Ask Lisa Advice: The Language Barrier between my Parents and my In-laws

This week, I’m counseling a young African woman worried about how her Italian future In-laws will communicate with her family.


Dear Lisa,

I’ve been dating this guy for a few months now. He’s Italian and I’m African. His English is not so bad; we can communicate well but I can barely communicate with his family and friends because they only speak Italian. All my family members speak English, including extended family so he does not have any major issues. But, our families will not be able to communicate because of this. I have thoughts like, “if we ever decided to get married, what language will the ceremony be in, and how will our families communicate?”

I feel that I’ve failed to move this relationship to the next level because of this fear.  What have others done in this situation?

Linguistically Anxious


Dear Anxious

This is a great question. The best news is that you and your partner can communicate well. Your relationship is, after all, about the two of you. As for your concerns about his family—and how they will communicate with you and your family—is important but far less pressing.

On the positive side, your relationship must be going very well. You have already met each other’s families and are pondering a wedding after only a few months of dating! Coming from vastly different but equally vibrant cultural backgrounds, you have much to share and learn from one another. If you have a family one day, think of the richness of your future child’s background: multicultural, multilingual and multiracial to boot!

If the two of you are indeed serious about one another, agree together that yours will be a home with a joint culture, where both heritages are celebrated and embraced. Once you do this, you will be in a great place to handle the language issue with his parents.

How would you feel about taking a course in conversational Italian? This way both you and your partner could act as translators between your parents and your in-laws. In turn, there may be something of your culture that your partner takes on to learn for himself, as a way of connecting with your family.

Now—regarding the wedding. I have been to so many where there were family members in attendance who didn’t speak the dominant language. At my own wedding, the cantor gave a great explanation in ancient Hebrew that both my husband and I needed the translation for! One option is to have your partner appoint a bilingual, Italian-speaking friend or family member to be the official ceremony translator. I am sure everyone will appreciate it. And once the ceremony is over, people will be too giddy to notice obstacles like language. As the reception progresses, people will get by.

That said, if you poll some “Bride-to-be forums” online, you will find all sorts of creative solutions to the problem. For example, a bride on the “Wedding Bee” site offered this advice: 

  • Make languages a fun part of the wedding! The ceremony programs are in both languages, as are the invitations.


  • Make a basket of buttons with relevant flags on them – people can wear the buttons of the language(s) they speak.


  • Do the vows/ceremony in two languages.


  • Incorporate “nonverbal” elements as much as possible so that everyone can follow along!


  • Place cards on the table with fun words in each language like “cheers” and “love”


Finally, this same bride-to-be makes the following point:

“The most important thing is not that your guests understand EVERYTHING, but that they all feel included.”

I certainly could not put it better.


Best Wishes


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Published on: February 28, 2018

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