How to fall in love with a language
My Relationship Status
A few weeks ago, I invited some friends to my apartment to play a game of Risk.
It was cold and rainy outside, so I felt that playing the exciting strategy-based board game would be a great way to spend the evening with friends.
The first to arrive was my friend, Alessandro. Upon entering, he noticed a Hungarian book lying on my table. He laughed. “Hungarian now?” he asked, smiling. I nodded.
You see, Alessandro is very familiar with my passion for languages. Every time I begin a new one, he absolutely has to know why—or at least come up with his own theories on the matter.
“I’ve been to Budapest with you—you must be after a girl!”
I had seen that coming from a mile away. Indeed, the women in Hungary are beautiful, but much to Alessandro’s eventual surprise, I did not embark on my Hungarian journey out of love for another.
Well, not exactly.
I am in love, but first, not with an Hungarian girl, as Alessandro had surmised.
I’m also in love with the entirety of the Hungarian language.
“Really?,” you might ask. “You’re in love with a language? What does that have to do with anything?”
It’s an odd thought, I admit. But it makes a lot more sense than you might think.
When you’re in love with a person, you devote a considerable portion of your life to them. You spend time getting to know their personalities, dreams and quirks. You sacrifice your time and effort to create experiences with them, experiences that you hope may last a lifetime.
Love is neither easy, nor difficult. It is, however, always a challenge. As much as you and your significant other may share laughter and good times together, rough patches are just as likely, if not inevitable. You may fight, or argue. You may do things that damage the relationship, or even cause the relationship to come to a halt for a time, or forever.
If a relationship between two people is to last, then their love will inevitably follow such a cycle. The good will give way to not-so-good, and back again. Such an ebb and flow is entirely natural, and must be accepted as part of the process.
Love of a language follows much of this same pattern. Your attraction to a language is an essential part of your learning, and effort must be expended to develop and maintain such an attraction over time, lest a rough patch cause a breakup.
Just like in real relationships, every good language learning adventure should start with a spark. Indeed, you must build a strong attraction from the outset if you are to have any hope of successfully “marrying” the language over the long term.
To show you how to build such a spark between you and your target language, let me tell you a love story:
Love at First Sight
The first time I ever visited Hungary was in 2007. Budapest, its capital, was the last city to visit on an Eastern-European tour that included Prague and Krakow.
The beauty of Budapest was astonishing. The large city, divided into two halves by the Danube river, has an elegance that betrays its urbanity. Indeed, the city is riddled with fascinating contradictions that kept me endlessly interested.
One half, Buda, is mostly a residential area, lush and green. The other, Pest, is busy and raucous, full of all sorts of restaurants and bars.
As a young tourist, Pest was the more attractive side. Most nights, the whole area was flush with parties and young people, celebrating until the early morning hours.
There’s one night in Pest that I personally will never forget.
That evening, my friends and I decide to check out a club a fair distance away from the city center.
Going to an unfamiliar club is always a game of chance. You never know what to expect until you actually get there.
Once I arrived at this club, however, I immediately took a liking to it.
The venue, large and spacious, had two rooms for dancing–each attached to a huge patio outside. Loudspeakers were pumping rock music ad infinitum.
We hit the dance floor immediately.
Before I could even get into a groove, someone grabbed me by the hand and pulled me aside.
It was a girl. She wanted to dance.
And dance she did.
Usually in clubs like this, selecting someone to dance with is usually a sign that the person is looking for something a bit more…intimate.
But not here. Not with this girl.
She just wanted to dance. To share a spontaneous, human moment as we smiled and twirled around each other on the dance floor.
And then, as soon as she had appeared, she was gone.
To my surprise, I was immediately approached by another girl, and the ritual began anew.
As I danced, I took a look around.
Everyone—and I mean everyone—was dancing. There were no wallflowers here.
Every person in the venue seemed to move in unison, as if we had renounced our individuality and become one huge, harmonious dancer.
It was a beautifully intoxicating moment that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
Later on, exhausted by all the dancing, I went out to the patio to get some fresh air.
Another girl—this one stunningly beautiful—approached me. She just came right up to me, looked at me straight in the eyes, and kissed me.
“Wow”, I thought to myself. I was so taken aback by the gesture that the only word I could get out was “Why?”.
“Because you glow”. The answer floated off her tongue, in perfect, pristine English.
Needless to say, such a thing had never happened to me before. This trip to Hungary was shaping up to be one unforgettable experience on top of the last.
Throughout my travels, I’ve found that every country possesses its own, unique “mentality”. I see this mentality not only in the overt—the food, the language, the art, and so on—but the subtle as well. In Hungary, I could see this mentality in the rhythm of the dancers, and the small acts of courtship between men and women. I could even see it in the eyes of the woman who could find it in herself to walk right up and kiss me.
