Ask Babs: How Do I Convince My English-Only Relatives That Language Learning Is Good For Them?

This month: how to dismantle the provincial-archy. Also, a German learner accidentally introduces his love interest as his girlfriend. Can he walk it back smoothly?

“Ask Babs” is a new advice column for people who made embarrassing language mistakes (and are desperately trying to redeem themselves). If you’re cringing your way through a new language, Babs wants to hear about it. To appeal to her divine wisdom, email with your awkward language questions.

Hey there Babs!

This isn’t so much an embarrassing language question as it is an “embarrassed on behalf of my family” language question.

I’ve been a foreign language addict since I was 10, and I’m now conversant in six of them. Unfortunately, my family doesn’t share my excitement. They’re really big on nativism and being “proud Americans,” and they wear their monolingualism like a badge of pride. They’ve mocked me over the years for my interest in foreign languages and cultures, and they’ve even gone so far as to call me a “cultural Marxist.”

Without even getting into the messy family dynamics at play, what’s your advice for gently piquing their interest in language learning? I think they’re just scared of what they don’t know, and they might come around eventually with the right kind of exposure.

Your friend,
Not A Commie

Dear N.A.C.,

I’m terribly sorry for your loss. And by that, I mean the loss of your brain cells from listening to all that bull. But also the loss of that little idealistic voice in your head that makes you think you can actively change the ways of a militant small-town mind.

Hopefully, your impressive studies have made up for all that brain deterioration (you probably already know this, but language learning comes with a host of fun cognitive benefits).

Other than that, my self-care recommendation to you would be to tune out and drop in to your own interests and personal growth.

It’s definitely noble of you to want to coax them out of their cross-armed stance, but you should be forewarned that people with extreme views usually don’t change their minds, especially when it involves something so politically charged as “wanting to learn new things” (but my, how did we even get here?). Science has basically suggested that the brain treats ideological challenges exactly the same as personal insults, which makes sense when you consider that our beliefs are usually wrapped up in our personal identity.

Of course, you’re not necessarily talking about trying to change their minds through Facebook. Or are you? If you ever give up on actually trying and feel like being really petty about it, you could always create a separate group just for them, and then change your privacy settings so they only see “special” content designed for their eyes only. You know, articles that discuss all the surprising ways that language learning can benefit you, or why bilingual people are basically better at life than monolingual people, or how learning another language is more likely to get you laid than pumping iron in a Toby Keith muscle tank.

You seem like an earnest fellow, though, and if I can put my own world-weary sarcasm aside for a moment, I think the world needs a lot more people like you.

If you’re gonna do this, the one thing you should definitely avoid is making them feel like you’re trying to change their mind. Instead, adopt a non-reactive stance when they poke fun at your fancy college-boy learnin’s — you know, don’t act all bothered — and then confidently lead by example.

Long story short: show, don’t tell. Show them how much more fun you have on your travels. Show them how interesting it is that some languages have words that can’t be directly translated into English. Show them how patriotic — yes, patriotic! — it is to be a person who makes America look smart to international folks. And then somehow show them evidence that language learning makes you better at liking bald eagles, too.

Rooting for you,

Ask Babs

Dear Babs,

Boy, have I got a dicey situation for you. The other day, I was introducing my new German love interest to some of my American friends (context: I’m a foreign exchange student currently living in Hamburg). Unfortunately, my German isn’t very advanced yet, because if it were, maybe I would know that calling someone meine Freundin is not, indeed, the same as calling them “my friend.”

Long story short, the girl I mistakenly introduced as my girlfriend is over the moon about this sudden development in our relationship, but I’m definitely not ready for this kind of commitment. It’s only been six weeks, and my time here is pretty limited as it is.

How do I get out of this one?

Help a brother out,
Uneasy In Love

Dear Uneasy,

Maybe Freud was technically Austrian, but I’m pretty sure that this German-language Freund-ian slip was your own subconscious speaking loud and clear.

Maybe you’re not ready to admit it to yourself yet, but you do crave the intimacy that comes with defining a relationship. You clearly care about this girl. If you didn’t, you would have just dumped her unceremoniously, rather than take the time to write to some random hack on the internet. You’re just telling yourself you can’t be in a relationship right now because of some arbitrary rule that says you can’t commit to being in the moment with someone if you don’t plan on living in the same city as them indefinitely. You did, after all, call her your love interest — not your fly-by-night interest.

Now, shh, I know exactly what you’re thinking. And by that I mean yes, actually, I can literally read your mind, and that’s how I know what you really want. I know everything. Don’t question it. Just go with it.

If you’re uneasy in love, it’s because love can be totally scary and uncomfortable! And that’s normal and fine and nothing to feel bad about.

I think your best bet would be to accept these circumstances as a linguistic glitch of destiny. Just let go and see where this “relationship” thing takes you. Modern romance is too often stymied by our inability to just commit to being present with each other. Assuming you’re already seeing this girl exclusively, why not just, I don’t know — commit to what you’re already doing?

When (or if) you decide it’s not working for you anymore, that’s when you’ll level with your dame and tell her what’s up. I’m afraid that walking this back now will only speed you along to Breakupville before you’re actually ready for it. How’s that for irony?

To being young and in love,

Avoid relationship drama.
Brush Up On Your Language Skills