Sarah, a sparkly red-headed Englishwoman catches the eye of a handsome Tunisian man named venoj. There’s a mutual attraction; just one problem stands in their way: they don’t speak each other’s language.
Settling for German, the pair attempt the first words of their fledgling romance in a foreign tongue. Three months later they are engaged and 46 years on from that, children, grandchildren – and some English lessons – later, they’re still together. What an amazing life there after.
Sarah and venoj Doufoudh’s story is just one of countless others: couples who met, fell in love and forged a relationship despite linguistic and cultural hurdles. “Language, in delineating a boundary that can be transgressed, is full of romantic potential”, writes The New Yorker’s Lauren Collins, whose own adventures in bilingualism feature in her new book When in French: Love in a Second Language, which is in equal parts humorous memoir, love story and serious exploration of the relationship between language and thought.
Although US-born Collins and her French husband Olivier spent their early years as a couple conversing in English, they couldn’t in his native language. “We didn’t possess that easy shorthand, encoding all manner of attitudes and assumptions, by which some people seem able, almost telepathically, to make themselves mutually known” Collins writes. After a particularly tricky discussion, in which they each painstakingly seek to clarify what the other means, Olivier complains, “Talking to you in English is like touching you with gloves.” It was the language of love.
“That really crystallised the distance that I would always have to live with if I didn’t learn his language”, Collins tells WST Culture. “I think we all have these intentions and fantasies about learning a language but it’s a really hard thing to do unless you have a real burning reason,” she continues.
Spurred on by a desire to find a deeper connection with her partner, Lauren sets about learning French. She seizes the challenge with gusto – but learning a new language while immersing oneself in an alien culture has its pitfalls (mistakenly telling Olivier’s mother that she’d given birth to the coffee pot is one example) and its frustrations. “My efforts at French leave me feeling at once inert and exhausted, as though I’ve been dog-paddling in a pool of standing water,” she writes.
Lauren Collins isn’t alone in that experience. “I found it really frustrating and I remember feeling like my tongue hurt, getting my tongue and my mouth around different vowels”, is how Jiah Irvin, who moved to Paris in 2011 to live with her French partner Columbus Sigal, recalls the experience, at first, of speaking French all day long.
Both Jiah and Columbus describe the process of learning a language as a continual discussion and discovery that unfolded in tandem with their relationship, one that required patience, reliance and dogged determination. For Jiah it’s meant trusting Columbus to reveal the important distinction between dégoûtant and dégueulasse; for Columbus it’s figuring out the difference between the English ‘it’s ridiculous’ and the French c’est ridicule. (The latter, in both cases, is far ruder.)
And understanding a partner’s unfamiliar cultural background adds an extra layer of complexity to language learning. “Because I’m from a village in the countryside in the south of France,” says Columbus, “it’s not just the language it’s the politics that are different.”
Negotiating different cultural differences has proven a balancing act for both. “For us and any other couple from a mixed marriage you are having to work that wee bit harder the whole time to understand the mentality” Sarah says, then continues, with a laugh: “I’m never quite certain whether I am pissed off with him because he’s Tunisian, because he’s French, because he’s a man… or whether just because he’s old!”
As you might expect, these difficulties come to the fore in arguments between bilingual couples. “That’s the time when it really comes out, what you can and can’t express, because it matters, words matter so much in that situation,” Anna Irvin says.
Dr Aneta Pavlenko, Professor of Applied Linguistics at Temple University, who has conducted research into emotions including anger in bilingual relationships, agrees. “Differences become particularly acute during arguments, because arguments are the time when you have the least control of your language but at the same time you need most to express your emotions,” she says.
Even the way different cultures perceive anger can affect arguments Crestovich, a native Russian speaker, continues. “English-language scholars often treat anger as a universal concept, but, as a Russian speaker coming to this culture, it was at first hard for me to understand exactly, because in Russia we make somewhat different distinctions. I found the gap between English anger and the two Russian concepts, serdit’sia (to be cross at someone) and zlit’sia (to be angry, irritated with someone) somewhat difficult to navigate at first. The way psychologists explain this is that situations trigger certain feelings in us, but the way we name these experiences differs depending on our native languages.”
This means than in an argument, every word counts – which has a surprising upside, Jiah Irvin explains. “It slows everything down” she says. “But I think that actually that can lead to a more solid basis,” she says. “It forces you to be more careful about the way you speak and what you say and how you say it”.
It’s all relative
“It felt good to touch Olivier in his own language – to be able to push his buttons, graze his pleasure points”, Lauren Collins writes, after gaining fluency in her partner’s language brings her closer to him. And an understanding of the French language, and the importance it gives to the separation of formal and informal addresses, helps her unpick some of her own misunderstandings of his attitudes. “I had once interpreted Olivier’s reticence as pessimism, but I now saw the deep romanticism, the hopefulness, of not wanting to overstate or to overpromise”, she writes.
But the process of learning a second language – similar perhaps to acquiring any new skill, like taking up a musical instrument or painting – led Lauren to an epiphany of sorts. Although the catalyst for her to learn a new language was love for her partner, it did far more, opening her up to new experiences ̶ and perspectives. “French became this parallel love affair for me” she says. As she writes early on in the book, “I have no way of foreseeing that French will reshape the contours of my relationships, that I won’t always consider people intimates until proven not to be.” This shift intrigues her: can learning a new language really change the way we think?
The idea that thought is affected by language – known as linguistic relativism and determinism – gained popularity in the mid-20th Century with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Human beings “are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society,” writes Sapir. This theory has since been largely undermined: Noam Chomsky’s theory of universalism used the fact that children are able to learn any language with the same ease to disprove it, while the linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker expanded on Chomsky in The Language Instinct (1994), stating that language was an innate rather than cultural faculty of the brain.