If you’ve got a francophone boyfriend or girlfriend who won’t speak to you in French, what can you do to change this?
Maybe the two of you have spent a considerable amount of time speaking in a language other than French, like English or some other language that you share. But your French has improved, and now you’d like to start communicating in French with your partner.
(I’m just going to say “partner” and “he” to keep the language simple. You can understand it to mean boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, he, she, etc.)
Is it possible for the language to switch in a relationship?
Yes, of course, it’s possible. It’s just that most people who attempt to make it happen go about it in selfish ways that backfire, like these:
Wake up one morning and declare that you’re both going to start speaking in French as of right now, whether your partner likes it or not.
Get upset when your partner speaks to you in English, whether on purpose or out of habit, and demand that he speak French.
Don’t do that stuff, okay? Let me explain.
Making a language switch is a monumental change in a relationship. Don’t underestimate it. If you go about it the wrong way, it’s not going to work.
You’re excited that your French has improved so much that you’re ready to start speaking in French with your partner. Good for you! Now come back down to Earth.
You may feel ready for the change, but that doesn’t mean your partner does too. When you start speaking in another language, the relationship is going to feel very different. Your partner will probably feel uncomfortable about this.
If you just wake up and decide that from now on it’s going to be French and only French, you can be pretty sure that your decision will be met with resistance, even if your partner seems to be willing to humour your crazy ideas at first.
You’re thinking: I can speak French now! I can speak to my partner in his language! Hooray for me!
He’s thinking: Oh shit. This is going to be hell.
And then the resistance starts. You start speaking in French and, maybe for the first ten minutes, he obliges. But then it’s back to English. And this frustrates you. Now when he says something to you in English, you get angry, when before it was perfectly normal for the two of you to speak English.
He thinks you’re crazy. “Why do we have to change?” he wonders. “Because I want to speak French now!” you retaliate. (Me! Me! Me!) And around and around you go, until all you’ve managed to do is create a whole lot of negativity around the idea of speaking French.
Can I make a few suggestions?
Find someone else to speak French with.
Don’t make your partner bear all the responsibility of providing you with speaking opportunities in French. Your French isn’t his responsibility – it’s yours. Find other people so that you don’t need to put this pressure on him and your relationship. You’re excited about speaking French, and that’s great. Now get excited about speaking French with someone else.
Take it very slowly.
When I say very slowly, I mean so slowly that he barely notices a change. Maybe for a long time the only thing you’ll say to him in French is je t’aime, or ça va?, or oui and non. You can try dropping in a little more French after a while, but always do it so slowly that it doesn’t feel like anything is changing between the two of you. He just thinks that you’re dropping in some French for the novelty of it, and you don’t require any French from him in return.
Let him speak English.
When he speaks to you in English, let him. You’ve been using that language for so long now that it’s unreasonable to expect him to make such a radical change on what seems to him like a whim. If you say something in French and he answers back in English, don’t sweat it. You’re already achieving a very nice result: he answered you back after you spoke in French.
Spend time with his family.
When you visit his parents, let him hear you speak French with them. He’s not used to the idea of French coming out of your mouth. Let him get used to it by hearing you speak French with other people, like his family or friends. If they answer you back in French, you’ll help him to start associating you with the idea of speaking French.
Let your partner convince himself.
Don’t try to convince your partner to switch to French. Let him convince himself of it. You go about your own business speaking French with other people. From time to time, you drop tiny bits of French into your conversations with him. You let him hear you speaking French with his family or friends. You let him speak with you in the language he wants.
If your partner is going to speak in French with you, let it be his decision, not yours. You’ve planted the seeds. Now be patient and let them grow.
Remember, your French is not your partner’s responsibility.
It’s yours alone.