The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

THE DISPLACED Q: Does love conquer all — even language barriers?

Last week Tony James Slater, the newest addition to the TDN team, reported on his success with finding love abroad. But it wasn’t always that easy for him. He may be an incurable adventureholic, but when Cupid’s arrow led to a romance with a woman who didn’t speak English, even he had to wonder if there were limits…

Here’s the scenario:

You’re minding your own business in a friendly sort of bar, enjoying the heady mix of cultures as foreigners — a mix of holiday-makers, transients and expats — rub shoulders with the locals.

Suddenly you see him — or her — across the crowded room. This gorgeous individual is staring right at you, smiling seductively. You make contact with those smoldering eyes…and that’s where it ends.

Because she doesn’t speak your language, and you speak none of hers.

So really, what are you going to say to her?

Can romance transcend the language barrier?

It’s a tricky one.

No lo entiendo, mi amor

I have a little experience in this area; once upon a time, when I doing a three-month stint of volunteering at an animal shelter in Ecuador, I fell madly in lust with a gorgeous Latino woman.

Of course she didn’t speak English — there was no one who could for miles in any direction. I spoke no Spanish, because until that moment there had never seemed enough reasons to learn it.

I was captivated by her — she was the kind of exotic beauty you read about in well, the kind of books that I don’t read. Ahem.

So what do you do?

Two obvious tactics spring to mind.

The first is what I did: get horribly drunk and throw yourself at the poor woman, in the hope that you’ll never remember the embarrassment in the morning, if she laughs in your face.

As it happens, this tactic worked — but it should be noted that this is the first time ever, in the history of mankind, that this has been the case. As a rule, I cannot endorse extreme inebriation as a successful method of flirtation; truly, this must have been Cupid himself in action.

The second tactic is to get a friend who does speak both languages to make some kind of introduction. This can help you get over that incredibly awkward initial stage when neither of you is really sure if the other is genuinely interested.

This is the tactic I should have used, as I had a perfectly good friend with the requisite language skills. Of course by the time I’d thought of that, I was already too drunk to pronounce even English words. It was quite a way down the road when I finally got to communicate in words with my new lover, through an interpreter.

At that point, it was great to have it confirmed that she felt the same way about me as I felt about her!

It was slightly less great to discover that she was already married and had two children. But then, that’s the chance you take when you practice tactic no.1.

Thankfully, she was separated from her husband — although as our relationship progressed, I did hear some disturbing rumors that her husband was looking for me…with a machete. I fervently hoped that was just my boss trying to wind me up. (If it was, he succeeded!)

Pidgin Spanish and pantomime…are there limits?

Although she was beautiful, the thought of meeting her again terrified me anew each time. I felt like such an idiot, struggling to express myself in pidgin Spanish and pantomime. I lived in fear of those awkward moments, when neither of us could make the other understand some fundamental issue.

That said, it definitely motivated me to learn Spanish! After every date I’d come back fired up with the desire to study. I never did any studying, of course — my day job (mucking out animal cages) kept me way too busy for that — but the desire was there. The desire, in fact, had never been a problem!

But how far can a relationship really go, when you don’t even have a language in common? Think how close you can get to someone in a long-term relationship; a connection bordering on the psychic, where you’re almost reading each other’s minds — it just doesn’t work when you’re constantly guessing at what the other person is saying.

The Austrian-British language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked:

The limits of my language are the limits of my world.

If he is right, then isn’t the lack of a shared language the very essence of incompatibility?

Relationship experts the world over agree that couples must work hard to bridge communication gaps. Well, when the gaps of linguistic understanding are wide enough to fly a 747 through — and it can feel like a long-distance relationship even when you’re standing next to each other — bridge-building can be something of a challenge.

My Ecuadorian love and I were together three months, after which I left to fly back home. Ironically, we’d each learned just enough of each other’s languages to really get to know each other’s thoughts, hopes, fears and frustrations — the day before my flight to England.

I’d like to open it up to the floor at this point!

Has anyone got any experience of this that they wouldn’t mind sharing? Or an opinion, on whether or not it’s possible?

Can love really conquer all — including that ultimate bad guy of cross-cultural barriers, linguistics?

What do you think?

I’d love to know!

TONY JAMES SLATER is a self-confessed adventureholic. For the last six years he’s been traveling nonstop around the world, working at a variety of jobs including yacht deliverer in the Mediterranean, professional diver in Thailand and snow boarder in New Zealand. Last year, Slater published his first book, That Bear Ate My Pants!, an account of his misadventures while volunteering at the animal refuge in Ecuador. (The book was featured in The Displaced Nation’s list of 2011 expat books.) He is currently working on a second book set in Thailand, while exploring his new home in Perth, Australia.

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, a review of Matt Krause’s memoir recounting how he met a woman on a plane — and followed her all the way to Turkey! NOTE: Subscribers to our weekly DISPLACED DISPATCH are eligible to win a free, autographed copy!

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11 responses to “THE DISPLACED Q: Does love conquer all — even language barriers?

