Are you currently engaged in a romantic relationship with someone who speaks a different language? While it can be a fantastic opportunity for cultural and linguistic exchange, it can also present challenges. Whether you’re celebrating Valentine’s Day, Saint Valentin or Den’ sviatogo Valentina, here are a few pointers on how to maintain your relationship without the aid of a shared mother tongue.

First Date: Don’t Shy Away from the Language Barrier

Gary Brooks, a writer who was a "full-grade ignoramus" in terms of the Russian language when he arrived in Siberia, met Masha in a café by chance. During a Russian lesson he was receiving, Masha overheard him and initiated conversation. "We did the whole ‘You are Britain?’ horror, with my teacher interpreting for me. Lord of the Rings had just been released, and after we established I had never seen the film we arranged to meet and watch it together (in Russian), and so a first date was born."

While a film might seem like a great idea for a date when you cannot communicate verbally, Gary highlights the importance of discussing the film afterwards. Instead, he advises that you utilize the language gap as a starting point for your date. "Meet up for a coffee date and give a mutual language lesson. Go for a romantic walk, pointing out trees, ducks and strange men in anoraks, and tell each other the names in your native languages. It’s relaxing and fun."

When Words Fail, Body Language and Charades Come to the Rescue

Will Henderson dated Marianne, from Montpellier, for three years. When he started his Erasmus year in France, he had only a GCSE in French and a few additional lessons. "My level of French was not great. I had some formulaic phrases, such as ‘My name is William’ and ‘Where is the cathedral?"

Will and Marianne met at a student bar. "It was a good way to get to know each other, because the music was too loud to hear each other speak anyway. We used other ways to flirt, like body language, buying her a drink, or making sure we went for a cigarette at the same time."

They were together for four months before Will had to resort to charades. All he wanted was to put up some shelves, but he did not know the French words for drill, tools, or hole. "I was completely without context. I was pointing at the wall, saying, ‘I need a… it’s the thing you use to make a… a bit of not-wall.’ She looked confused; I had resorted to charades for random nouns before, but this was an entire performance. I pointed my finger like a gun and made drill sounds, at which point she understood and taught me all the words I had not known."

Embrace the Inevitable Cultural Clashes

While Gary acknowledges that language barriers can be overcome using gestures, dictionaries, and phone calls to friends, he and Masha discovered more about one another and their respective backgrounds through frequently embarrassing and always illuminating cultural differences. "Our third date was at a restaurant, and I was perplexed by her insistence on eating every course with a spoon. Apparently, knives and forks were considered ‘fancy’ and unnecessary. That memory sticks with me, if only because eating game meat with just a spoon is very difficult."

Etiquette was even more perplexing in various situations. "Manners and interaction, both socially and especially in the bedroom, were – incredibly – determined by the content of classic Russian novels," says Gary. "If it wasn’t in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, you simply didn’t do it. If it was impolite in Chekhov, it was impolite in life, and if Gogol said something was a good idea, you should do it."

Cultural clashes can be awkward and even embarrassing, but they should be cherished. They’re not only beneficial for getting to know each other, but with each faux pas, you gain a greater understanding of your partner’s culture.

Arguments: Prepare Yourself for an Uneven Playing Field

It may take a long time to overcome misunderstandings when communicating in a second language. "Marianne and I would have huge arguments before realizing I had misheard or misunderstood something," says Will. Words and phrases that appear to have a clear, direct translation can alter their meanings in ways that dictionaries do not account for. As a result, you cannot be overly defensive about your perspective because communication breakdowns are commonplace.

Embrace moments of embarrassment because they have a positive impact on your vocabulary. Gary’s experience of slipping on ice and Norman-Wisdom style falling over made Masha laugh, but it also taught him a valuable lesson in language learning. Her breathless exclamations of "It’s slippy, it’s slippy!" cemented the word "skol’zko" in his memory. Even though he’s worked in different areas since then, his Russian vocabulary may have declined, but he has never forgotten that word.

Kate McDermott, who once dated a Frenchman, advises anyone learning a language to prepare for regular moments of embarrassment. While language learners are bound to stumble over words and sometimes struggle to communicate, they’re at their most vulnerable in the presence of someone they like. Kate’s solution is to let go of your self-consciousness and press on, regardless. As someone who almost mistook "back of the neck" for "arsehole" during a moment of intimacy, she knows how daunting it can be to speak a foreign language.


  • owenbarrett

    I'm Owen Barrett, a 31-year-old educational blogger and traveler. I enjoy writing about the places I've visited and sharing educational content about travel and culture. When I'm not writing or traveling, I like spending time with my family and friends.