, but they might think Anonymous understands but just is taking it in. (Or if it’s like some in-laws, it might be so hard to get a word in edgewise that they’d never notice if nobody but them spoke anyway!) They might be doing it so habitually that they’ll be embarrassed to realise how it feels to Anonymous. If they know comprehension is an issue and aren’t just doing it out of habit, then that’s a whole other issue, but one that might be best approached by treating the situation as if they can’t possibly have known anyway.

    Ah families. Even the best ones are crazy-making. Good luck Anonymous!

    • Peabody_Bites

      So agree that this is mirrored in monolingual situations as well. I am extremely close with my siblings and about four years ago (once he had been trying for about four years) my husband mentioned that he found hanging out with all of us together exhausting, noisy and very exclusive of him. I talked about it with my siblings and we now make much more of an effort not to communicate exclusively in silly voices/in-jokes/at top volume when there are others present. Am sure my step-mother and siblings’ partners have definitely benefited as well.

      Having thought about this a lot, I think when you don’t get to spend that much time with your family, it is easy to revert to the shared history and childhood habits. However, although this is the easy immediate solution it may not result in a solid foundation for closeness through extended adulthood because if sibling-partners don’t feel comfortable hanging out with the group, it will make maintaining a close relationship much harder.

      Which is all to say – pain/embarrassment now in speaking up or asking your husband to speak up to your inlaws is definitely a good investment in the long term stability of your extended family. Cf also the comment below about kids.

    • meg


    • Megan (from Nova Scotia)

      Yes, exactly. I make an effort to lose the ‘scientific jargon’ when talking with people who aren’t scientists- I handn’t thought of it as a similar situation, but it actually is (hmmm, food for thought! haha). Also, that bit about ancestral languages-absolutely. I don’t like that such things are being lost. If it was a perfect world, I would be able to speak Gaelic-like my great grandfather did. However, it didn’t get passed down through the family.
      Darn..I guess I’m going to have to learn some Latvian so I’ll be able to help my futre children to speak the language of their father’s family. Now that I’ve read these posts the importance has become much more clear to me.

    • Farting on each other to show affection? Are you sure your family isn’t my inlaws?

  • Peabody_Bites

    Slightly off topic – but YES to how weird I find it, since I wasn’t brought up doing it, to kiss family members on the mouth. My in-laws, otherwise wonderful (apart from an odd love of bridge) are big into kissing on the mouth and although I am usually pretty good at leaning in sideways for a preemptive strike, they sometimes surprise me and it is all I can do not to wipe my mouth after. Which would not lead to good in-law relations….

    As to Russian – I spent a year living in Russia and working in a Russian office (of an international organisation) and even though I was often the only English person in a 20 person meeting, the entire meeting would always be conducted in English because in my experience even the Russians know it is an incredibly complex, though beautiful, language and tend to be accomodating. All post-meeting social activities would be conducted in Russian though (and in the all-male environment of the banya/nearest strip bar but that is another story).

    The best Russian language textbooks I found (which comes with its own CD too) is called Ruslan and is quite good at focussing on conversational topics – perhaps one of your in-laws would be happy to practise with you, which could also be a good bonding activity?


  • In my small high school, there were a few Latinos who had first generation parents who spoke Spanish at home. I remember a disagreement between two friends because one was speaking Spanish at a lunch table with other English speakers. The second friend called her out on it because she was always taught, as a product of a bilingual home, always to speak the language that everyone else can understand as a matter of being polite.

    I know Anon’s family isn’t trying to be rude, but that’s what it comes down to. If they know Anon can’t understand the conversation, in effect it’s like whispering to each other the whole time so she can’t hear them. Since they speak English, they absolutely should when she’s around, because she is part of their family now. And hey- maybe a relative would be a great Russian tutor for her!

  • Beth

    I am in the exact same situation, except substitute the word German for the word Russian. I am learning German for the first time at the age of 31. We live in Germany. I am American and my husband is German. He is also fluent in English, Russian, and Italian.

    Since our wedding in October 2011, I have been learning German and am now at the intermediate level; however, it’s extremely difficult for me to understand native speakers. They speak at the speed of light and often mumble. Also, ambient noise tends to obscure what is being said if it is not in your native language.

    I think the response by APW is perhaps a little strong. The in-laws ought to be able to speak their own language in their own home. The poster ought to be able to speak her native language in hers. The in-laws are including her by having her present for important life events, by being kind to her, by serving her food, etc. There are many different ways of communicating welcome, and the verbal way is only one way. I think the poster should pay more attention to their actions toward her and less attention toward their words. Listening nonverbally is also a life skill.

    There are also many different levels of language ability, and while the in-laws may be able to speak English, it may be stressful or difficult for them. It definitely is for my in-laws. Being around someone so important as a daughter-in-law may mean you want to impress them, which can make you too nervous to speak. (The converse is true for me; I start to forget all my German. I do in fact think asking people to speak a particular language is a huge request. Languages are by definition huge and difficult to learn.) Comprehension, on the other hand, is generally easier than spontaneously generating sentences.

    My husband tends to let the conversation flow for awhile and then summarize everything in three or four paragraphs. Obviously, being in a quiet environment also helps, so that I can hear both them and my husband clearly. When I want to speak, I speak in which ever language happens to come out of my mouth. Sometimes it’s English (and that’s okay). Sometimes it’s German (and that’s okay too). Sometimes it’s a pidgin or creole hybrid. Whatever you want to speak is okay. Listening to my in-laws speak German lets me know how much progress I have made. Did I think the conversation about mushrooms was actually about cereal bowls? Yes, I did. But hey, guess what– I knew the word for cereal bowls and that’s big progress!

