They say love is blind, and for sure it often ignores distance.
You travel abroad, you live in a different country, or maybe you don’t actually move from the city where you’re born. No matter how you meet them before you know you’re in love with someone from another country.
In the beginning, all is sparks and fast heartbeats:
You use a common language between you – often English – and you don’t care much for a misplaced verb or a poor choice of adjectives.
Mistakes are one more chance to see their beautiful smile. Communication happens through glance, touch, laughter. Words don’t seem to matter.
The words in your lover’s native language are playful, soft, warm, exciting.
They’re little more than a game now. You learn to say I love you, you understand a few cheeky compliments. It’s like a secret code between you, making your relationship thrilling and unique.
Then comes a time for reality:
Maybe you’ve had enough of long distance and you start planning to move to their country.
Maybe you realise that you can only truly understand their heart by understanding their mother tongue.
Or perhaps, just like me, you’re a bit of a language nerd and not learning the language of your partner sounds like a wasted opportunity.
No matter what your reason is, chances are you’ll eventually tackle your partner’s language.
Now, you’d think it’s going to be a piece of cake, wouldn’t you?
After all, you have your own personal dictionary willing to help at all times.
While I’d love to tell you that a native partner is a sure recipe for success, there are a few things to keep in mind if you want to make this work for both of you.
Let’s have a look at some of the things that can make or break your learning adventure:
Motivation vs. Laziness
Learning the native language of your partner gives you a solid, (hopefully) lasting reason to study.
As long as you’re interested in your other half, in their culture and their story, you’ll have a reason to keep learning the language.
When you’re just getting started you’ll be all pumped up about your new project.
You buy a notebook to collect new vocabulary, schedule time for your learning sessions, download tons of apps and dictionaries on your phone.
As the weeks go by, though, you’ll start to realise that it’s not so easy to keep up. You’re busy with work, tired when you go back home.
The time spent with your partner is precious, especially if you’re in a long distance relationship, and you don’t want to use it to practice.
When you try to speak in their language you get frustrated. You just want to be able to communicate so you end up switching to your common language most of the time.
Being able to speak with your partner’s family can be a further push for your studies.
This works particularly well if they speak broken or no English: there is no other way for you to exchange information with them but to use their language.
It gets more complicated if they speak perfect English or worse if they’re looking forward to practising it. In this case, the temptation to return to your comfort zone is strong.
Despite starting with the best intentions, you soon realise it won’t be an easy ride.
To avoid burning out, try and find your own reason to learn.
Of course, you decided to learn the language because of your partner. With time, though, it might help to add an additional source of motivation to stay on track.
It can be moving to the country and needing a certain level to get a job or enter education.
Or you can start exploring the culture and find something about it that grabs your interest.
Having a reason that is only yours will get you close to the language in itself, not just as an accessory in your relationship, and it will keep you going even when it will be so easy to give up.
The Best Language Exchange Partner?
Starting to speak is, for many learners, the most daunting part of studying a language.
Having someone you’re comfortable with to practice can be a huge encouragement to dare to open your mouth soon.
Who would look for a language exchange partner, when their significant other is a native speaker?
There are a couple of possible issues to take into consideration here:
First, don’t underestimate the shyness that hits even the bravest of us in front of our loved ones. We want to impress them, we want them to think we’re amazing, and unexpectedly you could find out that speaking with a stranger actually feels less intimidating.
Second, your partner might find it a bit boring to listen to you try to put together a sentence for ten minutes, or having to correct your mistakes every day.
No matter how willing to help they are, most of the time it’s more pleasant to talk naturally than to repeat an expression three times, explain it, break the flow of the conversation.
You can avoid, or limit this inconvenience, by setting a specific time for practice.
Decide to dedicate some regular slots in the week to practice with your partner. This way, you’ll both be committed and you’ll know that it’s an effort limited in time.
Outside of that, you can use your common language without guilt and keep communicating effectively and avoid frustration.
At least until your level is advanced enough for the two of you to have a conversation without too many obstacles.
The Authentic Language Factor
One big advantage of having constant access to a native speaker is that you’ll learn the authentic language, the one that is truly spoken by people every day.
No static textbook sentences, no unnatural and rigid constructions but real, living language.
You’ll pick up a lot of slang and develop strong listening skills, your ears will get accustomed to connected speech and to the way people actually talk.
At the same time, the language you’ll pick up by having contact with one person is the one they produce.
You’ll assimilate their favourite expressions, their rhythm, their accent, their unique way to speak and you’ll become some sort of non-native copy of the way they sound.
You might pick up some mistakes from them too. Because yes, even native speakers make mistakes in their own language.
Languages are like living creatures, changing and evolving every day. While this is natural, it also means that you’ll find a lot of grammar blunders being made in the streets every day.
For example, in Italy, there are many people who stopped using the subjunctive mode to express an uncertainty, but this is still considered a mistake and a sign of poor grammar.
And I recently learned that younger generations in Sweden tend to use vart (where to) in place of var (where), but it’s an incorrect use and it’s better not to pick it up.
Sticking with your partner for language practice is obviously the most comfortable choice, especially for shy or introverted people who don’t feel at ease in interacting with people they don’t know well.
To learn the language in its different nuances, though, it’s important to get used to different ways to speak, accents and expressions. Briefly, to be exposed to many different native speakers.
By dating a native speaker, you’ll have an easy way meeting some more: their family, friends and acquaintances are just a step away and they’ll most likely be happy to help you practice from time to time.
This said it will probably seem redundant to think about hiring a teacher. Actually, that depends a lot on your needs and priorities.
Unless your partner is a teacher, they won’t know how to help you learn and they won’t be able to answer your grammar-geek questions. For them it’s all natural, they never thought about the whys and hows of their native language!
If you need the language to find a job and you want to progress faster towards a high level, finding a tutor can be a good idea to consider.
Get a Taste for the Culture
One of the most interesting and fun parts of being with someone from another country is to get a direct insight into another culture – for best and for worst.
Discovering different ways of thinking, social habits and customs is the only way to see our own culture in perspective: what we take for granted is regarded as silly or rude or exotic somewhere else.
We’re not the centre of the world anymore, we’re parts of a bigger picture.
In a couple, cultural differences can bring to misunderstandings and arguments. What used to be a cute quirk, in time can start to annoy you.
The ways you solve those misunderstandings are also different and, sometimes, hard to conciliate.
A Southern European or American partner is often more direct and outspoken than a Northern European or a Japanese one.
You need to test, try, perfect the way you communicate with each other. Learning each other’s language and the words that your partner naturally uses to express their feelings, is going to help you with that.
Then, of course, there is the fun part: celebrating holidays that didn’t exist for you, discovering an incredible band, becoming a fan of a television series or reading an epic novel that you would have never discovered, if you didn’t meet a person from a different corner of the world.
Learning the native language of your partner is going to put you to the test more than you’d think.
It’s also a sign of respect for them and their life before they met you.
It’s a way to show them you care and you’re interested in everything that concerns them, even the words they learned as kids.
It will reinforce your bond and teach you things about them that you’d never understand otherwise.
It’s a big challenge, that’s for sure, but it’s one that is worth all of your efforts.