This rule of Language Learning and this topic is a biggie, so it’s coming in two parts…
And it begins with one of the most common quips you hear about language learning when talking with the person on the street…
“The best way to learn a language? Well, get yourself a boyfriend or girlfriend. They can teach you!”
And they certainly can!
The number of times over the years that I’ve seen people master a new language in incredibly short order, after (coincidentally) hooking up with a significant other…
There’s no doubt that romance can be one of the best ways to learn a new language.
It’s also one of those language learning “secrets” that many of my polyglot friends have relied on heavily in the past… whether or not they admit it publicly!
I may also not be entirely innocent in this regard either…
But that is most definitely a story for another day.
Anyway, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why romantic relationships can help you fast track your language learning so much.
The reasons are many…
But perhaps most obviously: You suddenly have someone who will talk to you all day long!
There’s no longer any need to go out and twist the arm of random strangers, waiters, unsuspecting members of the public to talk to you for 60 seconds…
You now have language practice on tap!
…and it’s that emotional involvement and real desire to communicate that helps you push your level northward.
(This is a great example of the “Principle of Directness” that I discussed in my recent conversation with Scott Young.)
Anyway, so getting a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife who speaks the target language is helpful.
I think we all knew that.
Hardly breaking news.
But here is where it gets interesting…
Because, although we know that this can be insanely successful, there’s also a bit of a case of “survivorship bias” going on here.
Survivorship bias is when you look at the most successful cases, and then reason that this must be true for everybody.
So let me ask you this:
Do you know anyone who has ever been in a relationship with someone who speaks another language, but they actually find it really hard to get them to speak that language with them…
And they end up speaking English all the time!
Maybe you’ve even experienced that yourself? I know I have.
In fact in a recent poll in my Facebook community, 70% of people said they’ve had this direct experience themselves!
And I don’t know about you, but for me, being with someone, really wanting to learn the language, going to go out of your way to learn the language, and putting your heart and soul on the line…
Only to have them insist on speaking English all the time…
I can’t think of many things more frustrating and frankly infuriating than this.
This – ladies and gentlemen – is a very tricky situation.
It almost pits your passion to learn the language against your love for your partner.
And what happens when you are deeply committed to both?
Now, having talked to so many people over the years who have found themselves in this conundrum, I’ve come to quite a clear position on what to do about this.
It’s a position that has helped me work through this psychologically in my own life quite a few times.
And the position is this: Keep your language learning outside the home!
Look, language learning is hard enough.
In my view, you can’t afford to let difficult emotions get in the way, or the emotional turmoil will derail you.
If you really want to learn the language, then you’ve got to be in control of the journey. You can’t let your will to study, to speak, to work at the language, be beholden to the ups and downs of a linguistic power struggle within a relationship.
It’s already hard enough.
Think of it like this…
You really want to do the right thing by your partner, by learning their language. That’s great, good on you, I say.
But the right way to go about that is to go out and approach the task independently, just as you would have to if you had never met your partner in the first place and you were doing it all by yourself.
I know how badly you want to be able to speak your partner’s language with them…
But the best way to go about that, is to go out by yourself and learn the language like everybody else does by studying independently and seeking out your own speaking practice opportunities…
And then come back when your skills are so good that it’s easier for your and your partner to speak in their language than in English.
At that point, it’ll be the most natural thing to do.
And guess what? He or she will respect you so much more for having done that for them.
That, I think, is not only the best way to approach this situation, but also the quickest and least painful.
What’s more, above all, I think it is the most respectful way to do it.
Think of it from your partner’s perspective.
While you may be equally fascinated by them and their language, chances are they are only interested in you, and couldn’t care less about the language side of things.
It’s really not fair for you to make your partner into your language teacher!
How do you think they feel when they get home from work in the evening, they’re looking forward to seeing you, to spending time together and chatting. And then you proceed to force them to sit there and smile while you get your speaking practice. And then ask them to repeat 5 times when you don’t understand their reply…
It’s not a very happy existence. And I dare say it’s not particularly healthy for the relationship either.
Not good at all.
But I think people have a bit of a blind spot over this. They think: “Why can’t they just help me with the language… I’m trying really hard!”
And I’ve been there.
I understand those feelings.
But at the end of the day, the solution is not to keep up the pressure on your partner.
It’s not fair.
The solution is to take a deep breath, recognise that you shouldn’t be seeing your partner as a “shortcut”, and instead, go out there and fulfil your language ambitions under your own steam.
Far be it from me to give relationship advice, but I dare say that you’ll feel happier and have an easier time of things at home when you stop making language learning the elephant in the room.
Now, this is a very difficult topic.
And it’s not over.
I’ll be back with Part 2 of this topic in the next blog post.
If you have a friend or loved one who is struggling in a multilingual relationship, you might like to share this post with them for some solidarity!
But until next time, just remember… Keep your language learning well and truly outside the home!
But now I want to hear from you. Leave me a comment below – has language and love always been plain sailing for you? Or have you also had to grapple with the difficult and complex issues I’ve been talking about here?