    It’s been hard for me too to let go of certain dreams about how I would be included in the family and what that would mean. I think in retrospect, that those dreams were very American, involving American rituals and American holidays. Part of marrying my German husband, and accepting him for who he was, was letting go of the unspoken assumption I had held my entire life– that he would be American and that our lives would be totally American.

    I think the solution in this case is just time and grace. Be kind to yourself. You will make progress; it just takes time. Keep learning Russian; watch Russian movies, listen to Russian radio on the Internet. It is a hard language to learn, but it is beautiful and it is possible. Recognize that when you marry someone who has a different native tongue, someone will always be struggling to speak. Sometimes it’s just your turn not to understand everything (verbally), and that’s not the end of the world.

    Understanding, as with any family, will come with time. After all, my grandparents weren’t too keen on my dad for almost twenty years–and they all spoke English. My grandparents came around in the end, and really loved him and were glad that my mother married him. Your comprehension of Russian will come around too, as well as your understanding of your in-laws, regardless of whether you can ever really understand everything that they say.

    As a side note, my husband and I both found the book “Intercultural Marriage: Promises and Pitfalls” by Dugan Romano to be quite helpful.

    • Eva

      This is the best comment on the entire post.

    • YES to what you said. I posted a comment above about a conversation I listened to in French that sounds similar to your mushrooms/cereal bowls one. :)

      And this:
      “Recognize that when you marry someone who has a different native tongue, someone will always be struggling to speak.”

      Someone is always in functioning in their the non-native language. Definitely a communication challenge. But it certainly adds richness to life too.

      Anyhow, loved your comment and I agree!

  • Melissa H

    Ash mentioned this above but it was my first thought too –

    While they are in your home, they should speak English. Your husband can and should bring this up to them, but it is your house too so would you feel comfortable saying, “We love having you stop by! I would really appreciate it if you spoke English while in our home so I can get to know you better”? Keep reiterating and being more direct as necessary.

    Also, if they start speaking Russian, enlist your husband to answer in English.

    What they speak in public and in their own home(s) is their prerogative, but perhaps once they know they should speak English in your home they’ll be more comfortable doing so elsewhere.

    I once dated a Frenchman and spoke basic French when his parents came to visit. They spoke so fast I could hardly keep up. I managed to say in French “If you speak slowly, I can understand you better”. They talked even faster. After meeting another one of his friends, his parents spoke in clear English “The weather in Nice is just like the weather here today.” WHAT?! :)

    • meg

      This is also an elegant solution.

      That said, I think it’s important to make it clear how little Russian she really understands, so at the very least, in their own home, they’ll speak some english, or slower Russian, and really work to include her. It’s not like the request is “always speak English now” but instead, “Can we speak English to, and directly around her for now, so she can get to know people because she really has no idea what’s going on. She’s working on her Russian.”

      • Melissa H

        Exactly! Thanks for softening up my comment a bit since it comes off a bit more demanding (Speak English in my house!) than I intended!

  • kckp

    What’s worked for me is to constantly stop people and ask them what various words they just used mean. I get to know what the conversation is about and learn more language skills, and they get reminded that I don’t understand them very well.

    • One More Sara

      YES! THIS! When you ask what a word means, not only are you learning a word within its’ context, but they will be able to figure out where you are with your Russian. I did this a ton (for Dutch) and found it much easier to remember otherwise boring vocabulary bc then the word had a story behind it. It also is a wake-up call for them that what are simple words for them are still very hard for you to remember/recognize.

    • Liz


    • meg


  • Carrie

    My childhood best friend is Polish. Her family speaks Polish at home, and her parents mostly hang out with other Polish-Americans and speak Polish with them; everyone is perfectly fluent in English too. I was unofficially adopted into their family to the point of living with them for a couple of weeks when I was having a rough time of things in high school. To the point where, upon hearing that I was getting a degree in biomedical engineering, her father said “Well, at least someone in the family is going into hard science!” (He’s a chemist; his kids are in social sciences.) He was mostly joking about the “at least someone’s going into science” part, but the “in the family” part was, I think, genuine.

    Which is to say — it’s not a marriage relationship, but it’s a family I am involved with closely. I’ve been with them at a number of gatherings when everyone was speaking Polish. It was my best friend who took the lead in those situations — if I was around and everyone had been speaking Polish for several minutes, she would pointedly switch to English. If no one took the hint, she’d explicitly say “Can we speak English, please?”

    To her way of thinking, when someone is a guest at your home or your gathering, you do what you can to make them included. If you’re fluent in a language they’re also fluent in, you speak that common language when they’re part of the conversation. It was easier for me because she took the lead, so it didn’t feel like I was tromping in there demanding everyone speak English — it was her making the request as a member of the Polish-speaking group.

    I do think the OP’s husband should take a similar lead. I think the OP is showing her good faith by learning Russian, and definitely it’s a good opportunity to practice the language — I always enjoy listening to the Polish conversations and seeing what I can understand, though I can’t add much to a conversation in Polish. But just as my best friend wouldn’t let me be left out for long periods of time, I don’t think the OP’s husband should let her be.

    Also, if the OP has a friendly relationship with some of the in-laws already, it is totally reasonable to say to a friendly in-law, “Sorry, but could we switch to English for a bit? I’m out of my depth in Russian here.” In my experience, people are pretty understanding about that kind of thing and will not take it as a huge unreasonable demand as long as they already know you. If they don’t know you but do know your husband, then it should be his request.

    There will be some bouncing back and forth between languages, you’ll miss some conversations and parts of conversations, but you shouldn’t just be totally left out.

    • meg

      I also think this is really great advice.

