I am a Dutchman married for seven years to a lovely American girl. All is well, unless we visit my family in Holland, which we do one week each year. Apart from the typical in-laws issues, there is a certain language barrier. Everybody in my family speaks decent English, and as long as the group isn't bigger than four or five, we all talk in English (well, OK, at least 90 percent of the time), but when bigger groups meet, like at dinner with my parents, three sisters, and their husbands, then the "only speak English" rule is quickly forgotten. My wife thinks this is rude, and if the others cannot always speak English, then I, at least, should translate for her. I find this an impossible task, as it entails translation and explanation (who is Uncle Sjoerd?), which means that I can't talk with my family. I have asked—begged—my wife to please learn some Dutch so she can follow the discussions. She can talk back in English, nobody would mind. She feels that, being over 30, she is too old to learn a foreign language. She has tried a few times halfheartedly, but a language is simply not something you acquire by listening to tapes in the car for a couple of weeks. Am I being uncaring, and should I keep translating, or could she make some more effort to learn some Dutch?
The Reformed Boor responds:
The answer, of course, is both. In an ideal world, your wife would take an interest in your family and express that interest by attempting to learn the language. It is somewhat boorish of your wife to insist that conversations be held in English or that translation be provided at someone else's effort. Learning a new language is a challenge for someone over 30, but she ought to make an effort to learn, if she wants to know what is going on. In this case, the language barrier is lower than it might be in other situations. For example, in some cross-cultural families, she would not be able to respond in English and expect people to understand what she is saying. Picking up conversational Dutch is not going to be an easy thing, but she should not give it a half-hearted attempt and then expect you to serve as her translator.
That is your position.
On the other hand, speaking in front of your wife in a language that she doesn't know is nearly the equivalent of whispering. Surely you can imagine how uncomfortable it would be if you sat a table where everyone was whispering so that you could not hear what was being said, or talking in a code that was incomprehensible to you. It is great that you are all willing to listen in English, but accomodating your guest's weakness is part of being a good host. It is a sacrifice, but as a matter of protocol it is a sacrifice a good host should make.
That is your wife's position.
On the whole, consider that your wife is the weaker vessel. Nurture and care for her. If you can assist her with translation, consider doing so, even while you try to encourage (gently!) her to study a little more Dutch so that she can begin picking up words and phrases at the annual get togethers. If she is up for it, start using a little Dutch around the house so that she can become accustomed to common words and phrases, and so she will feel less like everyone around her is talking in code when she goes to your family gatherings. You cannot fairly require that all your relatives speak a foreign language to accomodate your wife, but you might try to lead by example, replying to their Dutch in English (since you say that they will understand) as a gentle reminder that your wife otherwise is left out of the conversation. And, of course, if they continue to speak in Dutch, you should offer your wife the assistance you can provide, even though it is inconvenient for you.
May God give us clarity in our communication with others,