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The weight of words… in a foreign language.

29 Apr Posted by in Family Life, Language | 6 comments
The weight of words… in a foreign language.
When learning a new language, we spend most of our time focusing on word order, grammar and pronunciation.

At the beginning, words in a foreign language just don’t seem to hold as much weight as they do in our native tongues.

And then, gradually, our vocabulary increases, and we start to not just understand the words, but feel what they actually mean.

Ok, I know I’m sounding a bit cuckoo, but it’s a bit difficult to put into words. (Even in my native language.)

The best examples I can give are curse words.

As Americans, we aren’t taught a foreign language until we are at least 15, 16, or 17 years old. And the first thing immature teenagers always seem to want to learn are curse words. (fick/fuck, scheiße/shit, etc.)

Something to giggle about, I guess.

But, once we learn them, the foreign curse words don’t seem to carry as much weight as the curse words in our native tongue.

For instance, I must admit that I found it funny when Kay used to call me, “Miststück” (Bitch) and he was my… well, too derogatory to be written in this blog.

Yes, our humor is a bit slanted.

I can remember a conversation while in college with a Swedish friend in which she taught us some very naughty foreign words. We Americans laughed while constantly repeating these demeaning Swedish curse words, while she sat there cringing each time we blurted them out; I know she immediately regretted teaching us.

On the flip side, and to turn a bad concept into something good, I wonder how much weight, “I love you,” carries for Germans?

While the equivalent does exist in German (Ich liebe Dich), when I have tried to be respectful by saying it in the past, Kay can’t listen without laughing. No doubt because of my horrible pronunciation.

And the result was that I just quit trying; both of us have continued to use, “I love you,” in English.

Since Kay and I are constantly speaking English to each other (with the exception of Kay unknowingly talking in his sleep in German), I hadn’t given too much thought to learning terms of endearment in German.

The other day, I asked Kay, what are some German terms of endearment?

He, of course, looked at me with a blank stare until I explained, “terms of endearment.”

As in… the opposite of calling me Miststück and me calling you… (See, I can’t even write what I used to call him in English, but no qualms writing a derogatory name in German.)

Like Schatz or Schatzi which literally means “treasure,” but somehow translates to honey, or sweetheart.

He couldn’t give me as many German examples as I had in English. Is this proof that Germans just aren’t as affectionate?

Not my husband, at least. We say, “I love you,” in English all the time.

It isn’t too often that it happens, but last night Kay said, “Ich liebe Dich.”

Maybe it was the alcohol talking? Or maybe he forgot that he was speaking German to me (although not talking in his sleep)…

But now things are a bit different for me. I don’t speak German fluently, but I am beginning to feel what words mean in German.

And although I am a native English speaker, there is something completely romantic and indescribable when my husband says to me, “Ich liebe Dich.”

No, it isn’t me just being a sap for a foreign accent.

I guess, because I know that our own native languages will always carry more weight, it means more to me to hear him say, “I love you,” in his native language.

That’s not to say I thought he felt any less while saying, “I love you,” in English.

It just means that we are starting to cross the language barriers; now both of us are understanding more about the other’s native tongue language. (Using “tongue” in this context just seems too gross. But if I had to have the visual, I figured I should subject you to it too.)

I still refuse to try and say, “Ich liebe Dich,” though. My English dialect does not do the phrase justice.

  1. Kay04-29-12

    Ich liebe Dich, Miststück. LOL. Your turn…. IN GERMAN. :-)

    • Mommy04-29-12

      Aw, Schatzi! :)

  2. Mona Raub04-29-12

    You guys are too cute.

  3. anne04-23-13

    That was very well said, I think I know what you mean.
    After having spent some time in the US many years ago, for quite a long time I would only swear in English! The only exception was when I was all by myself and something really nasty had happened, like when I hit my toe on something (ouch). Swearing in German just had so much weight and I would only use it when I really had to vent. Swearing in English was, and is, so much easier!

    As for the I love you/Ich liebe dich, that’s another thing that got me thinking when living in the US. Americans seemed to say ‘I love you’ so easily, and so often, whereas I had never said ‘Ich liebe dich’ in my life by then! I realized that the difference was probably that in German there are two was of expressing your love, ‘Ich habe dich lieb’ and the three words. The first one is used when talking to your children, family, friends… whereas the other one is really, really deep and meaningful and saved for just one person. You wouldn’t really say ‘Ich liebe dich’ to your children, so I found it interesting that in America ‘I love you’ was said to basically everyone you love.

    As for the German ‘Ich liebe dich’, I remember complaining to a friend (years ago) when I was worried I could never say them without feeling awkward and cheesy… Like there had to be background music, as in a movie setting. My friend told me not to worry, because it would come naturally when you’re with the right person and wouldn’t feel corny then at all.

    I don’t know, though, since up to this day I find it much, much easier to say ‘I love you’ than ‘Ich liebe dich’. (Thank God for the English language!!)

    Oooooh, what a long comment. Can you tell your post really struck a cord? ;)

    Thank you and have lots of fun in Germany :)


    (One last thing, the terms of endearment… I was just saying to my husband yesterday how I used to hate all those silly, silly German pet names – and now I’m using them for my little daughter on a daily basis! There’s something about your own children that makes you babble the weirdest cute things – and mean them!)
    anne recently posted..« Paris »My Profile

    • Expat Mom04-29-13

      Thank you, Anne, for the comment! I most enjoyed reading. Glad it struck a chord:) Yes, saying ‘I love you’ in English does seem to come out more easily and more often:) Hm? You’ve left me with more to think about so thank you again!

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