Valentine’s Day is fast approaching in many parts of the world, and as such, it seems like a good time to discuss the interaction of language, relationships and love. Love, after all, is one of the classic motivations for picking up a new language: Boy goes to Costa Rica, boy crushes hard on Spanish speaker (who doesn’t speak English), boy learns Spanish, boy and boy’s crush move in together. It’s cliché enough that there’s a name for Boy’s Crush: A “pillow dictionary.”
For my part, I’ve never been in a relationship with someone who couldn’t speak English, so I can’t speak directly to that experience. But I have done some stuff that’s relevant to this discussion. My first wife was an opera singer, and she attended many of the immersion programs that I did. We spent a lot of time forbidden from speaking English, and we spent a lot of time in places where most other people weren’t speaking English. Last year, I got married again. My wife is a first generation Mexican American, who grew up speaking Spanish at home and English at school. For our wedding, I stopped learning Japanese and spent 6 months learning Spanish, so that I could speak with my in-laws.
I’ve learned a few things along the way:
- Romance isn’t easy.
- Language learning isn’t all that easy. (It’s doable, it’s worth it, but it’s still a challenge)
- When you stick romance and language learning together, both of them get harder…and more rewarding.
So today, let’s talk about rewards, challenges and advice when learning a language for love.
Rewards when learning a language for love
I want to start by saying that there’s a huge difference between learning the native language of your S.O. (Significant Other), and learning a new language together with your S.O. We’ll start with the latter:
Learning together leads to a stronger bond together
When you learn a new language with your S.O., it’s a bonding experience. You go through a difficult challenge together, and as a result, you bond over it. This concept – of overcoming challenges together – is present whether you’re learning languages, mountain climbing, having a child, or deciding that you’re both going to become gym rats. Oddly enough, this particular form of bonding appears to revolve around shared pain. If it’s painless, it’s not particularly bonding. This is why people don’t develop lifelong friendships by sharing stories about, say, brushing your teeth. It’s the hard stuff that you can trade war stories about, and language learning falls squarely into that category.
What’s more, language learning encourages you to develop more of something known as idiosyncratic communication – “insider” language that only exists within the couple, and serves to strengthen the relationship. There are studies showing a correlation between the amount of idiosyncratic communication and marital satisfaction.
In most relationships, idiosyncratic communication develops in the form of pet names for each other and insider jokes. But when you learn a language together with your partner, this form of language-based bonding grows dramatically. It can get kind of nuts, actually; my first wife and I are English native speakers, but as a couple, we spoke a mixture of German and English. We found that we could express ourselves better in that combination of languages than we could in just one, and that shared language was an immensely powerful bonding force. Not infinitely powerful, naturally – as mentioned above, relationships are hard – but that sort of shared couple’s language is something I truly miss. It’s why my wife and I will likely pick up a language together (Japanese or perhaps Esperanto) at some point down the road.
Learning your partner’s native language leads to greater understanding
In learning Spanish last year, I discovered that learning a language together as a couple is completely different from learning your partner’s native language.
With Spanish, there wasn’t an experience of shared pain; my wife already spoke Spanish. The only pain she had to deal with was listening to me butchering one of her native languages with my Italian-isms. So no bonus bonding there.
We developed a bit more idiosyncratic communication, but very little. One of the challenging things in this situation is that I may never know Spanish as well as my wife. She’s a Spanish native speaker, I have a lot of language goals, and I likely won’t ever spend enough time on my Spanish to approximate her level. We communicate better in English, we haven’t spent months living in Spanish together, and so we default to English. We’ll use Spanish here and there, but it’s not a big part of our couple’s language.
So…did our relationship gain anything from this?
Fortunately, it did. I got to understand my wife a lot better. There are parts of her background and personality that only make sense in Spanish. There are family members and memories of hers that are intensely important to her, and exist entirely in Spanish. Around half of my wife’s brain lives in that language, and it’s a part of her that I haven’t had access to until this year.
The Gottman Institute has done some of the best research on the ingredients leading to healthy, happy relationships. One of their conclusions is that truly understanding your partner on a deep level – their history, their hopes and dreams, their internal monologues – allows you and your partner to better overcome adversity together. You become a stronger, more resilient couple. Learning Spanish allowed me to understand my wife better. What’s more, it was the only way for me to understand certain parts of her. You simply can’t translate someone’s whole childhood and family experiences.
Having a Secret Language is Kind of Awesome
Whether you’re learning a new language as a couple, or learning your partner’s native language, you’re going to pick up an ability to communicate in a secret code that most other people can’t understand. It feels a teensy bit like telepathy, and it’s a very fun ability to add to your partnership.
Naturally, this works better with rarer languages, but even with something as common as Spanish, you can pull this off. You just need to be a little more observant about who’s in the room and whether they perk their ears up or not as soon as you switch to Spanish.
