Love in a foreign language


posted by Simon Kemp

The Guardian had a helpful guide recently on what to do if you find yourself falling in love with someone who speaks a different language. The original article is here, but I thought I would share some of it with you, in case you should ever find yourself in that situation:

Dating can be confusing enough in your mother tongue, let alone when your date speaks a foreign language. From dealing with embarrassing mistakes to surviving arguments, Erica Buist shares some tips on how to get by.

Are you dating someone in a foreign language? It can be an amazing language and cultural exchange, but it can also be tricky. Whether you’re celebrating Día de San Valentín, Saint Valentin or Den’ sviatogo Valentina, here are a few tips on how to maintain a relationship without the comfort of your mother tongue.

The first date: don’t try to escape the language barrier

Writer Gary Brooks arrived in Siberia as a linguistic “full-grade ignoramus” and met Masha in a cafe. “She overheard me receiving a Russian lesson over some awful Baltika beer. We did the whole ‘You are Britain?’ horror, with my teacher interpreting for me. Lord of the Rings had just been released, and after we established I had never seen the film we arranged to meet and watch it together (in Russian), and so a first date was born.”

 A film seems like a great idea for a date when you can’t say much to each other, but Gary points out you have to talk about the film afterwards, and suggests you instead use the language gap as material for a date. “Meet up for a coffee date and give a mutual language lesson,” he says. “Go for a long romantic walk, pointing out trees, ducks and strange men in anoraks and tell each other the name in your own languages. It’s relaxing and fun.”


When words fail, body language and charades will be your friends

 Will Henderson dated Marianne from Montpellier for three years. When he arrived in France on his Erasmus year, he had only a GSCE in French and a few catch-up lessons: “My level of French was not great. I had some formulaic phrases, such as ‘My name is William’ and ‘Where is the cathedral?’”

Will and Marianne met at the student bar. “It was a good way to get together – because the music is too loud to hear anyway, so you use other ways to flirt, like body language, buying her a drink, or making sure you’re going out for a cigarette at the same time.”

They were together for four months before Will had to resort to charades. All he wanted to do was put up some shelves, but he didn’t know the French words for drill, tools or hole. “I was completely without context. I was pointing at the wall saying, ‘I need a … it’s the thing you use to make a … a bit of not-wall.’ She looked confused; I’d resorted to charades for random nouns before, but this was an entire performance. I pointed my finger like a gun and made drill sounds, at which point she understood and taught me all the words I hadn’t known.”

Treasure the inevitable cultural clashes

Gary says that rather than language barriers which could be “easily overcome with gestures, dictionaries and hurried phone calls to friends”, he and Masha found out more about each other and their backgrounds, by often embarrassing and always revealing cultural differences. “Our third date was at a restaurant and I was puzzled by her insisting on eating every course with a spoon – apparently a knife and fork was ‘posh’ and unnecessary. That memory sticks with me a lot, if only because eating game with a spoon is very difficult.”

Etiquette in other situations were even more baffling. “Manners and interaction, both socially and especially in the bedroom, were – amazingly – determined by the content of classic Russian novels,” says Gary. “If it wasn’t in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, one simply didn’t do it. If it was rude in Chekhov it was rude in life and if Gogol said something was a good idea then you ought to do it.”

Cultural clashes can be awkward and even embarrassing – but treasure them. They’re not just great for getting to know each other: with every faux pas you get to know your partner’s culture a little better.

Arguments: prepare yourself for an uneven playing field

It can take ages to shake your susceptibility to misunderstandings when you communicate in a second language. “Marianne and I would have blazing rows,” Will recalls, “before realising I’d misheard or misunderstood something.” There are words and phrases that appear to have a simple, direct translation, but the meanings can change in ways dictionaries don’t flag up. You can’t be too precious about your point, advises Will, because you will have complete breakdowns in communication.

Your brain may never work as fast in your second language – but that shouldn’t doom you to lose every argument. Lilia Esperón Delaney from Mexico speaks only English with her Canadian husband, Dan, and finds making arguments the most frustrating part of being in a relationship in a foreign language, even after 14 years together. “You always end up sounding like the more stupid person in the fight – because you have an accent, because you can’t make a point as well, because the perfect word in Spanish has no English equivalent, so you’re definitely at a disadvantage. It can be quite frustrating.”

Embrace embarrassment, it’s good for your vocabulary

Embarrassing stories are useful for remembering words. The first time Gary made Masha laugh was a slapstick moment of slipping on ice and falling over, Norman-Wisdom style. “Instead of warm sympathy I got giggles and a breathy ‘Eto skol’zko, eto skol’zko!’ (It’s slippy, it’s slippy!). In the intervening years I’ve worked all over the place and my Russian has decayed, but I never ever forgot skol’zko.”

“Prepare to be embarrassed on a very regular basis,” says Kate McDermott, reflecting on her time dating a Frenchman. It’s true for all language-learning that you’re likely at some point to mispronounce words and be occasionally unintelligible, but you’re at your most vulnerable in terms of your self-confidence when you’re in the company someone you fancy. The solution? “Get over yourself, basically!” says Kate. And as someone who was once almost tricked by a friend into mixing up the terms for “back of the neck” and “a***hole” during a romantic moment, she should know.

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