by Eva Litzenberg
I would consider myself a fairly competent German teacher, but there is one student I am very reluctant to touch (at least in a professional capacity): my significant other. Many things can go wrong in the attempt to teach your mother tongue to your partner. The obstacles, be they practical or emotional, are plentiful and many blossoming romances have been lost in the process.
In this blog we will be looking at the obstacles when teaching your partner your language and how you might overcome them, when to call it quits and when to bring in a professional.
It sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? You already spend a lot of time together, it’s cheaper than shelling out hundreds of pounds on language lessons, it’s more interactive than Duolingo and it should be easy, right?
One laboured conversation about your respective days and one major argument later, you’re back where you started. Turns out teaching a language is harder than it looks
Why I refuse to teach a romantic partner
After a disastrous attempt to teach English to Mutti LLH when I just started out tutoring, I will not teach anyone who has entered the love tier in my personal life, and I am pretty careful about which friends I would agree to tutor. Teaching somebody close to you shifts the power dynamic of a relationship and I’m not good enough at compartmentalizing to attempt it.
Still want to give it a go? How to make it work
As always, I’m going to use English as the community language, and German as the target language as this is LLH’s cultural set-up, but this post applies to all language combinations.
1. Both partners need to think about how much work they are going to put in.
“We’re just going to speak German to each other.” is often the beginning of the end of the teaching attempts. If you want to teach your partner your language, you’ll have to, well, teach. Talk to each other about how much time and effort you are prepared to put in, and be realistic. With language learning consistency is much more important than quantity, so 2 or 3 15-20 minute sessions over a week will be better than a 2-hour cramming session every couple of months.
Look at your diaries and book in some fixed time slots that you can commit to every or at least most weeks. A good distribution might be 20 minutes teaching on Monday, speak during dinner on Wednesday, 20 minutes teaching on Saturday, but it’s whatever works for your set-up.
2. Get structured
Buy a book. As boring as this might sound, don’t wing it. A good course book (ideally, a physical one that you can hold and write in) is an essential tool for teaching your partner your language. It will make your lives a lot easier. You can of course find plenty of material online, but a good book will do a lot of your thinking for you. This book* is an aide for couples who want to go on the German-learning journey together.
3. Get comfortable with the idea that it will feel weird
I’ve mentioned power dynamics before and whether you’ll sink or swim depends mostly on whether you can get past the strange teacher and student roles while you are teaching your partner your language. If you are the teacher you will have to be patient and diplomatic while the person you love and respect repeatedly gets things wrong that you find very easy.
If you are on the other side, you need to accept and be happy about your partner correcting you. A lot. The thing with corrections and criticism, no matter how diplomatically delivered, the message is still: “You did something wrong.” And the more you care about the person uttering said criticism, the more it will sting.
5. Overcome the established language in your relationship
This will probably be your biggest hurdle and one of the reasons why ‘just talking in German’ is often doomed to failure. You fell in love, dated and established a routine in English and now you are meant to just switch to a language that’s not only fundamentally different from your own language, it’s also a lot harder work than just using the language that both of you speak with ease.
As anyone who has ever failed at a New Year’s resolution can tell you, breaking a habit is hard. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but it will require a certain amount of willpower.
Here are a few tricks (mostly for the teachers) to make it easy.
- Try to go for moments when you both (but especially the learning partner) are relaxed and alert.
- Pick your moments for surprise German conversation-openers very carefully.
- Be patient. It will take the learner longer to say basic things. Wait and only complete the other’s sentences if they ask for the right word.
- Correct with purpose: you don’t need to correct every wrong article or missed ending. Model correct grammar and repeat the correct form back if it feels natural.
- Keep going even if you decide to skip a practice session.
- Incorporate fun German activities. Arrange to go for a German walk (just like a regular walk but in German), watch a German movie or cook in German.
6. Review every now and again
It’s easy to get caught up in a circle of obligation, guilt and resentment. To avoid a situation where one party thinks it’s going great, while the other resents giving up their free time, being corrected by their partner or being super diplomatic about getting the verb endings wrong AGAIN, check in with each other regularly to see if everyone is still happy with the arrangement.
Mix and match is the way forward
As with most things in life: the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Here the midway, rather than being a compromise, is actually the best of both worlds. Outsource the boring bit to a language course or tutor and spend some quality time practicing German and having fun in the language. If a course is out of budget, this is a situation where a language app like Duolingo might really work – it’s no substitute for real-life
Have you ever tried to teach your partner your language? How did it go for you? I would love to read about your experience in the comments.