Challenges when learning a language for love…and some advice on how to overcome them
Challenge: Your romantic partner is not your teacher
If your romantic partner speaks your target language well, you may be tempted to ask them to be your primary teacher.
As mentioned earlier, I’ve never been in a relationship where my partner couldn’t speak English. I suspect that if neither of you speak a word of each other’s languages, then teaching each other your languages – at a rudimentary level – might be a fun couple’s activity. But beyond the basics, if you’re looking to reach an intermediate or advanced level, you will probably want a teacher.
Enlisting your partner for that role is probably a bad idea. Teaching is hard work. It takes a special kind of patience to talk to someone who is having trouble expressing themselves, figure out what they want to say, and then let them know all the language mistakes they made. It also takes a kind of distance: to make good, well-timed corrections, a teacher needs to take a superficial interest in the content of a student’s sentences, and a much stronger interest in the form of those sentences. If a teacher focuses too much on what a student is actually trying to say, and takes a real interest in that, then they’re going to want to converse, rather than correct. Holding yourself back from that urge to freely converse is sometimes necessary and part of the hard work of teaching.
Assuming your romantic partner really cares about what you want to say, they’re in a really bad position to give you the constant corrections you’ll likely need. Sure, if they speak your target language well, they can help you create a few sentences, but if you’re looking for a tutor, I suggest you look elsewhere. Let your partner be your partner; don’t put them to work.
Advice: If you want a tutor, hire one. They’re relatively low cost online.
Challenge: Your romantic partner may not be the best choice for your regular practice partner, either.
In the event that you and your romantic partner speak at a similar level, then you may be tempted to enlist them as your main practice partner. This is possible, but it’s often really hard. Romance is often a matter of listening to your partner and feeling heard. When you both suck at a language, you’re bad at listening, your partner is bad at listening, you’re rambly and unclear, and so is your partner. It’s very, very difficult to get through a lot of conversations like these when you’re at an intermediate level or below. Things get much easier when at least one person in the conversation is able to speak the language at a high level
My first wife and I tried to force ourselves to chat in Italian when we were studying in Italy (after 3 summers of immersion programs in German, separately and together), and we totally failed at it. We had all sorts of conversations with Italians, but not with each other.
We did chat during our immersion program experiences, but those programs are special; there’s a huge social pressure to stay in your target language that can help support you both through the difficulty. Perhaps more importantly, there are tons of other conversation partners available, everywhere you look. This reduces the pressure placed on the conversations with your partner: you don’t need your partner to achieve your language goals, because there are so many other people to practice with.
Advice: If you’re both learning a language together, get other conversation partners. It’ll reduce the pressure you place on your conversations together and make them much more enjoyable and productive. You can find conversation partners through local meetups or online.
Challenge: You may feel stupid in your target language.
When you are at a beginning or intermediate level in a language, you often feel dumb, childish or powerless. This can be particularly stressful in the context of a relationship, because relationships are often built on top of power structures. On average, your relationship may be egalitarian, but that may not be the case in every context: Perhaps one of you takes charge in the kitchen, or becomes the leader when the car breaks down, or runs the show in social interactions.
Language learning – particularly in the beginning and intermediate levels – can take away much of your intellectual power. It’s hard to step forward and become the leader when you can only say things like “The dog is brown!” and “I am hungry!” As such, practicing your new language – particularly if you’re trying to maintain an immersion environment, where you’re speaking that language all the time – is extra challenging in the context of a relationship, as it messes with your existing power structures.
Advice: Make sure that both of you are aware that this is going to happen. Awareness doesn’t make challenges like these disappear, but it does take some of the sting out of those challenges.
Challenge: Language immersion screws up your communication skills
One more note about trying to do language immersion within a relationship: When two people try and force themselves to speak in a non-native language, their communication abilities drop dramatically. This can be frustrating when you’re doing this with friends or colleagues; it’s spectacularly difficult to do this with your romantic partner. Relationships require clear communication to thrive, and when one of you is feeling bad and all you can say is “THIS?? NO GOOD!”, you’re probably going to have a hard time.
Advice: Schedule regular time to speak openly in your native language. If you know that there’s going to be a time to really discuss things, then you’re not going to feel like your emotions are all bottled up without a pressure release.
So…is it worth it?
Short answer? Yeah. I think that learning a language for love is one of the most rewarding things you can do. It’s hard to find activities that so directly improve your relationship, in terms of building trust, connection, and the ability to communicate and understand each other.
Yes, the road there is challenging – potentially more challenging than doing it on your own. But that’s what a good relationship is: it’s you and your partner, overcoming challenges together. The nice thing about this challenge is that at the end of it, you get to speak a new language for the rest of your life.
Have some experiences with romance and language learning? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!