Secret Language Motivations

Love can be a motivation. I’m not talking about learning how to say enough for “one night love,” I’m talking about this:

> I am learning [language] so I can tell you how much I love you and have it mean more than if I told you in English.

I wonder how many years of study it will take…

Post Secret is still cool.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. isn;t it “one night stand”?

  2. Love is totally a motivator. Some second language acquisition theorists explain critical period phenomena (why kids learn language so fast compared to adults) by saying it’s because younguns are hard-wired to pursue emotional relationships with caregivers. And, because language/communication is a necessary part of relationship, you have highly, highly motivated learners. That’s the way the theory goes.

    Of course, that’s just part of the story… I’m sure neural plasticity, etc etc comes into play too.

    Sorry to spoil such tender thoughts with linguistic theory…

  3. marco,

    Note the quotation marks.

  4. nick,

    I’ve never heard that theory; that’s very interesting.

    I don’t think I buy it, though. Plenty of children receive language input from more sources than just parents. According to that theory, those children should favor their parents’ language over other languages in their environments, but I don’t think that is what normally happens.

  5. Nice how “te quiero” corresponds with 我想你, isn’t it?

  6. If I said ‘I love you’ in my love’s native language, it would mean more to him than if I said it in any other language. But it would also mean less to me, I would only feel that I really, really meant it if I say it in my own native language. I guess the best way is to say it twice every time 🙂

  7. Aw, come on, the author of postsecret writes most of his own postcards.

  8. John,
    Honestly I don’t fully subscribe either =). In addition to your example, it also doesn’t account for cases where the parents are so busy that they neglect their children (the theory would predict very poor language skills in those situation and that isn’t the case). Still, it is interesting to look at language acquisition from a behaviorist lens instead of the normal ling and neuro perspectives…

  9. For a one night stand, a man don’t really need many word to show to a girl that he “loves” her. Body language is sufficient, effective and easy to understand.
    It could be much more “oral” chinese than spoken chinese.

  10. Chuck in NY Says: March 1, 2007 at 11:04 pm

    I have loved the Chinese language since I took a couple of vacations there a few years ago. However, it wasn’t until I started dating a Chinese girl about a year ago that I started thinking about taking Chinese at my University. Then it wasn’t until I was faced with the prospect of meeting her non-anglophone parents this summer that I actually started taking the damn class. Now I have gotten so obsessed with it I am learning 100 characters a week, insisting practicing pronunciation with her about an hour a day, and as of last night, even uttering it in my sleep (apparently tone-less, unfortunately).

    So love (and fear) can be a great motivator to turn an idle interest in a language into a commitment to master it.

  11. actually I’ve learned english (or better, really improved my level) with an american girlfriend some time ago.
    If you consider the amount of time spent with the partner, emotional attachment and creation of precious (linguistic) memories, it goes that is quite fast learn the the language of your partner, especially if you live together. I remember at that time I spoke just english and chinese for four months, almost no words in my native language -italian-. At the end, I found questioning myself for 30 long seconds how to call a jar in italian… (barattolo, BTW)

    great blog john, been a reader for a long time and really enjoyed it!

  12. While the learning a language by dating people is definately one of the most ancient forms of language training, I think it definately has its limits. Often two people reach a level where they understand each others odd combination of two languages and create a sort of ideosyncratic pidgin, and they don’t move much beyond that.

    I think developing an interest in an one of the more literate parts of the culture provides a more major reliable long term boost to the development of sophisticated Chinese skills.

    Rather less romantic though . . . .

  13. Chuck in NY Says: March 2, 2007 at 2:42 pm

    Actually, Steve you are right on the money as far as ideosyncratic pidgins go. I believe the sentence “would you stop fanging pi?” would qualify as pidgin. Also, if the couple wants a real linguistic symbiosis each will obviously have to avoid the temptation to let cute-but-wrong speech patterns go uncorrected. But hey, these are relationships, not language exchanges. That all being said, at my level, I can’t imagine a better situation to become conversational as rapidly as possible (living with a native speaker of whichever tongue one is learning).

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