Learning a language with love

By Soile Pietikainen, sociologist specialised in bilingual family interaction

In love with a foreigner? Amazing! In addition to being the most enchanting human being on earth, this demigod also speaks a mysterious language that oozes love. The mere sound of it makes my head spin. Just imagine understanding what he says. What if I could?

I put myself through what it took to learn the language of my love well enough to stop using English between us. It’s true: love makes you invincible. I’m the proof. I have no particular aptitude for foreign languages and frankly, used to have no ambition for them either. I saw even learning English as a necessary evil. But that turned into a lifelong passion.

Tangled in love

The bottom line was that I was not free to move. I was from Finland and the country was not in the EU yet. So I was not free to move to the UK, which was in the European Community then. When I arrived I was an alien.

I had done reasonably well in my English A-level in Finland but studying a language in school does not mean you can speak it. I figured that living in London would sort it out, so I managed to get myself a time-limited visa for a language course. It was not the plan, but I fell in love. As you do when you are 20. I did not fall in love with an English native, however.

I fell in love with a fellow foreign language student, an Italian. You are likely to meet people who are like you. In this case, that meant other short-term foreign students. None of us spoke impressive English. That was the reason why we were studying it, I guess. Our foreign accents were cute, not to mention our endearing grammar mistakes. But no matter.

My fling continued beyond the time limit of my visa. I had to go back to Finland. He went back to Italy. After a year of longing and expensive flights paid with a student loan (time before budget airlines), I glibly informed my parents that I was moving to Italy, next month.

They weren’t impressed. Might it not have been wiser to discuss my plans with them before deciding? Funny that, it had not crossed my mind to discuss my plans with them. But I had considered the language issue. It was a misrepresentation that I did not speak “a word of Italian”.

Even excluding key vocabulary like ciao and pizza, I could say five words in Italian. An entire sentence, in fact. Buona notte e sogni d’oro. Good night and sweet dreams. A start, certainly, but it would not take me far.

Daring aspirations

I landed at Milan’s Malpensa airport from Helsinki in August 1994 with my worldly possessions in one piece of luggage. As soon as the 35-degree heat engulfed me I turned bright pink and my feet swell.

Within a few weeks my buona notte e sogni d’oro had proven inadequate to navigate daily shopping, public transport, medical appointments and immigration authorities (I was still not an EU citizen). The language of love was becoming more prosaic by the day. Feeling young is one thing, but you can feel like a 3-year-old abroad. I wanted my independence back and that meant learning Italian fast.

Next step was to find a language school. Bring out the Yellow Pages, the thing we had before Internet search engines. There were about 20 language schools in Turin, where we were living. I tried calling one or two, but they could not explain in English how they would teach me. So my sweetheart called them all and chose a handful that seemed the most competent. We hit the road to visit them.

We’d go into each school. He would observe how they handled me asking, then he’d ask in Italian about the courses, their pedagogy, track record and fees. After a few rounds we stood in front of the Centro Linguistico Internazionale (the International Language Centre).

The director greeted us. There was a central lobby and several classrooms. We could see through the glass walls that lessons were taking place. On the walls there were posters relating to the several languages they taught. They also had a comprehensive programme of Italian for foreign students. Could we see the teacher?

We could. She was there to start teaching in about 15 minutes. She was dressed in stiletto heels, fishnet stockings, a very short skirt, and a pink fluffy mohair jumper, all topped with huge golden hoops and bottle blond curls. Then she began speaking in English and turned out to be a very professional teacher. Our prejudice exposed.

She talked about taking people from total beginners to advanced level. They had been a training provider for Catholic organisations for about ten years. The church brought monks and nuns from developing countries to Italy. They were given one year to learn Italian well enough to enter university studies in medicine, to eventually return to their home countries as doctors. Most of them achieved the goal, while for others it would take 2-3 years to complete the advanced course in Italian. I saw my opportunity.

I dared to share my aspirations with the teacher. I wanted to enrol to study politics at the university in one year. Her face betrayed her: she thought I could not do it. She politely welcomed me to enrol to the beginner course that would start in a few days.

Racing ahead

In my class of 12 there were people from all over the world, including a monk from Peru and two nuns from Madagascar. They had the advantage of speaking Spanish and French as their native languages, somewhat similar to Italian. I was going to stick with them come what may. Each course lasted 3 months. A double lesson three times a week. Home study commitment at your level of choice. Then there was an exam to see if you were ready for the next level.

Round one: the monk, the nuns and I passed to the intermediate level. The group around us changed. Another 3 months of study. Another exam. The monk decided to take a time out and work at a hospital for a while. The nuns and I raced ahead to the advanced level. The crowd around us changed once more and the conversations became more interesting. At the advanced level we had a Serbian pianist, a Costa Rican psychologist, a Montenegrin journalist, a British jazz singer, two Malagasy nuns and a Finnish girl determined to prove she could do it.

