Linguistics

Romance and Language Learning: Advice when learning a language for love

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:

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.

Challenges when learning a language for love…and some advice on how to overcome them

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

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