Learning a language

As any regular reader of this blog will now be well aware, language interests me. I have discussed some of my thoughts on learning a foreign language before. The bottom line is that I like the idea, but it has never really worked out. I think it is largely a matter of circumstances and need. If I lived in another country, I would have the incentive to learn the language. This might even be the case if I were in a place where a particular foreign language is just common; for example, Spanish in California.

A while back, a colleague advised me that the best way to learn French was to get a French girlfriend. Although this sounds like a splendid idea, I am quite sure that my wife would not have been impressed; equally, I doubt whether my Other Half now would be particularly supportive. I have found other people’s language learning experiences interesting …

Some years ago, I was visiting the Mentor office in Munich. I was staying in a nearby hotel and, as I was on my own, headed to the bar to get a light dinner. While sitting at the bar, I fell into conversation with another hotel guest. This guy was an American, who, like me, was there to have some dinner. It transpired that he had been staying at the hotel for a year! He had been working on a contract and never got around to finding anything else. I could not imagine being stuck in a hotel for a whole year.

But it got worse. I commented that Munch was not such a bad place to be – after all it has the largest proportion of single people of any city in Europe and I am sure there are lots of attractive German girls. He did not sound too enthusiastic. I asked how good his German was after all that time. He said that he had not really bothered to try to learn any, as they spoke English in the office. What a wasted opportunity!

At around that time we had a distributor who looked after the Benelux [Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg]. I was travelling with one of their sales guys and chatting about life. He was Dutch, but was based in Brussels in Belgium. The language in Northern Belgium is essentially Dutch, but the city of Brussels is an island of French speakers. He had acquired a girlfriend – a local girl. Initially they had a problem: she spoke French and he spoke Dutch, so they used English. He commented that, after a while, English proved to be an inadequate language for a romantic relationship and he learned French.

For years now I have been wondering: what can you say [in a romantic context] in French that cannot be said in English? Am I missing out on something? If anyone can tell me, I would be most grateful. I have heard it suggested that it is not that you can say different things; some things just sound better said in French. I guess that “Je t’adore” does have a certain ring to it.

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0 thoughts about “Learning a language
  • I got an email from an old friend about this posting. He is English, but living in France for a while. He is doing all the right things: taking French classes and has acquired a French girlfriend. He assures me that this is helping with his language studies. However, he has a reservation about French as a language for romantic purposes, as there are pitfalls – notably they use more or less the same verb to mean “kiss” and “have sex with”. I can see that this might lead to misunderstandings. Clearly intensive study is required.

  • Perhaps your Dutch colleague’s girlfriend preferred French aimply because she could appreciate a compliment more easily if she didn’t have to translate it first. I wonder what would have happened if the man had been Flemish instead of Dutch? She might never have spoken to him at all, in any language but French.

    This is a problem a Dutch FAE related to me when we both worked for Intel, back in the mists of time. He would call head office (then in Brussels, which is supposedly bilingual though the French speakers hold sway). Hoping for a Flemish receptionist, he would introduce himself in Dutch. If, though, the receptionist spoke French, the reply would be in French. Until, that is, she realised he was Dutch, not Belgian. Then she would happily revert to Flemish (i.e. Dutch). All the receptionists, it turned out, were fluent in both languages but none would converse in anything but her first language to another Belgian!

    And these are the people who believe they run the EU – and probably do now that they’ve installed a Belgian president!

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2010/04/01/learning-a-language/