    • Erin

      I really love this! My husband’s family is Polish, and he was raised to be fluent in both Polish and English (his dad only spoke to him in English – he is the more fluent English speaker and I imagine it was more noticeable back then – and his mom only spoke in Polish). His family is wonderful about speaking to me in English, though there were plenty of gatherings where some friends or family didn’t know I didn’t speak Polish or forgot and I had no idea what had just been said. Honestly, it can be hard to ask a large group of people to switch from a language they’re completely fluent in to accommodate just one person.

      I’ve found that as long as you’re learning, people have fun helping you with a language. Once his cousins or aunts and uncles know that I won’t be offended, they’re happy to repeat words slowly to help with my pronunciation, or answer questions about what a word means, or supply a new word to build my (very tiny) vocabulary. I know how often I supply a word for my mother-in-law when I know what she means but she can’t think of or doesn’t know the precise word she wants in English, and since the majority of his family learned English as adults, they realize the kind of boat I’m in. Idioms and tongue-twisters are their favorite things to teach me.

      I’m also stepping up my effort to learn now. I’ve had the entry-level Rosetta Stone for a couple of years, but started grad school at just about the same time and have been concentrating my efforts to work my way through all the philosophy and critical theory I’ve been reading (which is hard enough in the English-based academic jargon they’re written in!). I can often understand the gist of a conversation happening around me, but I’d really like to be fluent myself. Some of my husband’s cousins were raised speaking Polish but can’t anymore, and their children don’t even understand it spoken. I’d like our kids to be bilingual (when kids happen), so I also need to get ahead of the curve now so that I understand what my husband says to them in Polish. I like a lot of the advice here, and am going to try to bring back the bilingual dinners!

  • AnotherCourtney

    Fortunately, this is not one of the issues I have to deal with regarding my in-laws (although, as Liz points out, there are always issues of some kind!). I have, however, had many friends and roommates that speak other languages, and as a result, I’ve frequently been a guest in homes that do not speak English as their primary language (or at all!). It’s definitely frustrating at times (probably more so if I considered the people there family), but it’s also interesting, and often exciting/educational. I’ve definitely had my share of dinners where conversation consists almost entirely of “What’s the Hindi word for this?” “How you pronounce that in Dutch again?” “Ok, but what does that mean?” I learn a little bit each time, and I’ll never forget the time I was out with my Taiwanese roommates and some of their friends, and I understood a phrase one of them used in Mandarin. It does get easier!

    That being said, though, I am a big fan of my-house-my-rules. To me, there is absolutely nothing wrong with expecting them to speak primarily English when they visit you in your home. In my house, we speak English, and while I believe in accommodating guests and making them feel comfortable, I would not tolerate feeling like an outsider at my own dinner table. The same principle was true even when I shared a home with people of other cultures/languages, where our dinner table conversation tended to revolve around language lessons any way. (To be fair, this means that your in-laws have every right to declare their homes as Russian-only, if they choose. But at least it will give each of you a break from trying to communicate in a “foreign” language depending on which location you are in.)

  • Fermi

    I dated someone for five years and he didn’t speak Spanish, when he came back to NM to visit me with my family and we were all together with my grandmother/extended family, my parents would slip back into Spanish. But out of respect, they would translate what they were saying and I would always speak in English. Even my grandmother would attempt to speak in English. I think they can make an effort to translate or go back and forth.

  • suzanna

    I’m in a similar situation, except the other language is Mandarin. My two cents? I’m fine when it’s a large family gathering–there are so many people there, someone will speak to me in English. It’d be silly to expect all the conversations happening at the same time to include me.

    However, when it’s only the parents and the husband with you? Oh hells yeah English. I agree with an above poster that in this more intimate situation, it’s rude to exclude you. I would also constantly interrupt and ask (politely) that they switch to English (and get the support of hubby, obvy). If the parents need more alone time with their son, they can get that another time.

    Another point that needs to be made: BILINGUAL CHILDREN. I don’t know if the writer of this letter plans on having children, but I’m guessing they will choose to raise them bilingual(ly?). Keep on learning Russian yourself, for your own sanity. There should not be a secret language in the house. Trust me, the issue with the in-laws will only be magnified once they can speak to their grandkids in Russian. And children who can say things to you that you don’t understand? No no no no no.

    • Liz

      Ha! Good point about kids!

    • meg

      Yes, both about the kids, and about finding an English Language Spirit Guide at family gatherings, so to speak ;)

  • Emily

    I totally agree that you and your in-laws should come to some accomodation that makes everyone comfortable, even if it means your in-laws switching to English when you’re around. But I would just note, speaking as someone who has had the gift of being able to learn languages in an immersion environment as well as in the classroom, that even though you might feel lost listening to those conversations you are probably picking up much more than you think, and are learning much faster than you would with tapes. Before I moved to other countries, I had to approximate the experience you’re getting with your in-laws by watching foreign-language TV in my spare time. If your ultimate goal is to learn Russian, you might find that toughing it out now as you try to keep up with your in-laws is really beneficial for your accent and idiom. And I definitely agree about the kids part.

  • I think situations like this come down to balances of power and agency/control. The writer feels like she is totally helpless since she can’t speak Russian and that the family is in charge of what’s going on because they’re only speaking Russian. I think the solution is to compromise — she should try and learn Russian, but they should also speak more English around her. She’ll feel better about herself when she knows what’s going on and can participate in the conversation, and they’ll be more willing to speak English when they see her trying to learn Russian.

    (also, side note — with a family that loves Russian that much, learning Russian is going to be key, because there’s no way they’re going to stop that behavior if there are kids later down the road — if anything, they’ll start speaking it more exclusively. if the couple decides to have kids, this is actually a good thing! 2nd languages learned at home are such a gift.)

