Episode 1: How to Overcome Language Barriers in Long Distance Relationships

International relationships are no discovery nowadays, taking into consideration that they always existed in some form.  Nonetheless, it has always been a wonder how people fell in love with each other without the possibility to express themselves in their mother tongue. Our guests today are Ukrainian girls Liz and Liuba who have made their long way to international marriages through language and culture issues. They kindly agreed to share their life experience being a partner of a Mexican and Polish. Intrigued? Yes, this is not what happens to everyone though.
So if you want to know more about the struggles of international dating and communication pitfalls or think about finding the international partner – you are in the right place! Learn how Liz and Liuba made their language distance short and do not forget to take some notes, their advice is simply priceless.

ALLY

Welcome to Long Distance Short! I’m Ally, your host, and we’re here because we’re either in long-distance relationships or curious about them. We’re going to talk with real people and experts about the great things in long-distance relationships, and the tough things; find inspiration and solutions to make your long-distance relationships easier, break barriers in communication with faraway loved ones, and address any relationship questions that may interest you. So, let’s get right into today’s episode and introduce you to our panel.

Today, our guests are two girls from Ukraine, Liz and Liuba. They’ve both experienced long-distance relationships, but what’s more interesting is that they are also both in international marriages. Hi, girls! How are you doing?

LIUBA

Hey! Just great, thank you!

LIZ

Hi, Ally! Hi, everyone.

ALLY

So, would you tell us your stories: how you met, how you are living at the moment, where your partners are from?

LIUBA

Hello! I am Liuba. So, I’m originally from Kyiv, Ukraine, and my beloved husband is Polish. After trying to live in different places, we settled in Krakow, Poland, right away — what an amazing city to live there. Long story short, we met in a Danish art school in Germany: I came there from Ukraine, and at that moment, my future husband was working in Manchester, UK, and had just arrived to that Danish school in Germany — to meet me, I guess. That’s how we met, and that’s where our story starts.

LIZ

Hi, I’m Liz, and, as Ally mentioned, I’m from Ukraine as well. My husband is Mexican, and we are currently located here in Mexico, in a nice city called León in the state of Guanajuato, which is in the center, in the very heart of Mexico. Soon we will be traveling back to Ukraine, and we will be staying in a nice city called Lviv, right on the border with Poland, and we will be neighbors with Liuba very soon.

LIUBA

This is some great news!

ALLY

So, Liuba, since you are living in Poland, I assume that you can speak Polish, is that right?

LIUBA

Oh! Yeah, that’s right, I tried to study Polish — one of the most complicated languages in the world! I just took some courses, and then continued studying it here — by myself, mostly; but when you live in a certain country, it’s just so much easier to study a certain language, because it’s around you: on TV, in a shop — all around you.

My husband and I communicate in English, but his parents and relatives do not speak English, so I have to know some — at least basic — Polish to speak to them. And, as he is my husband, I would like to talk to my new relatives — so, yes. And it’s quite a nice language to learn.

LIZ

And have you been struggling with learning Polish, or speaking this language?

LIUBA

Oh, of course! It is one complicated language! But one thing saves me a lot of times: this language is quite similar to Ukrainian, so, when I don’t know a certain word, I try to say a Ukrainian word in a Polish way. (laugh) Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s worth to try!

ALLY

Do you have any specific examples of that?

LIUBA

There are a lot of cases like that: some words are really similar, like, I don’t know, a carrot. In Polish, it’s marchewka, and in Ukrainian, morkovka.

LIZ

The same goes for Spanish sometimes, like communication/comunicación, for example, or transportation, well… transportación? I guess. (laugh) Not quite sure. And in my case, since I’m in Mexico, I had to learn Spanish. The good thing is that I like the language, and Spanish is easier when you already know English.

And anyway, you have no other way to survive in Mexico if you don’t speak Spanish. Maybe in some resorts, people do speak English as well, but in the middle part, in the middle or central Mexico, it’s not that easy to express yourself without knowing Spanish. So, with all the friends my husband has, we speak Spanish, even though some of them speak English. And his parents don’t speak any English.

