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September 25, 2009 3:01 PM   Subscribe

How do we date across a language barrier?

In an attempt to transform my life into a perpetual cliche, I moved to a foreign country and endeared myself to an adorable German boy.
Though I am learning German, I don't know enough to hold deep conversations about pressing social issues, Sartre, or the weather. German Boy speaks some English but not enough that we don't have to resort to gesturing violently to make certain points clear. I view this nascent relationship as the perfect opportunity to force myself into learning and speaking German all the time, but before my fluency develops, how do German Boy and I get by?
posted by apophenia to Human Relations (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
before my fluency develops, how do German Boy and I get by?


Seriously, don't worry yourself over this. You have a rare and terrific chance to get to know each other in a much better and deeper way, when compared to those of us who are busy overthinking triple-entendres and questioning connotative word choices all the time. You're unfettered.
posted by rokusan at 3:07 PM on September 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

Shorter, less happy rokusan.
posted by grobstein at 3:12 PM on September 25, 2009

I spoke German and still had issues when dating a German woman. You have to be very, very clear about the fact that you find German boy attractive and that you want to um, you know. . .

Otherwise, it can be hard to figure out--to a cheesy romantic email, she responded that she was schmeichele. When I whipped out the Oxford Duden I saw it meant "flattered." I was crestfallen. Just to be sure, I took it to my Schwabishe roommate and she said it was "very good, very good."

You just have to be less subtle. Let him know you are romantically interested in him pretty clearly.

Also, hope to God he's not Schawbisch (a state in southern Germany). When the Berlin cabbies were required to pass a German test, some local wag asked "what will the schwabisch do?" They barely speak German down there, I swear.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:12 PM on September 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Do you guys write well? When I was learning English, passing notes and writing letters (with horrible, broken English, but understandable all the same) was a way of holding more or less deep conversations.
posted by cobain_angel at 3:13 PM on September 25, 2009

I think the hardest part about this kind of situation is feeling like the person you're dating doesn't really know you, because the things you say make you sound like a four-year-old version of yourself when you are first learning another language. So I guess you just have to be more creative in communicating who you are to the other person; keep gesturing violently (or, you know, not so violently), draw pictures, act it out, don't let not knowing the exact words keep you from trying to say something. Also, don't avoid using an expression when you're not sure what the german equivalent is, your meaning will probably come across even if they have a more specific expression or idiom. Example: I remember being afraid to say "my foot is asleep" when I was learning french because I was afraid that would just sound crazy if they didn't have the same expression.

Be patient with yourself! And keep a dictionary handy.
posted by Ginkgo at 4:13 PM on September 25, 2009

Best answer: Well, English and German have quite a lot of vocabulary in common, so that should not pose an insurmountable barrier, especially if you stick to the simpler alternatives when choosing your words; in addition to that you'll only need a fraction of all available words, so that you can extend a very basic vocabulary as you need it. The grammar is not too dissimilar, and although intricacies like correct tenses (which differ fro the English usage) or the correct gender of nouns (foreigners never get them completely right, but we're used to it and it doesn't make a sentence incomprehensible) will take time. Yet there's no better way to learn a language than prolonged contact with a native speaker.

Attempts at learning the other's language would also give you a way to spend time together and actually get to know the other person; and by the way they define things you might also be able to learn about their world-view.

On preview: seconding cobain_angel's idea of writing things down - German pronunciation is most of the time very close to the letters of the word, which unfortunately can't be said for English.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 4:13 PM on September 25, 2009

You are so lucky -- this is hands down the best way to learn a language and to fall in love. Use your common languages -- body language, facial expression, etc. -- to take you on this enthralling journey.
posted by trip and a half at 4:39 PM on September 25, 2009

I dated and married a Latin American, so it's definitely possible. The best possible situation for learning a language is being highly motivated, so you're in a good spot and you should advance quickly. It helps if you both like languages and have patience with each other's struggle.

It can be good to keep the struggling mutual. No reason you both have to stick to one language: you could speak German while he speaks English. That has the additional advantage that you'll both understand what the other is saying.

Concentrate on vocabulary... people can deal easily enough with bad grammar, but communication breaks down if you don't know the words.

Find other stuff you like to do, and do it in German-- listen to music, play games, read comics. You can't get too much: you need enough immersion that your brain starts to say "I better learn this stuff."
posted by zompist at 4:52 PM on September 25, 2009

First - yon can absolutely do it! My wife (Latin American) spoke very little English when I met her -not even conversational. My Spanish comprehension was better than her English, but not to the point of having deep, meaningful conversations about obscure topics. I can get by day to day life, but I probably sound like a little kid.

It makes things fun - it forces you to be patient. It forces you to look at things other than words. It's great. Pictures, and the internet, make it easier. Be creative.