  • I thought I was lucking out when I fell in love with a Russian, being a Russian Major I figured what could be better for my language skills? Well, turns out my english is better than my russian.. and his english is just as good as his russian (he was raised here (NY) from 7). His parents are certainly.. adjusting. They are trying. And so am I. I think it’s work for everyone- they’re reminded that one of the hazards of moving to America is their child falling in love with an English speaker. I’m reminded of the culture he came from.

    When we eat together, just us 4 (Andrey, me, and his parents) they make an effort to speak English, or very very slow Russian (his mother is always trying to get me to learn more!). If he and his father lapse into Russian it’s usually about the car. Seriously, every time. And I’m fine sort of half following that.

    Certainly the hardest events are birthdays. They’re a huge deal in his family- big family dinners that last hours and require toasts. Getting up. In front of his whole family. And speaking. In Russian. (Now, I’m an officiant, my JOB is to speak in front of huge groups, so it’s the RUSSIAN part which drives me to drink the shots they’re pouring…and pouring). On top of that everyone is Russian except me. And everyone is having their conversations and his grandma is there, who speaks better English than I russian but still very little.

    I have no real advice (I read the note to my boyfriend and he said “YOU NEED TO HELP HER” and I said “We haven’t solved this ourselves yet!” I just want you to know that there are others out there! I think for your in-laws to make an effort when it’s just the 4 of you is not too much to ask. And to ask your husband to translate a little in big groups and to enjoy your own thoughts and read lots of body language in big groups also isn’t the worst.

    (Andrey adds: it is your husband’s job to help you along, to steer the conversation in a way you can follow- to make you feel included and make his parents feel like they can communicate with you.)

    • meg

      I love this.

    • Masha

      I guess I am coming from the other side. I left the FSU when I was 9, but through the sheer strong will my mom maintained my Russian and developed it to college level, so its for easy to talk to my parents about the complex topics such as the state of the economy and politics in Russian with no real struggle, which puts my non-Russian speaking husband at a distinct disadvantage (that tends to be the toughest thing to master for students). I admit I am not perfect whenever we are at my parents house (my parents speak fluent albeit heavily accented English) I inevitably slip into Russian. However, I try to be aware of this and how excluded I would feel, if I was in a similar situation and I switch back to English to include him. While I don’t ask my parents to do the same, they notice and switch into English as well and our conversation progresses in English.

      If your husband is not keenly aware of how excluded you feel and how little you are able to follow the conversation, talk to him. He can set the tone by steering his parents toward including you by responding to them in English. This may not be super helpful at big gatherings, (I like the suggestion of gravitating to people that you can easily speak to in English) it will help you feel included in more intimate settings like spending time with his parents.

      I also agree that your home is yours and your in-laws should respect your comfort zone (i.e. speaking in the language of your choice). I used to tutor adults in Russian, for a while and am happy to give you some online resources to help you get a better grip on Russian. With that said, you are taking on a very difficult language, with a lot of nuances that are woven into it – Russian is not for the fainted at heart. My favorite teaching tool for intermediate level students is BBC Russian – the articles tend to be short, contain a number of idioms (which could be fun to pull apart with your husband), and lots of culture which will help you tackle family gatherings. BBC also has one minute audio clips where the announcers speak really clearly.

      Anyways, hang in there you will get better and feel free to email me at mbolo11 at gmail dot com – I am happy to dig up more resources.

  • Moz

    Liz, this is a really great column.

    Gosh I feel for you Anon. And I think this is a nice coda to what Melissa was trying to tell us yesterday – that we sometimes need to actually ask for what we want.

    I think the fact that Anon still wants to speak Russian one on one should be emphasised by her partner. It’s an easy assumption to make that because she keeps up conversationally when it’s just one person that she can do it with everybody. But of course Anon should continue to get as far ahead with her Russian. Which is really freaking hard so yay her!

    • meg

      Sometimes we need to ask for what we want. Lovely and smart tie in.

  • Newtie

    I was in this situation! I didn’t marry the man in question, but I did date him for over six years, and his family very much considered me “family.” Russian is a very, very hard language to learn!

    I think Russian immigrants living in the US often have unique language issues going on. First of all, because the languages are so different, people can be fluent in English and still have very thick Russian accents for life. Sometimes, this makes people feel less comfortable speaking English, even when they know it as well as Russian — they have to deal with a certain amount of discrimination daily because of the heavy accent, and it can make speaking English feel like an obligation or even a source of shame. I know my Russian almost-in-laws never felt as fluent and verbally dominant when using English and that was part of what was hard for them — Russian culture encourages and values dominating a conversation and being articulate, and because of the accent, they never felt articulate in English. This made them resistant to using it.

    Also, my ex’s extended family all left Russia/Ukraine/etc. under duress. If your husband’s family emigrated before 1989, they probably left under duress as well. It made their relationship to their native country much different than it might be if they just came to the US for work, etc. They simultaneously loved and hated Russia, and missed their home without feeling like they had a real “home” to go back to. That meant that their Russian-American community was almost like a new country by itself. I know most immigrants find having a supportive immigrant community important, as well as keeping their native traditions alive, but I think this is a much more complicated issue for immigrants who must come to the US for complicated reasons.

    I put all that out there because in my experience, the whole family speaking Russian all the time wasn’t JUST because it was easier for them — there was a lot of emotional stuff going on under the surface, and it helped me to understand that that was much bigger than me.