Yeah, I had to learn it, but it was not super forced, I was not taking classes for long — maybe a few months, at most half a year; and it wasn’t very productive: the most productive way to learn a language is just to communicate, just to force yourself to start speaking, little by little — and you will get there.

LIUBA

Yeah, I totally hear you! We live in Krakow, which is a touristic city. So, when we were in the center, for example, I knew that people would more or less speak English, so I could always use English to ask something — at least in the center. But that makes you too relaxed towards all the things that you have to study in this language — or, maybe not “have to”, but… it’s nice to know it. So, that’s what I was doing to myself: just force myself to speak Polish. They are always so happy when you speak Polish, like: “Hey! How come you know this language? You’re doing great!” — and I know I’m not doing great.

ALLY

You’re so self-critical! But do you speak Polish at home?

LIUBA

Like I said, with my husband, I speak English mostly…

ALLY

Okay.

LIUBA

But, you know, we actually created something like our own language, which we use only at home. It includes Polish, English, Ukrainian, a tiny drop of Spanish, and even Russian. I don’t know why, seriously! So, it’s normal if I would ask my husband to go to the shop to get some carrots, burachki, and whatever. You use words from different languages — oh my God, he really loves this word in Spanish, kaki, so, when we need to buy “kaki,” he definitely buys it. What about your husband, Liz?

LIZ

Well, he doesn’t speak any Russian — nor Ukrainian; we still communicate in English just because it’s easier for both of us, and we got so used to it that, even if I can say something in Spanish, I don’t know why, but I still would rather say it in English — it just sounds more natural to us. And when I speak to him in Spanish, it feels like… I don’t know, a foreign language — even for him to answer to me in Spanish, it feels different than him talking to his family or friends, you know?

LIUBA

Yeah!

LIZ

Which is natural. Well… yeah, he knows a few words in Ukrainian, not so many — maybe, like five in total. As for Russian, he bought a book and he was trying to learn it, and I was trying to help him, but — yes, I’m a really bad teacher.

LIUBA

No, but it’s interesting, actually, as you move to Lviv, maybe he was thinking about studying some Ukrainian…

LIZ

Yeah, just to say “tak” instead of “da” — he can; and ask for some food, so, the basic things to survive.

LIUBA

Yes! Good enough for a start.

ALLY

Well, do you think there are any barriers in your relationship because neither you or your partner use your mother tongue?

LIUBA

Well, you see — I guess for Liz and her husband it’s the same as for us — English is a foreign language in our marriage. So, sometimes it’s as good thing that we speak English, because… For example, I know myself, I’m quite a talkative person, so when I have to speak English, I have to translate some words in my mind, and it requires time, so maybe I speak less and slower. Which helps! Sometimes, during some conversations.

LIZ

Yes, I agree with Liuba that there are some benefits in speaking English. As you know, neither for me nor for my husband English is the mother tongue, so, yeah… I’m not super talkative, but I can definitely say that when we argue, English is a barrier: to say less, to threaten less, to… Yes, because you just feel very angry and start mumbling something in your own language, but he cannot understand, so it’s a good thing! So he cannot get upset with what you’re saying, because you cannot express yourself as vividly as you do in your own language. So, yeah, English is definitely beneficial in this case.

ALLY

Do you also argue in a mixture of languages?

LIUBA

Yes! It’s quite funny — of course, we have the same situation as Liz that when somebody’s angry, usually we just cannot stop ourselves and argue, I mean, saying some words that are not nice; and a curse — we curse in our mother tongue.

But I remember our first argument when… I was just so angry that I couldn’t remember any words — just couldn’t translate what I wanted to say. And with this angry face, I went to my laptop, wrote a message and translated it in Google Translate… And my husband is quite tall, so I had to take a chair, stand on the chair and show him the message, with a very angry face: “Read it!”

Well, as he was reading it, he started to laugh, because the whole thing just looked so hilarious — me, really small, standing on the chair with this laptop, he was like, “Oh my God, what are you doing, seriously!”

