You know that feeling when you’re both snuggled up on the sofa and your partner turns to look at you and says, “Is there a word in English meaning ‘to defile corpses’?” No? Well, chances are you’re not in a bilingual relationship.
American Zach and his Hungarian fiancée Janka both work for language learning app Babbel. But when you’re dating cross-culturally, discussions about super-niche verbs are by no means confined to the office. “We love teaching each other idioms and colloquialisms in our native language. Hungarian is a very colourful language,” says Zach.
But not sharing a first language can come with its frustrations. The couple tend to speak English together which for Zach means simplifying. Janka meanwhile struggles with the limitations of her second language.
“In Hungarian you can take any noun and make it a verb – she could say she was ‘Zaching’, meaning spending time with me – and she gets frustrated she can’t do that in English,” says Zach. “We have a lot of words that we say in Hungarian because there isn’t an English equivalent.”
Despite the challenges of building a relationship across a language barrier, dating “without borders” is on the rise. According to a study by Eurostat, nearly 9% of marriages in the UK include a foreign-born spouse, while across Europe nearly 30% of people cite love as their reason for moving to another country.
On Valentine's Day this year, the post-Brexit diversity campaign One Day Without Us launched the #loveknowsnoborders hashtag to celebrate cross-cultural relationships, one of the oft-untold benefits of freedom of movement. But how easy is it to fall in love when you don’t speak the same language? British Ben described his first date with Spanish girlfriend Jennifer as “interesting”.
“For the first couple of months of our relationship, our hands were covered in ink from where we’d taught each other words in the pub with nothing to write on,” he says.
For Greek Eleni and her German husband Sebastian, the challenge was in finding ways to translate things into English that felt specific to their own cultures. “One of Seb’s favourite phrases is das Leben ist kein Wunschkonzert which he literally translates as 'Life is not a musical request programme',” said Eleni. “There are also times where we think we are speaking correctly but we're unconsciously translating an expression from our mother tongue. Seb told me recently I frequently use 'let's say' in sentences, which is a literal translation of something we use a lot in Greek. I never realised I did it!”
And it’s not just limited vocab that can affect your relationship. According to Babbel’s head of didactics, Katja Wilde, people can even take on different character traits when speaking different languages.
“You’re not the same person that you are in your mother tongue. You see people who have another voice in a different language. Some people even speak louder in one language than another,” she says.
“Italians tend to interrupt each other but in German you can’t do that because the verb comes at the end so speaking another language can change your whole approach.”
Diana, who met her Polish husband Jakub in Texas before the couple moved to London, says she recognises this. “Jakub often uses the ‘I'm Polish, I'm a foreigner’ excuse to say shit native speakers wouldn't dare,” she says. “I don’t think he does this in Polish.”
And then there are the misunderstandings, the awkward faux-pas. British Matthew recalls the time his German girlfriend Jessie told him she was “going to sleep around now”. It transpired she’d directly translated the German phrase Ich schlafe eine Runde. She meant to say she was going for a nap.
Diana tells me that the first time she met her husband’s father, she accidentally called him “Daddy”, not realising what the Polish word meant.
“Jakub refers to his dad as Tatuś, which translates directly as Daddy,” she says. “I was trying to show him where to sit, I said ‘Tatuś’ and pointed to the seat. He just looked at me in shock. All the Poles found it hilarious and I felt like an idiot. I still call him Tatuś because now it’s a running joke.”
And Zach’s attempts to speak Hungarian have gone awry at times. “The classic one in Hungary is egészségére which means 'cheers' or 'to your health' but if you say it wrong it means 'to your whole bottom' and I’ve done that,” he says.
The hardest part is spending time with your partner’s friends and family, something most of the couples I spoke to could relate to. “When we visit Jakub’s family he pretty much has to translate everything for me,” says Diana. “A lot of the time I have no idea what they’re talking about and often feel quite isolated and lonely, even though I'm surrounded by people.”
But all were quick to point to the benefits, not least the feeling that you’re constantly learning and growing together. “It's exciting to try to explain and share something and introduce someone else to it,” says Eleni. “I use the word opa like saying 'oops'. Seb has used it a couple of times in context and it really made me smile.”
Diana agrees: “To this day, Jakub still comes across words he doesn't know. Just this morning I taught him 'austere'.”
A recent study showed couples in cross-cultural relationships report higher relationship satisfaction than those who date people of their own nationality. Wilde says one reason might be that people in bilingual relationships have to work harder. “You really need to communicate a lot to make yourself understood and to understand,” she says. “Bilingual couples have to discuss and explain everything so much more.”
This certainly rings true for Ben and Jennifer. “We've learnt that both patience and clarity are our friends,” says Ben.
“But speaking in a clearer, simpler way actually helps eliminate second guessing and the 'reading between the lines' that can often happen in relationships.” Anyone for language classes?