Photo: Kainet

The Turks have a wonderfully poetic phrase that translates as, “Languages cannot be learned without tongues touching.” I’d wager most travelers would agree with this sentiment, although they’re usually more focused on the tongues touching part than language acquisition.

That said, hooking up with the local flavor is beneficial for both reasons. Dating a local brings about stomach butterflies along with a bonus shot of excitement given by their fundamentally different upbringing. But the cultural and linguistic disparity is more than simply exciting — as the Turks already know, it’s the single best way to learn a language.

What are the ingredients of the perfect language-learning disciple? Let’s break it down:

  1. Practices the language often and actively works to improve
  2. Identifies mistakes, and knows why they’re wrong
  3. Looks for cultural context within each new word, for better retention and understanding

Now think about what happens when you’re dating someone who speaks a different language. Just as in any other romantic relationship, you think about this person all the time and are constantly brainstorming ways to get closer to them physically and emotionally. The best thing you can do to easily get closer to them? Study their language! A relationship without communication isn’t much of a relationship, and when the communication is in an unfamiliar tongue, you’d better believe you’ll get much better at that tongue, and quickly.

Learning a language normally requires immense amounts of personal discipline, even if you have a material goal like an upcoming trip. But carrying on a relationship doesn’t demand discipline — it’s a textbook case of the heart winning out over the head. The beauty here is roping in that desire and tying it to the language-acquisition process. Every word learned and verb conjugated is a step closer towards the person you can’t get out of your head, which means you’re going to practice them with the same diligence Casanova put into his conquests. It’s very hard to learn something you don’t want to, but here, it’s aligned with the one person you want the most. That’s #1 down.

It makes the approach and asking for digits way easier. Nobody can reject the harmless plea to “practice conversation over dinner.”

Assuming this person returns your affections, they’re likely to become the most patient personal tutor you’ve ever had. They’ll gladly spend half an hour helping you frame your mouth exactly the right way to rid the word of that pesky accent, partly because they love the adorable way you mangle it every time. And you’re spending hours upon end with this person, which means lots of practice time. Every hour together results in at least one new word, phrase, or understanding. That’s #2.

When I was in Spain, the new language lessons came so fast I had to write them down. I created a note on my iPhone titled “Corey no sabe nada” (Corey doesn’t know anything), which the señoritas were delighted to help me fill out. It was like my teacher was doing my homework for me — all I had to do was sit back and let it soak in.

This list grew longer and longer, including quirky words and phrases unlikely to be taught in the classroom, like “dar cosquillas” (tickle), “mimar” (to pamper), and “consultar con la almohada” (to sleep on it, or literally, to consult with the pillow). Which brings me to perhaps the most compelling bonus of learning from a lover: You get a first-person perspective of the culture, which is #3.

Most language programs try to immerse you in the local culture in one way or another. You learn about the local dishes and traditions, often dividing into groups and presenting them to the rest of the class. But these colorful phenomena fade in vibrancy when dissected in a sterile classroom filled entirely with people who treat it as nothing but another school subject. With a boy/girlfriend, these cultural idiosyncrasies expose themselves organically, cementing them into your mind within a vivid web of context that no classroom can provide.

How could I ever forget the meaning of the phrase “Te echaré de menos” (I will miss you) when it was first uttered to me by a Brasilena as she entered the taxi that carried her towards a trans-Pacific flight and out of my life for the foreseeable future? No matter how many times I write that phrase on the board, it’s not going to stick in my mind as permanently as it does when associated with such an intense flashbulb memory. You end up speaking a language with words that are forever tied to specific faces and memories — now I’m reminded of her every time I hear “te echo de menos.” The language evolves from a tool for communication into a built-in mnemonic device, in a way that your mother tongue never could. Past lovers and friends leave indelible marks on your understanding of the very method you use to talk with other people. What could be more romantic than that?

So maybe amorous travelers are really killing three birds with one stone: meeting locals, assuaging their libido, and picking up language. Plus, it makes the approach and asking for digits way easier. Nobody can reject the harmless plea to “practice conversation over dinner” — now it’s an act of education rather than romantic interest.

So to the legions of backpacking Don Juan wannabes, keep doing what you’re doing. Just try not to break any hearts in your quest for fluency.

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