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03/06/2015 08:15 BST | Updated 01/06/2016 06:59 BST

Falling in Love with a Foreign Language: The Risks of a Metaphor

Unless you are brought up in a bilingual environment, a relationship with a second language is something you work to achieve and strive to maintain. It is not something you can buy.

It's become a commonplace to say that linguists 'love languages'. People have often described the experience of visiting, or moving to, a foreign country as a falling in love with its language. On occasion, this amorous metaphor - the image of a coup de foudre, of a love affair, or of an enduring, though perhaps conflicted, relationship - has been extended by bilingual writers and scholars. And in extending the metaphor, the common consensus is that falling in love with a language cannot be separated from falling in love with the cultures and communities in which it is spoken.

Argentine-Chilean-American writer and academic Ariel Dorfman, known for his 1990 play Death and the Maiden, describes his move to the US from Argentina aged two, and his subsequent hatred for the Spanish language, which at this point became an obstacle to his integration in the US. Aged 12, he returned to Latin America, this time to Chile, where he slowly 'became seduced by the Spanish language. It was a falling in love with Spanish as a language, with Chile as a country and as a community, with the revolutionary part of Chile in particular.' ('Resisting Hybridity')

Whereas some, like Dorfman, are forced into these complicated relationships with languages by circumstance, others pursue them by choice. This is the case of Julia Child, whose book My Life in France is explored by Francois Grosjean in his blog 'Falling in Love with a Culture and a Language'. He describes the book as 'a love story between Julia and Paul, her husband, between Julia and French cuisine, but also between Julia and a new country and its language.' Her story reminds him of other people he has known who have fallen in love with a culture and a language, and allows him to explore the different possible reasons for this experience - in Julia's case, 'the people, the food, the lay of the land, the civilized atmosphere, and the generous pace of life.'

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The linguist David Crystal (author of Just a Phrase I'm Going Through) responds to Grosjean's post by sharing his own love story: 'I can still remember my first French lessons in secondary school, and falling in love with nasalized vowels. It was only much later, on my first visit to France, where I worked with a youth group (called Concordia) building a bridge in the mountains in Haute Savoie, that I realized there was a culture behind the language. Or rather, cultures. At the camp were several Algerians, and they lost no time putting me right about French, much to the disgust of the Parisians who were also there. It took some time for me to realize that I needed to supplement my Algerian colloquialisms with a different variety if I wasn't going to attract funny looks along the Left Bank.' For him, then, falling in love with nasalized vowels was only the first step in a long voyage of discoveries, full of complexities and challenges.

But does the metaphor work when it is extended to encompass this complicated journey of understanding? Steve Kaufman (who speaks ten languages fluently and has developed an online language-learning tool called The Linguist) believes it does: 'Just as when you are in love,' he says, 'you want to and need to spend as much time as possible with the object of your love. You want to hear its voice and read its thoughts... You notice all the little things it does, you become familiar with its peculiar behaviour patterns. You breathe it. You hear its voice. You feel it... Just as in a love affair, there are things about the object of your love that you do not like. You ignore these.'

Until this point in his argument, this amorous, romantic and ultimately orientalising metaphor seems relatively harmless. But it takes a decided turn for the worse at the point at which he describes this love as a 'one-sided affair': 'You love the language. It does not love you back. But the good thing is that it is not jealous of you, of your other previous love affairs... You can use it however you want, as long as you enjoy yourself.'

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Perhaps I am taking this admittedly playful extended metaphor too seriously, but this last description strikes me as dangerous. The risk, it seems to me, results from the artificial, impossible separation of a language from the cultures and communities to which it belongs. In this wider human context, the notion of a 'one-sided love affair' - in which you 'use' another language, culture and community selfishly, unthinkingly and unfaithfully - becomes extremely problematic. In fact, it allows for the seemingly harmless metaphor of 'love for a language' to become a relationship of exploitation and possibly abuse.

Language, as we know, is not just a passive reflection of the world. On the contrary, the way we speak moulds the way we treat people, things and environments. Paradoxically, this sentimental metaphor, when taken further, therefore runs the risk of encouraging behaviours that the acquisition of foreign languages, and the corresponding intercultural skills and cultural awareness, should allow us to critique and transcend: namely, the binary opposition of self and other, and the objectification and xenophobia to which this leads.

For me, the metaphor might well at once stem from and produce what Alberto Moreiras, in the context of a discussion of the 'difference' of Latin America, terms a 'deluded orientalism of the heart' (2002: 31), the sentimental orientalism provoked by the human's desire for otherness. But worse, the notion of a 'one-sided relationship' leads to the dissolution of other cultures and people into what Moreiras would call abstract sets of commodity-values. In fact, it is telling that Kaufman's blog is in fact a sales pitch for his language learning system or, as he puts it, 'language loving system'. It is an advert for a product. If Kaufman extended the metaphor properly until this point in his blog, he could hardly deny that what he is trying to do is sell the love for a language, thereby turning it into a commodity.

I am not saying it is wrong to love a language. I certainly love Spanish. But my love for Spanish is inseparable from my love for Spain, Latin America and particularly Mexico, for their histories, their literatures, their art and architecture, their food and (I won't deny it) their weather, but most of all for my Spanish-speaking friends who live there or elsewhere, from whom I've learnt so much - and not just of the language. And I do hope that this is very much a two-way, mutually beneficial relationship, one that will keep evolving in a process of ever-enjoyable exchanges and enduring experiences.

Unless you are brought up in a bilingual environment, a relationship with a second language is something you work to achieve and strive to maintain. It is not something you can buy.

Image attributions:

1) http://www.forever-after.co.uk/are-you-speaking-the-same-language-as-your-partner/

2) CC image cropped from http://womenlearnthai.com/index.php/the-linguist-a-personal-guide-to-language-learning/