  1. ML Awanohara February 13, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    Hi, TJS. Your story makes me think of the phenomenon known in Japan as iki jibiki (生き字引) — walking dictionary. It refers to all the foreigners (mostly men) who look for Japanese significant others to help them cope with the culture and learn the language (in their defense, it’s a heck of a difficult language, and the Japanese women are often into it because they want to improve their English). The question is always, will they stay with this woman beyond the period when they are useful in this way?

    I gather that language exchange wasn’t one of your motives for getting to know your Ecuadorian lady, but was she actually useful in helping you negotiate the culture? And if so, doesn’t it beg the further question: is that the right reason to be with someone?

    • Tony James Slater February 14, 2012 at 12:20 am

      Well I have to admit, there were other things on my mind than achieving a greater degree of appreciation for the local culture :0)
      In fact she did help me integrate, as I never felt ‘lost’ in an entirely foreign place with her – like local bars etc. I did feel far more integrated than most of my fellow volunteers, and it really helped my sense of identity while I was there.
      But it wasn’t my primary reason, no.
      And I think if I was callous enough to use her for her cunning linguist abilities, I’d probably not be sticking around afterwards – unless of course a genuine closeness had developed ‘by accident’? Could always happen!

      • ML Awanohara February 14, 2012 at 12:17 pm

        Actually, you make a good point. Strange as it may sound to those of us who find language study a torture, it’s an aphrodisiac for some… Come to think of it, wasn’t there a time when saying you were having “French lessons” was a bit of a double entendre? But let’s not go there…

        On your other point, about how language learning was the last thing you were thinking about: I keep forgetting that the first priority in today’s dating scene is hooking up. A relationship comes later, if at all.

        • Tony James Slater February 15, 2012 at 1:10 am

          Well, I wasn’t always completely focused on hooking up! A nice, comfy relationship was always amongst my primary objectives, what with being a romantic soul at heart. But language learning… anyone who goes specifically looking for a date in order to pick up the local lingo has gotta be a pretty cold fish. Or a very clever one…

          • ML Awanohara February 16, 2012 at 4:23 pm

            Or just someone whose brain is wired that way! Since taking up blogging on these themes, I’ve encountered a surprising number of who fell in love with a country’s language first — which very often led to their finding a partner from that culture, or else another language buff like themselves. Not everyone wants an easy life, as it turns out. 🙂

  2. Angela February 13, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    In my experience, texting and emailing using google translate in-between visits is actually quite effective for sharing thoughts, emotions and getting to know someone!

    But of course there is always the nice pantomiming and not understanding issue in person…but that’s where alcohol and dancing plays its best part 🙂

    • Tony James Slater February 14, 2012 at 12:16 am

      Ah, bring on the alcohol and dancing! That only gets old when you’re trying to communicate some deeply sentimental feeling of soul-unity… I could never figure out the jive for ‘soul unity’!
      And pantomiming leads to as much comedy as you could ever need in a relationship! I would say there was more laughter than any other relationship I’ve been in – and most of it was directed at me!
      Thanks for weighing in Angela :0)

  3. Tony James Slater February 15, 2012 at 1:21 am

    I’d like to add that, capricious as this story may make it seem, my relationship at the time was deadly serious (in more ways than one – I still have nightmares about that machete…)
    Although I told the lady in question not to wait for me (she was determined to stake everything on me affording to come back and whisk her off somewhere – despite the fact that she earned considerably more than me!) – I did intend on going back to Ecuador for a reunion, with vague, unspecified plans after that. I was about as in love as it’s possible to be under the circumstances!
    It was only later, with the distance of… well, distance – that I remembered how difficult it had been, and how little we really knew about each other. Coupled with the fact that it would be at least a year before I could afford to return to Ecuador – and even then, would never be able to import her to a life of luxury in England, because I’m a penniless vagabond type – it just seemed an unlikely dream. She was always out of my league, I felt – coming home only reinforced that opinion, as I realised just how little I had to offer a potential life-partner. I looked into getting her a work visa in the UK for quite a while, but it wasn’t possible – not without a job lined up, something even I didn’t have! We stayed in touch for several months (we still are in fact, which is why I couldn’t name names here), but I had to tell her eventually that it was never going to be. It broke both our hearts at the time I think! We’d become very close in spite of the language issues, and both had mastered enough of each other’s language specifically because of our desire to communicate.
    That’s the main reason why I am sceptical – I honestly think if it were at all possible, I’d have achieved it – I gave it a better go than most :0)

    • ML Awanohara February 16, 2012 at 4:29 pm

      Thanks, TJS, it does help to have this postscript on your story… Otherwise, I might have stereotyped you as the kind of guy who keeps a “woman in every port” — thus who shrugs off a little thing like language barriers! 🙂

  4. Jim February 4, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    What if she did speak English very well? Would you be able to spend the rest of your life in Ecuador? I found myself in this situation in Thailand and had to leave a wonderful woman because I could never fit in there. The language barrier is substantial and not easy to overcome.

    • cindamackinnon February 6, 2014 at 4:02 pm

      I,ve often wondered how people manage this . The cross cultural marriage is challenging enough! We have a friend who married Taiwanese sand after quite a few years she speaks English well and they seem happier than most. …. Even dealing with parental disapproval. Still I think she is amazing!

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