In the long-run, though, both of you should enroll in language courses, and learn each other's language to the fullest of your abilities - because in the long-run, communication is hugely important. Get started now - you'll only learn so much just being there, and the home language will end up being a pidgin of the two, without formal education on both sides.
posted by TravellingDen at 5:03 PM on September 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

You are in the opportunity of learning the language in a pleasurable way. Who had more fun and influence: Benjamin Franklin who learned French in the arms of a French mistress or John Adams who learned French from a book on funeral orations? One ended up with groupies in France while wearing a fur hat, the other not so much.

My parents did not know each other's language when they met and have been together for over 40 years and quite frankly they STILL have a language barrier which may have allowed them to stay married because of it.
posted by jadepearl at 7:57 PM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

if you're ever upset about something they've said make sure that you talk about it- even when you don't want to- because there's a really good chance they meant something completely different than what you understood. this is true even if you speak the same language but sometimes the language barrier can lead to much more dramatic misunderstandings. a guy once tried to tell me that he had many friends who were girls but that they didn't even hold hands although they're very close, and i understood that all he did was have sex with them but didn't feel close to them lol. also once i thought he was telling me that i was complaining too much when really he was just pointing out something on the street he thought was interesting. life is funny sometimes. enjoy the ride and the incredible pleasure of learning a language through someone you care about
posted by saraindc at 8:32 PM on September 25, 2009

I learned a lot of Spanish by watching Spanish movies with English subtitles and English movies with Spanish subtitles. It works both ways, especially because with English I already knew the words and got the rough Spanish equivalent as I went. Plus, I just like movies. I would also recommend trying to get into some volunteer work. I've had a lot of learning opportunities there. Viel Glück!
posted by ShadePlant at 9:09 PM on September 25, 2009

...this is hands down the best way to learn a language and to fall in love.

The former assertion, at least, is a load of hooey. It's very difficult, and for some languages virtually impossible, to become fluent simply by having an SO who speaks that language. You should take language classes if you want to learn the language. The SO will give you a chance to pratice what you learned in class, which is necessary for language acquisition, but not sufficient (in most cases).
posted by smorange at 9:58 PM on September 25, 2009

Best answer: I dated a German boy for 4 years and faced some of the same issues. My German started off very good and I am now fluent.

First off, don't worry about having "deep conversations about pressing social issues." I think that, regardless of the language your significant other speaks, these conversations are rare. Sure, it's on your list of things you want out of a relationship, but you never get EVERYTHING that's on your list. Since that is one thing that is missing from your relationship, you might start obsessing over it. Don't. There are many other things you two can share.

Ask him to make you copies/give you mp3s of his favorite music. You can listen to it whenever you're on the bus/train. You're bonding and you're learning German through song/repetition, plus you can ask him to explain words you don't know.

Fair warning: If he says "Ich hab dich lieb," that's your "I love you" moment. Don't wait for "Ich liebe dich," cause that's not necessarily the way he'll say it. (Wow, was that awkward for me when I went through it.)

Viel Glück!
posted by moreandmoreso at 10:51 PM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone!

I began a German language course three weeks ago. German Boy and I attend a gesamtschule together and he's in my English class so I know he's got his English-learning going on.
posted by apophenia at 11:25 PM on September 25, 2009

Try to communicate in written form. E-mails and letters are fun to receive and you can take time to 'decode' it with the help of an English - German dictionary which will improve your vocabulary too.
posted by Laura_J at 7:25 AM on September 26, 2009

Best answer: Not to be a wet blanket, but be careful that you're not projecting things about this person that they can't effectively communicate. I dated a girl for almost a year whose english was fluent but poor and found out after a while that she was a pretty different person than I thought she was, due mostly to the language barrier.
posted by milinar at 11:04 AM on September 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

When I and my Catalan-speaking ex first got together, although we both had Spanish in common, we each learned the other's language by watching reruns of The Simpsons together (English w/Catalan subs).

Find a show with fairly simple language usage, and with which you are both familiar, and you're set. This also helps you learn a lot of vernacular/local dialect as opposed to textbook vocab.
posted by elizardbits at 11:38 AM on September 26, 2009

The Deutsche Welle web site has/had a series of lessons on conversational German called "Warum Nicht?" ("Why Not?"). If you can find them, they might give you some simple grammatical shortcuts to make your conversations and your classroom lessons easier.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:05 AM on September 28, 2009

Response by poster: Also, jetzt sind wir zusammen und es ist einfach wunderbar.

moreandmoreso, I found myself running into the "obsessing" problem that you described. I'm working on not being envious of everyone, including strangers on the street he has mundane conversations with, that can communicate with him with the ease that I have yet to gain.
posted by apophenia at 1:18 PM on October 26, 2009

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