The [Love] Language Barrier: An American in Paris

The Eiffel Tower at night, 2008.

I've been fortunate enough to have traveled quite a bit in countries whose language I don't speak. I know what it's like to have that whole language barrier thing. Consequently, 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, like "where is the toilet?" or "no, you cannot buy me for 10,000 camels." It's also a good idea to travel with a sense of humor.

I've been thinking lately about how my husband and I speak love to each other. And how we want to have love spoken to us. It occurred to me that being fluent in a language involves not just speaking, but also hearing and listening and understanding the language.

For example, in Germany I can get around because I know a little bit of German, though I can understand it much better than I can speak it. When I am listening to someone who speaks German, I have to listen intently because it doesn't come naturally for me. I don't always hear the nuances of the language if I am not paying attention. When I am speaking English to someone who is not fluent in the language, I tend to speak slowly and enunciate in an effort to try to help them understand what I am saying. One person can speak a language, but if the person they're speaking to doesn't listen/hear/understand it, then things tend to get misunderstood.

As I was thinking about the 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 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.

The lines to go up 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 non-French 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 barrier 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, you can find out all about them in more detail at the Five Love Languages website.

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. If you both do this, you will both 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. He brought me home flowers (my language was gift giving). I gave him back rubs (his language was physical touch).

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.)

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).

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.

I imagine that sometimes it's okay if communicating in our love languages ends up looking somewhat like a combination of both languages: I'm speaking my language and he's speaking his, but we both understand each other because we've learned the other's language well enough to understand it. The conversation might still be stilted, but at least we're communicating and understanding. That's a good first step.

Eventually we will learn to speak each other's languages fluently, but for now I want to understand his language when he speaks it to me. Then I won't be like an American in Paris, waiting for the elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower, who doesn't know that escaliers means stairs.

(This post was updated from a previous post at my former blog.)


 More Paris pictures...

The view from the apartment's living room window.

bisou, xo


Lucy said...

somehow it morphed into something like the tourist that is shocked the French aren't speaking English to them.....stunning! you absolutely nailed this!
I've been thinking about the love languages lately.
Thank-you ever so much for the trip to Paris too!

PaulaJ said...

such beautiful photos!

Oma said...

A good reminder, Anne. Learning another language isn't easy; so much easier to stick with your own....and have to walk up the Eiffel Tower. Hmmmm
Great photos of great memories.

Anonymous said...

Read and reread this post, Anne. Good, good, good! :)


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