    That said, they still needed to speak English when I was around. No way around that. There was no way I was going to learn enough Russian to ever keep up with the conversation – I know that sounds defeatist, but it’s just true. I still took classes and learned a lot as a show of support, but in terms of having real, in-depth conversation, we had to stick with English. We worked it out that in small family groups (dinner with the almost-in-laws, etc), we’d always speak English. My boyfriend took the responsibility of making this happen – first by only speaking English himself, even if his parents spoke to him in Russian, and second by gently reminding his family. Usually, when his family would hear his English, they would automatically respond in English.

    In large family gatherings, people who weren’t speaking to me would speak in Russian and people who were would speak in English. Again, this is something that took some time to establish, and my boyfriend had to help a lot. But he was adamant about it. And I did my best to really hold my own in any debate that was taking place in English — once the extended family saw that I was trying hard to speak the “family language” (ie, arguing!) in English, they were more willing to speak in English as well. If I had just tried to make small talk about their jobs or the weather in English, they would have just turned to each other and started yelling in Russian again.

    One thing that also helped is we actively talked about future family. We let his parents know that if we had children, the children would learn Russian and the grandparents would be able to speak Russian to their grandchildren when the grandchildren came to visit. This eased a lot of tension, too — I think there was some background fear that of course I could never learn enough Russian, so would that mean our kids wouldn’t, either? Knowing I was committed to the family language, even though I would realistically probably never speak it, made the family much more willing to speak to me in English.

    But my take home message is it is NOT unreasonable to expect that the family speak only in English when you are around. Your husband needs to only speak English and insist that his family do also. This is normal. There may be some resistance on the part of your in-laws, but that has to do with their issues — you can be sensitive to their issues, but you don’t have to bend to them. It’s not reasonable to expect you to not participate in family conversations. It IS reasonable to expect your new family to include you in ALL (…well, ok MOST) conversations. Stand up for yourself and get your husband to be firm! Good luck!

    • meg

      This whole comment is just fascinating and awesome. Read it, everyone!

    • Anya

      Yes! This is very true. I’m Russian, and my folks came over in the 70’s. The language is who we are – it’s all we have left – and that truth was made explicit to me my whole life. As Anonymous knows, asking everyone to speak English is a fraught request. It rings harshly of the “You’re in America, so speak English” that was so prevalent in the Bush years. But it’s an honest request, and one that is made from wanting to embrace and participate, rather than wanting to exclude.

      Your fiance’s family knows that Russian is really, really hard. Few people actually try to learn the language (I know – so many of my friends married Americans, and not a single one has even bothered to try!). For this reason, your fiance’s family will see your attempt to learn Russian as a way of embracing the culture.

      So ask. You don’t have to say “speak English, please.” You can say, “I didn’t catch that, but it sounded fascinating! Can you repeat it?” In my experience at bilingual family dinners (did I mention he’s Hungarian and several people don’t even speak English at all in his family?), by the time the entrees come out, people typically have gotten used to pausing for translation, or self-translating. If you are consistent and polite with your requests, people will get the hang of it.

      Here’s what I find works:

      – Designate a translator (probably your husband), and have him pause people every few sentences to translate. At first it seems awkward, but people will get the hang of it – it’s how diplomats the world over speak to each other. Also, it’s a great way to learn the language!

      – Stop people when you want to know what they just said by expressing interest in their conversation, rather than by asking them to speak English.

      – Be consistent in asking to understand what’s going on. People switch back to their habits easily, and the only way to break those habits is with consistency.

      – Impress people by pulling out words you know. This is a way to clue people in that you’re learning and that you aren’t fluent at the same time. Say things like “Are you talking about the elephants at the zoo?” Bonus points if you make it funny. If you’re the butt of the joke, it makes it easier for folks to not feel guilty or get defensive.

      – Overtly show that you want to participate. Don’t pinch your husband under the table (I’ve tried – it doesn’t work), instead, poke him over the table, or ask an aunt who looks disengaged, what’s going on (“are they talking about how your grandparents met? Can you translate?”). this shows everyone that you’re interested, and can take the pressure off any one individual to switch into English.

      – If all else fails, start going over your shopping list, plans for the future, etc. The solution is unlikely to ever be perfect. Might as well cultivate the “I’m listening” look without really listening.

      Good luck!

      Oh, and Definitely ask the grandparents to speak to your children in Russian. They’ll love it. They probably think that since the mom doesn’t speak Russian, the kids won’t learn it. Take it up a notch by telling them you’ll also hire a Russian-speaking babysitter.

      • Kate

        I love this little comment thread in particular, and I’ll come back to it from time to time for reminders. My bad habit is to use my lack of Russian as an excuse to sometimes fade from a conversation prematurely. Still, I think it will be many years before 3 a.m. on New Years at a Russian table won’t be a good time to, as you suggest, Anya, go over my shopping list . . . and some imaginary Russian flashcards.

        An aside: There have been a few times I’ve been grateful to not understand everything my (sweet and gracious) mother-in-law says. For instance when she was staying with us during our (hectic) wedding and trying to cook with our limited kitchen supplies. My husband passed on her comments . . . after they wouldn’t make me cry.

      • Carrie

        I was a Russian major in college and right now I live in Moscow. I agree that Russians have a very strong and sometimes complicated relationship to their language. There are still reports and discussions on the radio here about wanting Russian to be recognized as an official language in former Soviet republics due to the ethnic Russian populations there. I know first hand how difficult learning Russian is. I’ve been through the whole immersion thing and it took about 6 months of living with Russians and taking intensive Russian classes here until I could participate in a conversation with lots of people. This was after 2 years of classes in the States. After 3 years here, I still miss things occasionally. It gets really frustrating when I can’t understand my roommates. (They don’t speak English.) I can sympathize with you struggles and would love to be able to commiserate with you over a drink.

