Sharing Everything, Even Language: Stories of Couples Learning For Love
Love makes us do crazy things. And not so crazy things, like learning a language.
Everyone knows the language of love, but not everyone learns a language for love. It’s an extremely powerful way to show your romantic partner how much you value your relationship. To be honest, the thought of it turns us into one giant heart eyes emoji.
We spoke with two English speakers who decided it was important for them to learn to communicate in their partner’s native language. They each came to this decision for a different reason, but they both ended up at the center of their own beautiful love story.
Lost In Translation, But Not For Long
Vanessa was in college when she met Dennis. They were both studying abroad in London for the semester; a New Jersey girl and a German guy, from two separate worlds. Until one night, when those worlds collided.
There was a student bar at the university where the two were studying, and Vanessa would often hang out there with her friends. One night she and her friends spotted a guy sitting alone at a table and decided to go talk to him. He was a German named Yanis, and he had no limbs. His friends soon came back to the table and started chatting with Vanessa and her friends. She was particularly interested in one of the friends, who was also Yanis’ aide. His name was Dennis. He was a couple of years older than her and hailed from Dortmund, Germany.
The pair hit it off right away, and a few weeks later they had their first date — and first encounter with the challenges speaking two different languages can create. Dennis could speak English pretty well, but still made a lot of grammatical mistakes, and Vanessa didn’t speak any German, so they ran into some confusion from time to time.
“There were a lot of funny, sweet moments,” Vanessa says.
For their date, they visited London’s Camden Market, a sprawling collection of stalls selling food, crafts and souvenirs. At one point, they went to get a coffee and Dennis asked Vanessa if she wanted a “crap.”
“I was like, ‘a what?!’ Is he asking me to go to the bathroom or something?” Vanessa recalls. “But he really meant a French crepe.”
In other situations, the miscommunication wasn’t so humorous — at least not at the time. Vanessa remembers an argument she and Dennis had after he said he was irritiert about something she did. She assumed that meant “irritated” and got upset. Turns out, he was saying he was “confused.”
As their semester abroad was coming to an end, they didn’t want to let go of their relationship. Vanessa decided to move to Germany. Dennis told her if she was going to live there, she should really learn German.
“I think it’s a good general rule of thumb if you want to live somewhere, you should speak the language,” Vanessa says. “And that goes for anywhere.”
And that’s exactly what she did. She moved to Dortmund, enrolled in German language courses, and eight months later she was speaking with a high level of proficiency. She says learning her boyfriend’s language has changed their relationship for the better.
“It gives me a bit more empathy,” Vanessa says. “When he has a problem, I understand him better — where’s he’s coming from. And because he also speaks my language, he knows where I’m coming from.”
She says they’ll sometimes speak a hybrid of English and German (“Denglish” for Deutsch and English) because certain things are just easier to express in one language or the other. She says communication is the key to keeping the happiness in their relationship.
“There are going to be moments when the cultures clash and if you can’t communicate, the relationship is going to collapse,” Vanessa says.
Another perk of speaking German? She can have conversations with Dennis’ grandmother, whom she adores.
“She’s a firecracker. I love her… She reminds me a lot of my grandma who passed away, so it’s great to have that connection with the older generation,” Vanessa says.
Now 24 years old, Vanessa is attending a German university, working on a masters degree in statistics — in German. She’s very happy with her decision to learn the language and has never felt more connected to the love of her life.
Building A Life In Two Languages
Learning a language for communication can be critical for some relationships. For others, a different motivating factor is at play.
48-year-old Mary met the man who would become her husband, Terje, in the summer of 1991. She was in Jerusalem, beginning her studies to become a rabbi. He was there from Norway to work on part of his doctorate. And they were both studying Hebrew. They met, started talking and by the end of that year, they were engaged to be married.
Terje spoke excellent English, so communicating was never an issue between them. There was no language barrier. Mary’s motivation for learning his language was different than Vanessa’s reason for learning German.
“It was important for me to learn Norwegian because it was a part of who he was,” Mary says.
She wanted to feel connected to her husband’s culture and identity. She decided to take a year off from her rabbinic studies to live in Bergen, Norway. While she was there, she enrolled as a visiting grad student at the University of Bergen, and for the entire year, she spent half of each day in a Norwegian language immersion class.
After that year, Terje came back to the U.S. with Mary. She now had a grasp on the Norwegian language, but she says they conducted most of their relationship in English. However, she had a better understanding of her husband’s heritage and felt a deeper connection with him. An added perk is being able to converse with Terje’s family when they visit them in Norway.
Mary hasn’t formally studied Norwegian since that year in Bergen, but she hasn’t lost her ability to speak it.
“Because my husband does speak a bit of Norwegian at home and listens to Norwegian radio, and we visit [his family] at least once a year, I would say it’s actually gotten better over the years,” she says.
17 years ago, Mary and Terje had a son named Aryeh. And they made a pretty big decision from the start.
“When our son was born, it was important to both of us that he be raised speaking Norwegian to some extent, to be bilingual,” Mary says. “We wanted him to be able to have a strong sense of both sides of his identity and to be able to speak with his grandparents and feel connected to them.”
For six years, Aryeh participated in an online language-learning program run by the Norwegian government, which allowed him to become proficient in the language. He’s currently in a three-week immersion program in Norway, working toward fluency.