In June we all passed the final exam, the nuns and I having sped through the entire programme in less than a year. The strategy of racing with the nuns had worked. The teacher I had that year was the most genius foreign language professional I have ever met in my decades in multilingual education.

But the course alone would not have done it. Something else was needed too.

Italiano, per favore!

The thing is that you must also start speaking. Whatever you can say, say it. Start now. No matter how awkward. I began speaking a little bit of Italian roughly 3 months in. At that stage I was saying greetings and short sentences learned by heart. Mangi un’arancia? Eat an orange? Riveting conversation it ain’t, but you must start somewhere.

At the time we were flat sharing with an Italian student who was just back from an exchange year in the USA. At home people spoke English to me. After about half a year, I realised I would never progress in that way. So, I told both to only speak Italian. They rolled their eyes, as I did not understand 80% of the simplest talk. I pretended not to understand English. Italiano, per favore, I would say.

I know many couples face this dilemma. When love starts in a foreign language, it is difficult to switch to another. For me the benefits were clear.

Two people speaking a foreign language adopt each other’s mistakes. You invent new incorrect expressions. Neither one learns from the other. By speaking Italian one of us would know what they were talking about, and the other could continuously improve.

Baptism of fire

I got to intermediate conversation in about 8 months. I must stress that the crucial step was to stop anyone speaking English to me at home. It is a struggle first, but learning a new language requires tolerating discomfort.

The baptism of fire came when we got evicted from our flat. While my sweetheart went to work, I had to view apartments, and many estate agents wrongly assumed I could not estimate square meters and the quality of heating.

Dealing with them prepared me for the university entrance interview. I started university in Italian exactly one year after arriving. The first two years at university were incredibly hard. I took an extra year at the beginning but graduated with top marks in the end.

Now I have lived in Italian for 25 years. Even after 20 years back in London, my marriage is still in Italian and helping intercultural families with language issues has become my work.

Tips for learning the language of your love

So next time you decide to follow your sweetheart to a new country that speaks an enchanting foreign language, this is what to expect.

Most people have a silent period when they commit to understanding a new language. That will typically last 3 to 6 months. Don’t give yourself more than that. Delaying will make it harder.

You can certainly learn the language to a high proficiency when you are in a relationship with a native speaker and you live in their country. But you can tap into the superpowers of love wherever you live. This is what to do to learn fast as an adult.

Buy yourself a A4 notebook. Doing this by hand is far more effective than any digital form of note taking.

1. Start speaking immediately

Whatever you can say, say it. Require your love to have proper two-way conversations in their language every day. No messing around, you are on a mission. What you talk about is up to you. Think of the conversation as a ball game. Your target is to keep passing the ball as long as possible. How many times can you respond to keep the conversation moving, without having to resort to English? Write the daily statistics in your notebook. You will improve fast.

2. Learn high frequency words

Recognise, say and write the 1,000 most common words of the spoken language. You will notice that actually you know many of them already. 1,000 words is a tiny vocabulary, but it will be enough for your breakthrough. Then keep adding vocabulary that you encounter in real life. 10 words per day is a good routine after the first 1,000. It may sound daunting, but it is totally within the capacity of any adult. That is the natural speed of vocabulary growth at age 2.

3. Memorise template phrases

Learn by heart some sentence structures that you need every day. “I like..”, “I am going to…”, “Yesterday I went to…”, “Could you…”, “Please, …” Come up with 5 sentences per day. Perfect the grammar and spelling with your sweetheart. Then read the sentences aloud until your pronunciation becomes easier and you remember them by heart. Keep it up until you can remember 100 ready-made sentences. This can be done in less than 3 weeks if you multiply the same sentence by changing one word in it. The faster you go, the easier it will be. Momentum gives lift. You are water skiing on the surface of the language.

4. Figure out what things mean

Keep reading everything you see and making out what it means: signs, packages, book covers, random notes around the house… Eavesdrop every conversation and try to make out what is being said (scandalous!).

5. Refuse to let people speak English to you

Insist. English is the easy way out for them. But you know what you need to learn. Every day presents opportunities to practice.

A life in a new language

The only way to understand a culture is to live it in its own language. Learning the language of your love leads to cultural understanding and that is a cornerstone for a solid intercultural relationship. And it is a huge gift to love someone in their own language.

Soile Pietikainen © all rights reserved

The author is a sociologist specialised in bilingual family interaction. She helps families through private bilingual family consultancy and is the founder of Bilingual Potential, an ethical business dedicated to every child’s right to learn and use the language of his or her parents, as defined in the Article 30 of the UN Convention of the Right of the Child. 

Image by Gabriel Bercht from Pixabay

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