Which Language to Speak In a Bilingual Couple

In a bilingual couple, you tend to stick to the language you used when you first met.

At least, this is the theory I have to explain why between Nicolas and I French continues to be our daily language, although I think English would have been a more fair ground, and probably makes more sense now that we live in Aussieland, an English speaking country.

We met in France, at a time when I had lived in the country for about two years and my spoken French really picked up after working for a local French company for almost 6 months. Our first interaction was in a French-speaking party, and we naturally went on conversation in French afterwards as well –  although he did impress me with his Chinese particularly during a karaoke soiree in one of our first hang-outs.

As I said, my spoken French picked up, but at the time it was far from fluent. One of my first and best French friends I met outside of school and work, Thierry, still recalls that during our phone conversation at the beginning he really struggled to understand me and make me understood. The feeling was mutual, monsieur ! But I sort of hanged on to it, thanks to my friends as well as a few of my VERY patient colleagues at the time, who at times had to slow down, repeat, and explain what I didn’t understand and tried to find the correct words/expression for what they guessed what I wanted to say. Thank goodness, we never switched to English as a result of frustration.

Neither did Nicolas and I switch to English. During the first two years when our relationship blossomed, my French did too. Not only was I working in a French speaking environment, but also I was woven into this vast and day-to-day French social environment. I had to meet Nicolas’ friends, his parents and family, get introduced to social events, and understand French way of being in a relationship. I had no choice (I chose to have no choice …) and sometimes struggled to grasp the subtlety and the ‘non-dit’s, but fortunately I enjoyed most of time.

So French became part of our relationship, even when we moved to Shanghai. Nicolas’ Chinese improved by taking more lessons and living there simply. We had talks about using more Chinese between us for the sake of his Chinese practice, however we somehow never managed to do so. We would start a conversation in Chinese, then slowly French or English words would creep in, until almost always French took over. It’s a bit like any routine – once you establish one, it becomes really difficult to change it.

The pattern continues after we moved to Sydney. Both of us speak fluent English and that’s the language we use for work and most of the social activities. However in our private world, French rules. Of course we throw in words/expressions from other languages that we both associate to in regularly basis. In a French sentence, we would use some English or Chinese vocabulary, and for the sake of fun pronounce them with deliberately strong French accent, or vise versa. We enjoy the game. Our daily language is quite a mix-and-match indeed.

Now that we’re going to raise a trilingual child, we probably need to be more conscious about the mix-and-match of our language so that it doesn’t unnecessarily confuse the child (or would it?). We both want her to be a REAL Chinese, French, and English speaker, and from what I read so far (I will be sharing my learning in this blog), it takes more than a laissez-faire approach, so the linguistic dynamics in the family is going to change I sense.

That will be a whole new discussion. For now and in the forseeable future, between Nicolas and I, francais will continue to rule.


  • 雨卜

    September 26, 2011 at 6:18 am Reply

    Congratulating to this bilingual family grow up to a trilingual one, and thanks for share us in such a funny article style, good job Yin! But keep on going on it please! : D

    • yin

      December 1, 2011 at 11:15 pm Reply

      I’ll try my best cerise!

  • Maria

    November 27, 2014 at 11:15 pm Reply

    So how did this work out, are you mixing less? Our set up is very very similar, and we never managed to switch from our original dating language, English, to the more obvious choice. That would have been German, since we live in Germany now and my husband speaks it alright but could benefit from using it even more outside of work. We also always throw in bits and pieces of the other two languages, and our boys don’t seem to be confused by it. A few times, I have explained that in our family we use this Swedish word, but in daycare and school they should use the German one instead so people will understand. But the boys didn’t even need that advice. Whenever they notice that someone didn’t understand their Swedish word for, let’s say, snack time – they frown, then explain “Oh, no, that’s a Daddy word. I mean snack time!”

    • Yin @ trilingual family

      November 29, 2014 at 9:14 pm Reply

      I guess we didn’t really change much between two of us, except perhaps that we don’t deliberately pronounce the words the wrong-language way 🙂

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