The Language of Love

Article published on May 26, 2008
community published
Article published on May 26, 2008
“That's how all start. From a misunderstanding. When you say 'guest' I think you meaning I can stay in your house. A week later, I move out from Chinese landlord.” An Englishman’s politeness (by unwittingly saying “be my guest”) triggers off a fraught love affair with a wide-eyed young Chinese girl in Xiaolu Guo’s novel, “A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers”.
The scene is set for a relationship characterised by misunderstandings and miscommunication.

If anyone can relate to the linguistic challenge of dating someone of another mother tongue, it’s surely us, the Erasmus generation. Yet, though we may be getting better and better at mastering other languages, some things just don’t translate.

The damage can be serious – as I know only too well. When a French love interest said to me, “You ‘ave small eyes”, I was so taken aback, I almost muttered something about his big nose in retaliation. Turns out he wasn’t commenting on my sub-standard features, since “avoir petits yeux” is simply an expression meaning “to look tired”. By the time I’d figured that out, it was too late. My Irish friend Eddie, besotted by his new Colombian chica, recently told her over the phone how much he was looking forward to hugging her. Unfortunately for him, his Spanish wasn’t quite up to scratch: what he actually said was, “I can’t wait to impregnate you”. It was a while before he managed to convince her that he wasn’t just desperate for a kid.

Sometimes, the language barrier rears its ugly head before you’ve even had the chance to become properly acquainted. A Dutch friend, approaching a handsome English fellow in a bar, casually asked him for a cigarette. Not knowing the English for “roll-up”, she used the Dutch word instead. Of course, he nearly fell off his chair when she said, “Can I have a shag from you?”

Keeping it simple

There seem to be a few phrases designed specifically to catch out naïve lovers – and French surely wins the prize for the language causing most shame and humiliation. How are we foreigners supposed to know that there’s a difference between “un baiser” (the innocent noun) and to “baiser” (the anything-but-innocent verb)? And then there are all those unexpected innuendoes that catch you unawares: never again will I dare to mention my (female) pussy-cat in public.

Of course, the language barrier isn’t all painful – it can make things more interesting too. A sexy accent and a hint of the exotic can turn a Dull John into an infinitely More Interesting Gianni. And with all those new words to be learned, you’ll never run out of things to talk about. In some ways, too, not sharing the same native language means you’re necessarily restricted to keeping things simple: no over-analysing or having “the talk” about where the relationship is going. (I wonder, is that why men in particular are so interested in foreign girls?) On the other hand, if it takes over a minute just to formulate the sentence in your head, there is a certain limitation as to how spontaneous your relationship will ever be. Jokes are pretty hopeless; and as for arguing, forget it – once you are able to scream at someone in another language at the same time as throwing plates at them, well, by then you’re fluent anyway.

Indeed, as we all know by now, men and women – inhabitants of different planets, never mind countries – speak a different language anyway. With the odds stacked against them, then, isn’t it rather a miracle that heterosexual, cross-national couples ever make it to the bitter end?