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Long-haired dictionary technique

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Senior Member
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 Message 1 of 18
20 October 2011 at 2:03pm | IP Logged 
(Disclaimer: I discourage people from lying to or leading on a member of the opposite sex to lure them into a relationship for any reason. It is hurtful, and just
plain unnecessary. Whether you are looking for a serious relationship, or just some fun with a lot of language practice, there are plenty of consenting adults
interested in accommodating you. I recommend finding one of these people, and being honest about everything.)

I have heard some strange things regarding language learning and relationships. For example, when I was in the Peace Corps I heard that some people believe the
road to true fluency is by going native, which meant having intimate relations with a local. On this forum, I occasionally hear that it’s impossible to acquire near-
native proficiency unless one has an L2 significant other. More often, I hear people hint that having an L2 lover is a language learner’s silver bullet. I think it’s
about time that we had a thread to dispel the myths and discuss relationships and language learning.

Although some of the same things will apply to casual acquaintances, the type of relationship I want to discuss here are intimate; boyfriend-girlfriend, husband-
wife, etc. If you have been helped in language learning by this type of relationship, and would like to give some pointers, please do it here. If you’d like to talk
about experiences or give warnings, feel free to share. 

I’ll start out with a summary of how I like to use relationships to help me learn languages, and recommendations that go along with this technique. This is a “how-
to” post, but it’s not meant to be definitive. Please feel free to write about your own technique too.

Before I start, I want to make something perfectly clear. This technique only covers part of one’s language plan. It can be wildly helpful, but only if you are doing
the things necessary in the other areas of your studies. Merely dating a local does not in and of itself guarantee L2 success.

The long-haired dictionary technique.

Rather than have a partner behave like a formal teacher, I prefer to treat her the same way I would an L1 girlfriend. By that I mean I prefer to behave naturally.
Communicate frequently, but communicate for the sake of communication, rather than grammatical accuracy, or trying to force in new vocabulary. I look at our
relationship as a means of actually using the language, rather than learning it. I hope our time together is time in which language is truly assimilated.

Of course, learning grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, etc, is necessary, depending on your goals. But my suggestion is to do the grunt work for these things
elsewhere. This keeps your time with your partner as stress free as possible. And this is what I believe to be one of the main reasons the technique works so well
for so many people. You are relaxed, and not bound by the learning anxiety encountered in more formal situations. Don’t think about mistakes or successes; just
live in the language. 

Another opportunity for success is to spend a lot of low stress time on task. For example, I was attending class mornings in Thailand, which was a little stressful.
I’d often eat lunch with my girlfriend, study in the early afternoon, and in the late afternoon and evening hang out with her. She’d often spend the night, and we
usually spent weekends together. So my time in class, and even my total study time for the week, was dwarfed by the time I spent with her. Note that we spent so
much time together, it would have been quite stressful if I tried to use her as a more traditional teacher. So I’m back to the opinion that my casual approach is
necessary to optimize success with this technique. 

Here are some qualities that I find desirable in an intimate language partner, in random order.

She should 

1)     be an L2 native speaker.
2)     be talkative and communicative 

3)     be interested in you and attracted to you
4)     be interesting to you and attractive to you

5)     understand your language goals, and be eager to help you 

6)     be willing to stick to L2 

7)     focus on communication, rather than perfection 

8)     focus on nurturing your language, rather than correcting you 

9)     be patient 

10)     instigate conversation about half the time, and listen about half the time
11)     be available when you need her to be 

Those are all the language related qualities I can think of. Of course, just about anything that, in general, makes a good relationship will make good intimate
language partners. For example, similar level of desire for physical intimacy, sense of humor, etc.

To summarize this technique, find an L2 member of the opposite sex and date them. Communicate frequently, but spend time naturally, without worrying about
the correctness of language. Spend as much time as possible. Try to find someone with lots of qualities that make good intimate language partners.

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Senior Member
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 Message 2 of 18
20 October 2011 at 2:33pm | IP Logged 
And here I thought you were about to recommend becoming a target language metalhead.

