How to Meet the Parents in a Second Language (Without Crying)

Meeting my Chilean ex-boyfriend’s family was mildly terrifying. Not only was I more than 5,000 miles away from home in Santiago, Chile, I was also being interrogated by a room full of curious and wide-eyed Chileans. Needless to say, it was uncomfortable. So I wanted to write a guide on how to meet the parents in a second language. It’s hard enough in your native language; here are some suggestions on how to make it either.

May you fare better than I did.

8 tips for meeting the parents in a second language:

1. Recognize that it will probably be a little awkward at first.

Speaking a foreign language in an uncomfortable situation generally doesn’t work out. Personally, the level of my Spanish was about the same as a three-year-old child hiding behind its mother. I blushed and stammered my way through all 15 verb tenses while meeting Ruben’s brothers, dad, step-mother and six step-siblings.

I’m sure you’ll be able to jive with the family over time, but at the beginning just go easy on yourself.

2. Take passive-aggressive comments in stride.

One night at dinner I was chatting with my ex’s step-mother. “So what did you do today while Ruben was at work?” she asked.

“Oh, I just tanned by the pool.”

She gave me a look of dismay. “Really? Are you sure you didn’t tan in a closet?”

Um… ouch. I didn’t really know what to say to that.

I also didn’t know what to say when she asked, “Have you been learning any Spanish? Your parents are really wasting their money.”

Ouch again. Your best bet is to take everything the evil stepmother says in stride. You’re always at liberty to bitch about her on Skype to your friends.

3. Make cookies.

Chocolate chip cookies, to be exact.

One Sunday I whipped out my Tollhouse recipe and made a tray of chocolate cookies for the entire family. As I set them down on the table, my then-boyfriend earnestly explained,  “I know they look ugly but try them! They taste good!”

“Ugly? What do you mean ugly?” I demanded.

“Well, you know… they’re not like the same size and everything…” He explained sheepishly.

Despite that crazy insult (seriously WTF? Homemade cookies are ugly?) everyone adored them and I won lots of brownie points. Or chocolate chip cookie points, if you will.

4. Use the local lingo.

Trust me, everyone will find it hilarious and endearing to hear their slang come out of your gringo mouth (I mean this in the best possible way).

One time when I was with Ruben’s family at the hospital, a baby was loudly crying for what felt like hours. Finally, I said (in the most Chilean way I could), “Puuuucha, la guagua.” which is roughly, “Damn… the baby”. Everyone died of laughter (laughing with me, obviously). Over time it became a party trick. “Listen to her say pucha la guagua!”

5. Try everything.

Be a good guest. This could mean everything from pretending to be interested in the Sunday soccer match to raving about the homemade empanadas. If everyone is singing to Juanes in the car, sing with them. You’ll learn a lot more about the country and have more fun with the family.

6.  Be aware of current events in their country.

Brush up on your working knowledge of the country. Know information such as the name of the current president or prime minister and how many times to kiss on the cheek (for example, twice in Spain or France, and once in Chile and Argentina).

Also, have your boyfriend or girlfriend teach you the general etiquette. For example, it’s extremely rude in Chile to yawn with your mouth open or to leave a party without kissing everyone goodbye. For the sake of appearing charming, try to avoid committing a major faux pas.

7. Don’t brag about your country.

 When meeting the parents in a second language, try not to make off-handed comments about how your country is superior- it won’t make you any friends.

“Well in the U.S. our pools are heated…”

“Back home we have ice…”

Nobody wants to hear you complain about the lack of box springs.

8. Speak English if necessary.

Many foreigners love the chance to practice their English. While generally I would advise pushing to speak whichever language you are trying to learn, in this case, habla ingles.

Have you ever had to meet a significant other’s parents in a second language? If so, how did it go?

P.S. The Truth About Dating as an Expat and How to Become Fluent in a Second (or Third) Language.

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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

4 thoughts on “How to Meet the Parents in a Second Language (Without Crying)”

  1. Great tips! Especially about the taking certain comments in stride. Brazilian families have that same “Latin honesty” which we North Americans might call “lack of tact” – they absolutely WILL say to your face that you’ve gained a few pounds, or that they don’t like your clothes, or that your house isn’t clean enough.

    When I met my now-husband’s parents, the language wasn’t an issue as I was already fluent in Portuguese – but it was (is) a little harder to navigate the lifestyle differences. My own parents are semi-retired but super active – traveling, volunteering, going to cultural events, great social life – and my in-laws, though around the same age, just don’t seem to do much besides housework and watching TV… so it’s sometimes hard to find things to talk about. Of course, this is more of a personality/lifestyle difference rather than an intercultural difference.

    • That’s so cool you speak Portuguese, I’m jealous! I didn’t know that Brazilians were so, “direct”, shall we say.

      And yes personality plays a big part – contrary to the “fiery Latin” stereotype, my ex-boyfriend’s dad was very quiet and stern so I never knew if he liked me around, haha.

  2. This was incredibly amusing — and I can totally relate! I had a relationship with a Dutch guy. Fortunately my family is Dutch so I was already pretty culturally-integrated and able to speak the language! But still, intimidating!

    • Haha, definitely! I think it’s always hard to meet the parents but it’s even harder in a foreign language. That’s cool that you know Dutch by the way!

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