ALLY

Very persuasive!

LIUBA

Yes! And of course, there were no angry feelings after that, because it’s just impossible, I guess. But in time we just started to use it… for example, my husband likes the curse words in Ukrainian, just because they sound funny for him. And the same with me, the same thing in Polish. Plus, it’s easier to… sorry, but to swear in another language, because you don’t feel how strong the word is. For example, when you use it in your native language, you know how horrible the word is, and I personally am a tiny bit shy to use it all the time, but when it’s in another language, foreign language for you, it’s kind of easier to use these words.

ALLY

And by the way, does your partner try to learn Ukrainian, maybe? How is that going?

LIZ

Well, he’s trying — not so fast, and it’s difficult because the alphabet is different; Cyrillic, for him, is really complex. And he doesn’t understand why “R” looks like “Я” in Cyrillic, why “P” is “R” — why the similar, but differently pronounced letters are just the way they are. It is a mess for them — for Mexicans, well, for all foreigners, I guess.

And he knows a few words, he can say “I’m unemployed”. (laugh) He can say that he is hungry, he can ask how to get someplace, he understands “to the left” and “to the right”, and also “you’re welcome”, “I was happy to meet you”, “how are you doing” — all this very very basic stuff, but sometimes, if he gets an answer that he doesn’t understand, the conversation stops, so it’s very limited.

But he’s… He’s making an effort. That’s what I appreciate because my parents don’t speak Spanish nor English, so, even with a few phrases that he learned, they’ll anyway be helpful when we come to Ukraine.

LIUBA

I know that my parents would just dream — and I am mostly speaking about my mother — she would love for my husband to study Ukrainian perfectly so she could speak to him in private, and I think that’s one of the reasons why he actually does not. (laugh) Not to have these private conversations, you know?

Also, going back to the conversations with the relatives, my husband had a genius conversation with my grandmother — they just kind of liked each other immediately, and they used only one word which meant “good.” (laugh) So he could just go… “Oh, hello. Good?” And she’s like: “Good.” He’s like: “Good?” — ”Good!” And they’re trying to do it in different voices, different intonation, and they could do it for twenty minutes, half an hour… I could go somewhere, you know, just go prepare some food, and I could come back to the same place, and they would still be: “Hahaha, good, good! Hahaha!” And that’s, like, amazing!

ALLY

So lovely!

LIUBA

Yes, yes…

LIZ

Intonation is key.

LIUBA

Yes, I agree. It was just the nicest thing.

ALLY

And do you think that it’s worth insisting that your partner learn your native language? Not just in your cases, but kind of in general.

LIZ

Well, I would not say it’s really necessary, but in my opinion, it depends a lot on the country you live in. So, if we don’t live in Ukraine, I don’t think it’s necessary for him to learn Ukrainian. Well, it’s nice, if he has time and if it’s not that difficult for him to do, then, yeah, for sure, you’re super welcome. My parents would be happy, the same as Liuba’s grandma, my grannies would be super happy.

Because, as people of the previous generations, from the USSR generation, they have never traveled, they haven’t learned any foreign languages and I don’t think they will… So, yeah, for sure, they would want to know my husband better, and the only way to do it is if he learns Ukrainian — or Russian, which are similar.

And… Well, but I don’t think it is a good reason to force him to learn a language, because it takes years — really, years to learn Russian or Ukrainian for people whose alphabet is not Cyrillic, or not Slavic. Their languages are too different.

I think, if we lived in, let’s say, Portugal, we would rather study Portuguese, and he would rather learn Portuguese than Ukrainian. He would put more effort, because it would be directly related to the place you live in, to the people you communicate daily with, and your work, of course.

LIUBA

Yeah, I totally agree with you, it does depend on the place you live in. If you live in Ukraine, then it makes sense, and also it depends on your plans, I guess. So, here I am totally with you. We also thought about it, because for my husband, yeah, it’s fun to learn the Ukrainian language, but what would he do with it afterwards? Just speak to my relatives? This is nice enough, but, you know, we can survive without it.

