Apr 21, 2011

the [love] language barrier: an American in Paris

Me and my son sitting along the Seine in Paris.
I've travelled quite a bit in countries whose language I don't speak. I know what it's like to have that whole language barrier thing. I think that it's a good idea to travel with a language dictionary and try to learn some basic phrases you will need along the way. It's also a good idea to travel with a sense of humor.

I've been thinking about how my husband and I speak love to eachother - and how we want to have love spoken to us. It occured to me that being fluent in a language involves not just speaking, but hearing and listening and understanding. In Germany I can get around because I can understand German, though I can't speak it as well as I understand it.

As I was thinking about different love languages, I reflected on my travels in countries where I don't understand the language at all. Then I thought specifically of my travels through France and how some Americans complain that when they travel in France the French won't speak to them in English. I have always been a bit puzzled by that complaint. You don't need to become fluent in French in order to travel in France, but it's a good idea to learn (or travel with someone who has learned) enough French to get around - or at the very least have a French/English dictionary handy.

My son in line for the escaliers at the Eiffel Tower.
For example, let's say you find yourself at the Eiffel Tower in a line for the escaliers thinking it's a line for the elevator. (escaliers > escalator > elevator) Then you find out that it's really a line for the stairs. You notice people around you smirking when you discover your mistake. It dawns on you that they've been listening to you - and understood you - as you discussed how happy you are that the elevator line was so short because of your mom's bum knee. (I admit, this is not a theoretical example. I also admit that the short line should have been a clue.)

In this not-so-theoretical example, it's tempting to think that the French speakers next to us who were obviously following the English conversation should have let us English speakers know of our mistake and help us out.

But it's really not their responsibility that we made that mistake. It was posted all over the Eiffel Tower that the line we were in was the line for the stairs. If we wanted to avoid the stairs, then we should have learned to understand the French word for stairs so that we could avoid it.

Recently as I have been thinking about my responsibility regarding my feelings, it struck me that there is a parallel with this language experience in Paris and my experience with the five languages of love. Early in our marriage we listened to a cassette tape recording of author Gary Chapman discussing his book about the five love languages. It helped us tremendously to realize that my husband and I spoke different love languages.

The five love languages are: 1.) Words of Affirmation, 2.) Quality Time, 3.) Gift Giving, 4.) Acts of Service, and 5.) Physical Touch. If you are not familiar with the five love languages, this is where you can find out all about them in more detail.

The basic concept is that we all speak love languages, but we speak different love languages. So if you are in a relationship with someone who speaks a different love language, they might be speaking love but you might not be hearing it and visa versa. So what you need to do is learn to speak your partner's love language so that they feel loved. When my husband and I discovered this idea, we made every effort to speak the other person's foreign love language so that they would feel loved.

But somehow it morphed over sixteen years and became something like the tourist who is shocked that the French aren't speaking English to them in France. Instead of "I don't understand French so you need to speak English to me," it became "I don't feel loved so you need to speak my love language."

"I don't feel loved so you need to..."

Who is responsible for my feelings? I am. So if I am feeling something, I need to look at what I am responsible for and what I can control. I can't control any one other than myself.

Could it be that I am not listening to my husband's love language? Could it be that he really loves me and is speaking love to me but I haven't taken the time to hear him speak in his language because I want him to speak mine? Could it be that he doesn't feel loved because he isn't listening to me speak love to him in my language? Could I be the tourist who goes to a foreign country and is offended when no one speaks my language to me? (Oh, please, not that.)

Me and my beloved.
I need to learn to understand my husband's love language so that I can hear that he is loving me. This brings the responsibility back to me for my own feelings (which is where it should be in the first place).

German is not my first language, and I don't speak it well, but when I'm trying to communicate with someone whose first language is German, I try my best. I understand more German than I speak, so at least I can understand when I'm spoken to. Well, for the most part. If I don't understand them, then I know enough German to say "I don't understand that, use a different word." If they've learned to speak my language, they might let me speak in English and they'll speak in German and we can communicate pretty effectively this way.

I imagine that sometimes it's okay if communicating in the love languages ends up like me and my German friend, speaking our own languages and understanding the other's language. My husband speaks his love language and I speak in mine but we understand what the other is saying, and we communicate love effectively that way.

I am all for speaking the other person's love language to them. I think it's absolutely necessary. I'm just thinking about what happened when we emphasized speaking your spouses language and not learning to hear their love language. We miss it when they speak love to us in their own language and feel unloved when really, we were loved all along.


  1. awesome. Great insight.

    Like i always said: "Stephen Wie geht's"?
    Sthephen: Danke,sehr gut. und du, JD?
    JD: "Nicht so gut."
    Stephen: Warum?
    JD: Ich habe meiner Ehefrau nicht zugehört, ihre Liebe languare zu sprechen, weil ich beschäftigter Versuch war, zu hören, dass sie meinen spricht.

  2. That made me smile. That was a funny memory in Germany.

    So, if I'm hearing you right, you're telling me that you need words of encouragement and a back rub?

  3. Yes, Right after I get back from the grocery store, flower shop, and I get done doing the dishes and laundry and i fix something around the house using a power tool.

  4. Our family spent a week there and the only French we had was my husband's high school, "Where is the library and Cheese". We managed to do every thing we wanted and had a wonderful time. Common sense and a smile goes a long way. I recommend Baedeker, the best guide book ever! And speaking of love languages for the ones we love...we can all learn that with a little work!


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