I’m no expert and I’m certainly not in the business of giving people relationship advice.
That said, I think it’s safe to say it’s difficult to have a meaningful relationship with someone you can barely communicate with. So if you’re still at a basic level of Chinese then you’re girlfriend/ boyfriend is going to need a good level of English (or whatever language it is you can communicate in.) The problem is, once you’ve established the language upon which the relationship is based it is then very difficult to change. Even if your Chinese level eventually surpassed your partners English level it would still be difficult, if not impossible, to change something as fundamental as the language you use to communicate. Since people tend to spend a lot of time with their boyfriend or girlfriend that means you’re going to spend a lot of time not speaking Chinese.
A lot of people, myself included, will have at some point during the learning process tried to force a native speaker to talk to them in the language they are trying to learn. You can try and do this with your partner but, speaking from experience, it can be very annoying to have someone with a low language ability insist on speaking to you in that language unless you are their teacher and your aim is to help them improve. To make your partner talk to you in Chinese you are therefore either going to force them into using a language that is ineffective for communication or, perhaps worse, turn them into your Chinese teacher. Again, I’m not a relationship guru but I can guarantee doing either of those things will result in frustration and arguments on both sides.
a Chinese girlfriend often means less time studying and more time taking selfies
Another thing is that your partner (consciously or subconsciously) may not even want you to learn Chinese well. People are always stronger when speaking their mother tongue, so if your relationship is based in English then the English speaker is probably going to do more talking, more explaining (perhaps even ‘mansplaining’) and more easily dominate conversations with groups of friends (whether they realise it or not). Changing the language would change this dynamic. Furthermore, if you are living in China then the dominance of the English speaker within the relationship is somewhat cancelled out by the fact that the English speaker will often be extremely reliant upon their Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend in a great number of daily situations. If you learn Chinese really well then you will be more independent and the much less reliant upon your partner while living in China, and that would effectively weaken your partners position in the relationship.
But what if your Chinese is better than their English from the start?
In this case you’re probably going to have a relationship based on Chinese. Although this almost certainly won’t do your Chinese level any harm, I think the benefits are often completely overrated by people who have not learnt a foreign language. I don’t know any exact statistics but most people will be surprised to hear just how few words are needed to get by with almost all basic everyday conversation. It’s probably somewhere around 500 words, perhaps less. One of my Japanese colleagues, who is married to a Chinese lady, summed this up quite well when he pointed out to me that “talking to my wife about what to have for dinner this evening and whose turn it is to do the laundry isn’t going to improve my ability to translate a formal contract form one language to another or follow what is being said when watching the news.”
The fact is there is no short cut to learning a language. It takes a lot of time and dedication. When you have a boyfriend or girlfriend you basically have another very important commitment and so might not be able to spend as much time studying as you would if you were single.
Whether you agree or disagree with me I’m always happy to hear about the experiences of other learners, so this post is open to comments below.