LIZ

Yeah, you can translate.

LIUBA

Yeah, I can always translate, so I think it’s not a problem, actually, and it just doesn’t make any sense to look for the problem where there is no problem.

LIZ

So, when your parents or relatives who don’t speak Polish or English, when they communicate with your husband, how do you manage that? Like, are you the only one who can translate, or do they use a dictionary, I mean, Google Translate or something else you like?

LIUBA

Yeah, it depends on where they communicate. When we talk in real life, of course, I translate everything. And it was quite funny at the very beginning when I didn’t speak Polish because now I can translate directly from Polish to Ukrainian, or into English if it’s necessary.

But going back to the very beginning of our relationship, when our friends got to meet each other, it was quite a mess. Because we were sitting at the same table, and, for example, my husband’s father would tell a joke, and then they laughed, and then my husband had to tell me the joke in English, and then I laughed because it was funny, and then I had to translate it to my parents, and then they laughed! (laugh)

We were sitting at this restaurant, and there was like this game of broken radio: each sentence had to be translated into three languages — one way and then the other. It was quite weird, so I’m really happy that I can translate directly now.

LIZ

Yeah, in my family the only one who speaks English is my sister and her boyfriend, so I guess it will be a little easier than in your situation because at least there is one, or even two more people who can help me with the translation when my boyfriend comes with me to Ukraine.

With my friends, it will be easier, I suppose, because of my friends… I think all of them – or almost all of them – speak English. If not perfectly, at least they can express themselves, the basic things. So there’s already some communication, and I think it will simplify his life a little because at least there are going to be people who would understand him and he can be friends with.

So, when you go to a new country and you don’t speak the language of the country, and your wife is the only person who can help you and who can translate for you, it’s going to be very difficult. But if you have people around who also speak English, like my friends, I hope that it will make his life easier in many situations. Of course, it will not help him in the supermarket or in the mall, but at least he will not be sitting in silence while we’re all having fun.

LIUBA

Yeah, I totally agree with you on this, because we have some experience with my husband: we lived in Kyiv for some time, and I had this fear that I would be the only person around who can communicate with him. But it turned out to be okay because most of the young people speak English.

ALLY

Okay. And before you moved to Krakow, had you been living apart from each other?

LIUBA

Yes, going back to the very beginning of our relationship, we both got a scholarship in this Danish school, and it was five-month courses, and but I could only stay for three months, due to my visa. And when my visa expired and I had to go home, of course, it was a really heartbreaking moment for me, and I had no idea if this relationship would survive. But if you both sincerely want to make it work, no borders can stop you.

So after that, when I went back to Ukraine, I had to stay there for three months, and our secret, I guess, was everyday Skype. No joke here: everyday Skype! With no exceptions, seriously. It just makes it work, I think. It doesn’t matter how tired you both are; whether it be for a few hours, or a five minute Skype session, you just have to do it every day. Seriously, don’t get lazy.

It was just something new for me, because, to tell you the truth, I never thought that I would have a boyfriend from a different country, and then would be happy enough to marry him. It’s just the way it works, I guess: if you start to live your life in your country without this person, you are going to start feeling comfortable. You’ll start to hesitate, you’ll start to think: “Do you need this? Do you need this person? Maybe you’d feel comfortable with your life?”

And when there is a person with whom you can get in touch, who knows everything about your life, it makes you both closer, it makes you feel like you live all these moments together. And it is very important.

Because, once you start to enjoy your life by yourself, and start hiding things — I mean, you don’t hide them, you just think: maybe he doesn’t need to know that I had a great time over here, or enjoyed this theater play, or something. No: in our case, we knew every little detail about each other, and… Personally for me, I felt like I really lived with this person, I knew what was going on in his life. I felt like living in Krakow, and he felt like living here — because of all the stories, this everyday Skype.

What about you, Liz, did you have an experience like this?