Seeing all of this seemingly hidden beauty revealed to me over the course of that magical night unleashed a desire to me to experience more of it. A spark had brought light where I never knew there was darkness.
I was infatuated with the small taste I had had of Hungary. And I knew then that one day I would come back, wanting to savor it all. And learning the Hungarian language would have to be a big part of that.
I love languages, don’t get me wrong. But I always consider them as a tool to live a better life. So when I decided to learn Hungarian, I didn’t decide it because the language is beautiful. Yes, I liked the way it sounds, but the reason is because I imagine myself using it to discover and become part of a new world.
Approach Love with an Open Heart and Mind
Even though I did not begin learning Hungarian on that fateful night, I did make a promise to myself that I would eventually do so.
Even as infatuated as I was with the Hungarian people and culture at the time, making that decision was not one that I took lightly.
After all, Hungarian was then (and still is now) a language that many purport to be the hardest in all the world.
That’s a fact that would have dissuaded most people from taking up the task.
Think back to your love life again. If you’re single, and you see an attractive man or woman out on the street, it is all too easy to tell yourself “That person is so beautiful. Surely I couldn’t ever be good enough for them”.
And even worse, if you don’t have that thought independently, other (terrible) people might chime in and tell you that the object of your affection is essentially too good for you.
This type of fatalist prejudgment has stopped countless potential relationships before they even had a chance to start both for you, and many others.
The problem is that these thoughts exist only in your mind. They are a figment of your imagination, yet you believe them to be real. It is the belief in such illusions that keep you from such potential romantic adventures, whether it be with a person or the foreign language you’ve always dreamed of learning.
When I first “met” Hungarian, I could have let these mental deceptions stop me in my tracks. Luckily, however, I had experience on my side, so I knew better than to be deceived by my own doubts, or those of others.
What I did know was this: There is no such thing as a language that is impossible to learn, or a person that is impossible to talk to, to at least try and see if the spark is there.
And knowing that, I had known that learning Hungarian would be absolutely possible for me, whenever I chose to make an effort and just approach.
Because I’ve fallen in love before. Both with people, and languages. I’m intimately familiar with the sacrifices that need to be made to build a healthy relationship between myself and another, and to keep that relationship growing and evolving in a positive direction over time.
Once you’ve been in a relationship once, you know you have what it takes to do it again, and likely make it better than your last.
And so I banished the assumptions of others from my mind, and kept my own counsel.
And now that I’m learning Hungarian (and quite enjoying it), I’m glad I did.
If you want to learn a distant language, as Hungarian was to my native Italian, I suggest you do the same.
Rid yourself of assumptions and prejudices that discourage you from undertaking a goal that is meaningful to you.
If the language you’d love to learn has scared off all comers, take it as their unwillingness to test the limits of their own personal power, and your willingness to succeed where others have failed.
And don’t ever play in the shallow, apparently “easier” end of the language pool just because you’re scared to dive into the deep end. If you take on a closer language only as a “proxy” for the one you’d really like to learn, you’ll be more likely to not learn either language at all.
To know a language, and to know what it will take you to learn it, you need to approach it with an open mind. Don’t be dissuaded by appearances, or the distance between you and the object of your affection.
You have what it takes to “make the first move”, so it is always up to you to make an effort to get to know a language on your own terms, before you decide whether or not to pursue a relationship.
There is simply no other way.
Know Why You’re Together in the First Place
Once you know for yourself what needs to be done before reaching the language you love, you’ll need to figure out your deepest, most compelling reasons for embarking on your relationship with that language.
As badly as I wanted to learn Hungarian in 2007, it was the lack of a compelling “why” that kept me from starting the language for another eight years.
You see, I was infatuated with Hungarian back then. But infatuation is not love. Not really.
Love requires a courtship. Both players in the game must become simultaneously the lover and the loved, birthing a willingness to both give and receive.
Once that happens, love may begin.
But in 2007, even after my marvelous experience in Pest, I knew that the moment hadn’t come yet. I felt ready for Hungarian, but did not feel like Hungarian was ready for me: the “why” that needed to bring us together had not yet materialized.
Continuing ahead without the why would not have resulted in a true, lasting romance. Instead, Hungarian and I would have started strong, but fizzled out fast, like a summer fling.
Once you get rid of false assumptions (and protect yourself from them going forward), you need to dig deep within yourself to discover why you and your chosen language need to stay together for the long haul, no matter what challenges may arise.
If you’re reading this article and find yourself currently why-less, all is not lost.
You can still find your why. You can still fall in love, and make it last.
You just need to let your emotions guide you.
You need to make the language real to you, instead of just words on a page or sounds in an audio file, you need to make it tangible.
So go. Visit the country.
If you can’t do that, then connect with a living, breathing, native speaker of your language in person, right where you live.
If you can’t do that, then look for the same people, but online. Making a real, human connection no longer requires physical proximity (though of course it helps!)