        But, at the same time, it’ll be really important for you to try. As welcoming as Russians can be, I have had some problems with xenophobia here. I can’t tell you how many times people have at first been wary when they meet me, but then immediately warm up as soon as they hear me speak in Russian. It means a lot to them that an American has taken the trouble to learn their language. It will mean a lot to your in-laws too. Here, even knowing a few words and demonstrating a willingness to learn more can be the difference between being accepted or not.

        So although I agree with Liz’s advice whole-heartedly, it’s a good idea to keep going with your studies. I wish you luck, perseverance and patience.

  • Meg (not the other two)

    I have a similar problem. My boyfriend’s parents and extended family speak Tagalog when they get together. However, my boyfriend doesn’t speak the language either (nor do his brothers or their wives), but his parents and extended family don’t seem to care. I’m thinking of learning but my bf still won’t understand.

    • One More Sara

      When I first read your comment I read Tagalog as Tagalong and thought I LOVE THOSE COOKIES!

    • Tatyana

      I’m in the reverse role – my family is all Russian and my fiance doesn’t speak any Russian. It’s pretty frustrating for him at times, but my mother often takes it upon herself to police everyone into speaking English. Sometimes this means that my grandmother ends up being left out of the conversation, and while not ideal, this is ok. When I bring him to their home, it is so that they can welcome him into their family, and they are expected to do their very best to be accommodating. Of course I wish that everyone spoke the same language, but I feel that it is their burden to make him feel welcome, otherwise he will not want to visit with them, and thus they will also see less of me.

      That being said, it’s quite difficult for you or your boyfriend to be the ones making the demands in this situation. Is there a family member that the two of you have a good relationship with, someone who your boyfriend can talk to about how it feels for both of you to be left out? Maybe his mom? This family can be tasked with reminding people to speak English and also makes that person look exceptionally considerate in front of others instead of having you or your boyfriend look pushy if you have to say it yourselves.

  • Karin

    Russian is a VERY difficult language to learn! I feel for you. One thing that helped me when I was learning Russian was to have conversations with my Russian-speaking friends. I agree with KCKP- have “Russian Dinner” once a week or twice a month or something, but definitely keep it to just you and his parents, or a small group. This way, you’re less likely to get confused by more than one conversation, and it will be easier for his family members to remember to speak slower and to help you to understand better. When I first started learning Russian, and could put some sentences together, I would try to have conversations, and if I got stuck, I would simply say “Kak skazal ….?” which means “How do you say….?” and then someone could teach me how to say something new.

    • meg

      It’s funny, I was talking about this with *my* husband this morning, and Russian dinner once a month was exactly what he suggested. I think it’s a super smart idea. You still feel included in every day conversation, and also get practiced (slower) immersion in the language (and everyone knows you’re really working on it).

  • KB

    Overall, I agree with the suggestions that it’s a matter of both parties meeting halfway by making efforts in Russian and English since the OP wants to learn Russian anyways – if she didn’t want to learn it, it would be an entirely different issue. And I also agree with Melissa H’s alternate solution about asking your husband if he can reply to his parents’ questions or points in English. It might be difficult for him to maintain a “bi-lingual conversaion,” but that actually might help the OP become more fluent AND participate in the conversation by building off of what her husband says in Russian.

  • So my family experienced a similar situation. When my mom married my stepdad (who is American and spoke only English), he came to live with my family, which speaks primarily Russian. Another thing that complicated the equation is that my grandparents live with my mom, and even though they try very hard, their English is not that great. So my stepdad would often find himself in situations where everyone was speaking Russian around him. What helped in the first few years is that my mom was constantly translating for him, and my grandparents tried their best to speak with him in English. Over time, he picked up so much Russian that he feels a lot more comfortable sitting at the dinner table where most of the conversation is in Russian. He understands most of what people say, but is too shy to say anything in Russian.

    Anyway, all this to say is that you are not alone, and overtime things will get better. But I do think it’s your husband’s responsibility to translate for you, or either of you can ask the in-laws to speak in English when you are around. It’s not too much to ask for. I do also wonder about how well your in-laws speak English. Maybe their English is not that great, or they may be embarrassed to speak with an accent around you? Just a thought. If they are truly wonderful people, like you say, it seems unlikely that they would be purposefully rude toward you.

  • DNA

    I’m sort of in the opposite situation. My family and I speak a mix of Cantonese, Thai, and English with each other when we’re together, but when my partner is around, we switch to English. This started happening when my parents heard my sister or me translating things into English for my partner so I didn’t have to formally ask them. Of course, I would have had no problems asking my parents to switch to English if they hadn’t already. My partner is also slowly learning bits of Cantonese and Thai, which makes my family happy, but it’s going to be a long time before he’s proficient in either one given that Chinese and Thai are *not* easy languages for an English-speaker to learn. (Just as an aside, this infographic about language difficulty for English speakers is pretty interesting:

    I guess what I’m trying to say is similar to what other posters have been saying: 1) you are not an imposition and hopefully your husband would be happy to talk to his parents about switching to English sometimes, and 2) showing your in-laws that you’re making an effort to learn their language (which happens to be relatively difficult for English speakers) might show them that you’re willing to meet them halfway.

  • We live with my Russian mother-in-law, but she and my husband are really good about not speaking Russian in front of me – unless we are skyping with the Russian relatives. Too good, actually!

    I’m going to request a monthly (or weekly even) Russian dinner so that I can get back to learning some Russian. Especially since we are trying to raise a bilingual kid!

    • Yes, when people get in the habit of speaking English with me, it’s hard to get them to stay in French with me, which is what I would prefer to keep improving my French!