LIZ

Yes, I did. Not for long, only for two months, when I went back to Ukraine to be with my family and friends, and also for work. Yes, and a big difficulty was the time difference, the time zones because it’s eight hours, or, in the winter, it’s a nine-hour difference. So it’s not easy to find an hour that is suitable for him and for me at the same time; it was usually either too early for him or too late for him, or the opposite for me. Because of all the different work schedules, or different time zones.

But we survived, and I agree: communication is key. And what I’d recommend is that you keep your partner constantly involved in your life, share everything you do: who you went out with, what movie you saw, etc. In cases like this, your partner feels more involved in your life, he would feel like a part of it — and the same for you: when you hear and you know what your partner does, you feel secure, you know that he’s always… You almost feel like he’s always around. So, yeah, it was difficult for both of us.

LIUBA

I also remember that, with all the Skyping and knowing everything about each other, when we met in real life, we needed at least a couple of days to just get used to each other. Because it’s so weird: you get so used to this little picture in your laptop, and suddenly there is a real human being standing next to you! It is quite interesting.

And also the second thing I have to say here is that all the credit totally goes to my husband because he used any opportunity to get together in real life. Although we had more experience in this long-distance relationship, we tried to spend as much time together as possible — specifically in real life. For example, he took a plane to Kyiv as soon as he could, he stayed as long as he could, and when he left, again, it was a lot of Skyping. Then he kind of created this visa for me and took me for one month: to one place, and then another place… We just tried to make it work wherever: no matter the place, no matter the time, just to spend a tiny bit, even a few days together.

But I have to say that it also helped that at some point we just needed to break this wonderful Skype relationship and meet in real life. Because over Skype, you do not see the routine; the reason I was telling you about the school is that everything was arranged over there, but when you had to live with the person in real life, together, do the cleaning together, just create things to do today… This, at the beginning, is also quite an effort. But if it goes fine, then you feel that that is your person.

And on the other hand, I feel that both sides always have to try to make it work. Try to make an effort. Because it just doesn’t go easy. I thought that if two people click, it just goes smoothly from the very beginning, but it doesn’t! You always get a person what certain habits, and you have to see these habits in your everyday life before saying “yes” at the altar.

LIZ

Yeah, habits in action!

LIUBA

Yes! So just Skype is not enough. I think that the best thing is just to try to spend as much time as possible in real life, as well.

LIZ

Yes, and I just remembered that when we were apart from each other, when we had a long-distance relationship for those two months, I remember one of us had to go to bed very late, and the other had to wake up very early, and vice-versa. So we were constantly doing this thing when I would go to bed at 2 AM, which is late for me, and he had to start waking up at 5 or 6 AM, and we were doing it for two months! So it was, in a way, difficult, but it helped us a lot — and I agree with Liuba that both parties need to put a lot of effort to make it work.

ALLY

What advice would you give to international couples? Something really striking you as the most important thing to do.

LIZ

My advice would be to not pay attention to the language you speak, because it is not the only thing that connects or disconnects people: language is just a means of communication, but I know many examples of couples speaking five languages at the same time and not clicking, not matching; or couples that speak the same language and don’t match; or, at the same time, you can both speak a foreign language, such as English like in our case, and you can understand each other perfectly without knowing some particular words. So it really depends on people and the effort you put in.

LIUBA

I would give the following advice: you should not be afraid of international relationships, because if you feel that it’s your person, then fight for it!

ALLY

Thank you so much, girls! It was a real pleasure to talk to you, and you’ve shared some great insights, but for me and for everybody listening. I hope that all the international couples setting out on their journey get what they want, and, of course, I wish you good luck and hope that everything goes well! So, thank you!

LIUBA

Thank you!

LIZ

Thank you!

ALLY

That’s it for today’s episode of Long Distance Short. If you enjoyed it, let us know! Subscribe and tune in each month for more advice and inspiration for your long-distance relationship success. If you didn’t like the episode, write to us at [email protected], and tell us why! And if you have ideas and questions for an episode, tell us about them: you just might get your question answered, or even end up on a panel with us! See you next time, and we’ll keep exploring how to make long-distance short.