Learn about this person, or people, that you interact with. Learn about their hopes and dreams, and how who they are is connected to where they’re from and the language they speak.
If there’s a spark to be found, you’ll find it. If not, you can begin the process anew with another language, and other people.
Imagination is also a key component of developing this spark as well.
Think about who you would like to become by joining together with your chosen language. Imagine all of the things you’ll be able to do after a few months of study, with only a half-hour or so invested each and every day.
When I was looking for my Hungarian “why”, the good experience I had in the past helped quite a lot. However, I was even more driven by the mere thought of how much more deeply I could interact with the cities, the people, the culture, and the country of Hungary, just through learning the language.
This “potentiality” is what I return to when I stumble on the path to Hungarian mastery. I know what I want to do, so therefore I know what I must do. I don’t need to ask myself why I’m learning Hungarian, because the reasons why are strong, beautiful images, woven into the fabric of my mind.
Plan Your Future Together, and Show Your Love Daily
I officially started Hungarian on November 4, 2015.
That was the date I had set to start, and once I began, I knew there would be no looking back.
All relationships have a beginning, a date to be celebrated as an anniversary for weeks, months, and even years to come.
If you want to start your language relationship off on the right foot, I recommend you set that date right now.
Once that’s settled, the second decision to establish long-, mid-, and short-term goals, imagining the trip backwards—from final destination to starting point.
For example, my long term goal is to reach fluency in Hungarian in 2 years.
My short term goal is to reach basic fluency in 1 year.
My first short term goal is to complete Assimil Hungarian with Ease in 4 months.
Logically, this means that I have until February 4th to complete that course.
Once that course is completed, I’ll have taken my first short-term step towards my mid- and long-term goals.
After that, I will take things further and constantly and consistently adapt my learning routine according how proficient I am in the language.
The key here is this: Once you know how distant your target language is from your native one, you can easily see how much time you’ll need to dedicate to studying a language in order to reach a certain level.
To achieve my goals in Hungarian, I sit down every Sunday and make my plan. Every day gets a 30 to 60 minute block of time for language learning. Once that time block is set, I give myself no choice but to follow through and learn at that time.
Planning beforehand in this way allows me to organize and manage my time and energy.
Without this plan, my language learning would be at the mercy of my time and energy “in the moment”. If I didn’t know exactly when I should be learning, then I would have to make that decision based upon how I felt or how much time I felt I “had”. If I were tired or busy, language learning would inevitably fall by the wayside.
Know How You’ll Maintain Love’s Spark
Once I had dropped my assumptions about Hungarian, found my why, and made my plan to learn it, all that remained was to decide how to do it.
Luckily for me, I knew how to do it before I even started.
This is because I have a wealth of language learning experience behind me, and that experience has led me to create my own, personal language learning method—one that is designed around precisely my needs and personality as a learner.
The method I am using for Hungarian is the same one that I’ve used to learn nearly a dozen others. It is centered around a technique I call bilingual translation. This technique brings me immense joy as a learner, and many students of mine have learned to love it as well.
As much as bilingual translation helps me, it, like any method, is not one-size-fits-all.
Every language has idiosyncrasies that must be adapted to, and Hungarian is chock full of them.
To address these unique challenges inherent within Hungarian, I am spending quite a bit of time with them, feeling out every linguistic “knot”, and gradually unraveling them, turn by turn.
Luckily, knowing other languages gives me many vantage points from which to observe these difficulties, and so overcoming each one is easier than it would have been had I remained a monolingual speaker of Italian before tackling Hungarian.
If you’re only starting your language journey, then of course you won’t have this experience to lean on.
That’s okay. I only started with one language too.
The point I’m trying to make here is that regardless of where you start, experience will always make the road ahead easier than the road behind. And that’s a comforting thought.
Learning a language is like embarking on a romantic relationship. Your relationship with your language will require time, energy, compromise, and sacrifice in order to survive in the long-term, just as any human relationship will. Just as these elements are essential to any healthy relationship, the spark of love is the most essential element of all.
Without the spark, the fire of love cannot ignite. Without the fire of love, there is nothing for the would-be lovers to tend, maintain, and make grow over time.
If you want to learn a language, particularly one that is distant from your own, you need to find your spark. Once you take the steps to approach the language on your own terms, you need to put in the work to ensure that a spark is there.
If the spark is there, then you’ll know you and your language will be able to create a fire worth tending to. Then, all you need to do is plan to ensure that you’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that that fire, that love, burns bright every single day, and for as long as you can maintain it.
These are the steps I took to fall in love with the Hungarian language. I’m now head-over-heels, and I know for certain that Hungarian and I have a bright future together.
If you want such a love story for yourself, follow the steps I have described above, and get ready for the romantic adventure of a lifetime.
Just remember, as famed author Gary Chapman once said:
“Love is a choice we make every day”
Written by Luca Lampariello