  • This reminded me of dinnertime every Sunday at my Israeli boyfriend’s home. some of the conversation would be in Spanish before dinner, as I was helping in the kitchen or just hanging out, but once they sat at the table, everyone would start sharing their stories and they would slip into Hebrew. I used some of the great tips mentioned before: trying to guess about the conversation from body language and random words, asking my boyfriend to translate or asking them directly if they were talking about bureaucracy in the university computer labs (turns out many of those words sounded very familiar). I never did learn Hebrew, but I didn’t feel left out. Sometimes on the drive back home I would ask for the cliff notes version of dinner conversation, and he would fill me in on what I’d missed.

  • I’m loving the conversation that’s taking place in these comments; so much good stuff here. My husband and I face the bilingual thing twice over — I’m Chinese American and fairly fluent in conversational Mandarin; he’s Korean American and, in his own words, “speaks Korean like a five-year-old” (so basically interpretation becomes a sticky issue). Our parents all fall under LEP (Limited English Proficiency) status, especially in recent years as their kids have left home and they have fewer people to practice their English with. So — I kind of see this from both sides, since I’ve had both the experience of awkwardly sitting in a room full of people speaking Korean and feeling left out *and* of going “Oh, whoops, Mom and I have totally switched to Mandarin at some point and Jason has no idea what’s going on…”

    I really like what a commenter said above about how sometimes the reality of in-laws with a different culture (whether that’s language-based, ethnic, or just different family culture) can run you up against your own dreams of what you want your in-law relationship to be. Growing up, I’d always thought I’d share either my Chinese or my American culture with in-laws — marrying a Korean-American was just never on my radar, and I often tell my husband that I have no idea how to be a “good” Korean daughter-in-law in the way I would know how to be a good Chinese or American daughter-in-law. When my mother-in-law shoos me away from the sink full of dirty dishes after dinner, am I supposed to insist on cleaning them? Or am I really supposed to let her do it? Have I just offended her terribly? Do I get a pass because I’m not Korean or does that count against me? And then how much of my worrying is really that I don’t get to have my own cultural safety blanket wrapped around my concept of what it means to be a “good” daughter-in-law? (i.e. Get over yourself, Sharon!)

    The thing that I’ve come to realize is that as hard as the doubled language barrier can be in our particular combination (my in-laws and my parents will probably never be able to fully communicate with each other, for example, and that makes me really sad), it can also be a blessing because I know from *my* parents’ side that the language difficulty is *never* because they’re trying to exclude my husband. It’s habit, or comfort, or shorthand for them to slip into Mandarin with me. It means they don’t have to reach for concepts and words. It ties us to our heritage. And they do try to stick with English with Jason because they love him and want to welcome him, but it’s hard for them because they still, after living half their lives in the States, feel painfully self-conscious about their pronunciation and accents. I know that it’s probably the same or similar for my in-laws. (I had a brain wave once, after my mother-in-law apologized to me for her English [which I happen to think is quite good], that it must be really *hard* and intimidating for a non-native speaker of a language to have a daughter-in-law who’s getting an advanced degree in said language. We always think the confusion and intimidation is on our side, as the ones joining the family unit, but it totally runs both ways.)

    I think what our families have learned is that yes, it’ll always be a little more self-conscious and difficult to talk to one another, but we assume good faith on all sides. There are a lot of ways to show someone that you love and accept them that *aren’t* verbal. Jason eats every Chinese dish that my mom sets in front of him, and that shows her he loves her. I hug my mother-in-law a lot and try to do “girly” things with her because she only has sons. Mostly Jason and I try to express how happy and content we are in each other, because we know that’s really what parents want for their children. And we’re haltingly attempting to learn more of each other’s languages as well (being younger and also fairly good at language-learning, we see it as our responsibility and our joy), not solely because it’ll decrease awkwardness at family gatherings — though that’s totally a perk — but mostly, primarily, because it’s one more way of honoring each other’s heritage and of showing love to each other’s families.

    • meg

      GREAT stuff here Sharon. I’m not even going to try to follow on with something smarter, just point up to what you said with the hope everyone reads it.

    • Anya

      I totally agree, and am in a very similar situation. thank you for the advice and insight.

    • A.P.


      I see this issue from both sides as I am Indian and my family pretty much always reverts back to Gujarati and Fiance’s family always reverts back to Vietnamese. It just helps to understand that when they choose not to speak English, it’s not because they are being rude or trying to exclude you on purpose. Its just that when they have something to say, they immediately reach for the words most familiar to them, i.e. their native language.

  • Anya

    A general comment to everyone saying that speaking Russian vs. English is “no different” from inside jokes or jargon. It is, though the metaphor has value for the purpose of understanding. However, a Language – a native tongue – is the very basis on which we understand ourselves and present ourselves to the outside world. When you translate native tongue into secondary tongues to talk and interact you literally have to translate yourself. You become a different person in translation. So it’s just a tad different.

    • One More Sara

      I definitely agree with your notion that it’s really hard to stay true to yourself in your non-native tongue. To give a concrete example, it can be REALLY HARD to tell jokes in a second language. For me, making people laugh is an important part of a conversation, and I simply cannot do that (yet) when I’m not speaking English.

    • Anya (and One More Sara), I completely agree with what you said about when one speaks in a second language, their personality is “flavored” by that fact. (And the degree of that varies by person and language ability.) Of course, one doesn’t become a whole completely different person, but language is intimately connected to our sense of identity and belonging. Some people do better than others dealing with the challenges of speaking a second language. And it’s true that one’s comfort can differ based on the content of what one is trying to communicate. Talking about the weather or asking for directions is one thing, but trying to express hopes, hurt, deeper analysis or commentary on a subject, or a sense of humor….those are the levels of conversation that are much more difficult in a second language. I find when I am most upset or emotional, I just cannot communicate the same nuances of thought in a second language. The link between language and identity runs very deep and is extremely complex.

  • Heather

    I disagree with Liz’s advice. Speaking Russian is an important, if not crucial, aspect of his family’s identity. I think that it’s important to preserve.

    Your marriage is forever and let’s hope that forever is a long, long time. You can learn to understand and speak Russian. I’m not pretending this will be fast or easy, but it will mean a lot to your husband’s family. It will also be an amazing expterience for you.

    In the short term, ask for more consistency in paraphrasing conversations, help to understand words and most importantly, be patient with yourself and be proud of your progress and efforts.

    • Cali

      I disagree. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think she should make an effort to learn Russian so that she can interact more with his family (and she is)… but I don’t think it’s fair to put all the pressure on her to learn a new language so that she can understand what his family is saying. If they were living in Russia, and his family couldn’t speak English, then the onus would pretty much be all on her… but they’re living in the U.S. and she said they all speak English fluently.

      Learning a second language as an adult is HARD. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that his family include her in their conversations. Otherwise, they all have to wait until she becomes a fluent Russian speaker before they can really get to know each other!

      For the OP, how about this as a solution: Request that his family try to speak in English when you’re around so you can be included in the conversation, but also request occasional “training” conversations so that you can improve your Russian. Either plan one-on-one Russian conversations with alternating family members, or do small groups so that it’s easier to follow than it is in a huge group. Maybe make some nights “Russian Night” at home with your husband, and you could try to speak Russian to each other for a couple hours. Nothing beats real conversation to improve your language skills… and that way your in-laws know you are working to fit into their family dynamic just as much as they are working to make sure you are included. :-)

  • Anonymous, I think it’s really commendable that you have progressed enough in a second language to be able to communicate one-on-one with your husband’s family. That is no small feat in any language…and in Russian- WOW! Plus, it shows a great degree of respect for your husband’s family’s culture. What you are doing is not easy, and it is wonderful that you are learning and are at the level you are at.

    I am discovering that getting as-close-to-fluent-as-possible as a non-native speaker of French is a long process (and I even studied it for years in school before meeting my husband). And that realization of the long-term process can be really discouraging at times. Thankfully there are good days too, when I can see progress in myself, or others tell me they see progress. But most of the days are just normal language days, where I just keep plugging away without any outside perspective of my progress.

    Group conversations are the most difficult, and I think that’s natural. When you add in people speaking quickly and over top of each other, accents from different regions, or background music or noise in a restaurant…well, it greatly intensifies the challenge of comprehension. And, like you said, it IS exhausting.

    Speaking and listening in a second language is really hard work and it takes time. More time than I wish it took! The plus side is, the more you learn through exposure and immersion into this type of challenging language circumstances, the less challenging it will become over time, as you continue learning from being around it. I wish you the best! And on the hard days….remember, what you’re doing is really amazing!

  • KHG

    Wow, I am amazed at how many people think it’s a good idea to ask the in-laws to always speak English around the English-speaker. Sometimes that’s necessary, but it won’t always be practical or even desirable.

    My Chinese in-laws speak English to me, but often fall into Chinese with my husband or each other. Occasionally I ask what the conversation’s about to get an English synopsis. Many times I already know the broad strokes based on context and intuition. There are many, many instances when I just let it go and think about what a blessing it is that I don’t have to know every little nuance of what my in-laws talk about when I visit. I’m able to appreciate our cultural differences and to focus on the important fact that we all love each other without sweating some of the little things that cause strife in other people’s in-law relationships.

  • Sarah Wamuhiu

    I find this whole conversation interesting. As an American married to a Kenyan I have also dealt with the language barrier. Most Kenyans speak very good English but prefer to use Swahili or their tribal mother-tongue. I am semi-fluent in Swahili but only know a few words of my hubby’s mother-tongue. In our house we speak English almost exclusively, but when we visit his parents/siblings the conversations are in Swahili or Kikuyu (his mother-tongue). His mother is not comfortable speaking English but she understands it so we communicate in a mix of English and Swahili. I have reached a point where when I’m talking with one or two of his family members we fall into a language or mix of languages that is comfortable for us all, but when the whole family is together they all speak a mix of Swahili and Kikuyu and I get about 5-10% of the conversation. I have learned to be comfortable sitting enjoying their company even if I’m not understanding what is going on. Every once in a while my hubby will give me a little recap but since the conversation is often about people, places and things I am not familiar or interested in he only translates what he knows is of interest. I have no plans to learn Kikuyu especially since I don’t even use Swahili enough any more to retain my fluency.

    Because its REALLY hard to change the social dynamics of a family for just one person…this is how they grew up – would you find it easy to ask your family to speak a different language than you grow up with? I’ve found it much easier to get to know my in-laws on a individual basis rather than asking them to try to speak english or swahili for me when they are all together. They are really friendly and love me alot and love having me in the family but I’m not going to ask them to change for me the 1 out of 15 or so people in the family who doesn’t speak what they are familiar with.

    When they come to our house (which is very rare), we mix everything together, but I’m totally comfortable with my husband using Kikuyu if he’s talking about something that doesn’t really involve me…if its something I’m interested in or a part of he will try to be sure and use a language I’m comfortable with or translate for me.

    Its an awkward position to be in for sure but it gets more comfortable as time goes on (we’ve been married 3 years). Oh and its even more interesting when kids come…our baby only understands English so I find myself translating for him so that he knows what his relatives are saying :)