ETA: I actually meant it! I learn wonderful words from metal, like to fornicate and 惨殺.

Edited by Bao on 20 October 2011 at 4:03pm

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Senior Member
United States
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2365 posts - 3803 votes 
Speaks: English*
Studies: Tagalog

 Message 3 of 18
21 October 2011 at 5:38am | IP Logged 
Are you referring to "long-haired"? It's interesting how that phrase goes in and out of favor over the years. It was
very popular in the 60's in the US, and I still hear it occasionally today. I always remember the lyrics "the sign says
long-haired freaky people will be shot on sight".

I've heard the term "long-haired dictionary" refers to a sailor's way of coping with the language barrier abroad. Date
a local woman, and let her translate. Thus, she is the "long-haired dictionary".
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 Message 4 of 18
21 October 2011 at 10:39am | IP Logged 
This is very interesting. I'd never heard the phrase "long-haired dictionary", but it makes sense, although I'm guessing it refers to a bilingual girlfriend for a sailor who doesn't want to bother learning the local language.

The advice is sound, but I don't think my wife will let me try it out, even if it would help my language learning.
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 Message 5 of 18
21 October 2011 at 1:49pm | IP Logged 
I can only offer my own experience, which is limited to one person - my ex-wife.

There's a lot to be said for what language a couple uses in their daily life, and it forms a psychological basis for everything else.

When I met my ex-wife, I had already been living in Mexico for a little over a year. The language we used between us was only Spanish. While my Spanish improved while we began to date, get serious, then get married, her English never really improved because of this while we were in Mexico.

Even after we moved to the US (back to the US, for me), her English really never improved because Spanish was our language, and it was the basis of all our communications - how we related to each other. After spending years in the US, her English improved and she came to speak it quite well, but I had nothing to do with it. It was her making her own friends and forming those relationships with English, limited as it was for her, as the basis of communication.

Whenever she had any sort of question about anything in English, my answer was only to confirm (or refute) what she had already either learned or suspected.

It's really difficult to switch that base in a relationship once it's set in my opinion. An intimate relationship is so much different than any language partner, where expectations of improvement are understood from the get-go.

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 Message 6 of 18
21 October 2011 at 5:19pm | IP Logged 
As someone who has consistently mentioned the importance of significant relationships with L2 speakers as a success factor in L2 acquisition, I would like to add a few comments. Over and above the nature of relationship itself, I would suggest that these kinds of relationships have the following advantages:

1. the language is used in intimate and casual situations that are hardly ever touched by most learning materials and formal classes

2. the learner inevitably interacts with a network of native speakers (friends and relatives of the significant other.)

3. there is an enormous motivation to learn the language to communicate with the other person and their own social networks

4. there is assistance and correction (however gentle and subtle) in the language learning process.

5. the learner has access to considerable information about culture, social mores, local history, etc.

Now, how much better can it get than that? Can listening to CD's and reading "Language X for Dummies" or a language class compare to that? No way.

I would also add that having an intimate relationship with another person does not automatically lead to improved language performance. For all sorts of reasons (typically, the other person speaks your L1 very well), learners can give up and remain fossilized at some low level in L2.
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 Message 7 of 18
21 October 2011 at 5:57pm | IP Logged 
I know from my own experience that near-nativeness is attainable without an L2 partner. I'll concede that I actually am married to an L2 partner, except that I was already at near-native level BEFORE we met. My wife would attest to that.

I'm currently learning Japanese, and I often question how far I'll be able to take the language without an L2 partner or without being able to live in the country. Though I could, to some extent, substitute an L2 partner with close Japanese-speaking friends, except that even that is difficult to do because there is a finite amount of time available for friends outside work and family. This experiment is the main long-term challenge that motivates me.

Pushing the envelope a bit, do you think 2 people who are otherwise incompatible for love could agree to facilitate experiences for eachother that would resemble the type of experiences partners would share, such as participating in family events, etc.?

Edited by Arekkusu on 21 October 2011 at 5:59pm

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 Message 8 of 18
21 October 2011 at 8:47pm | IP Logged 
My own answer to Arekkusu's questions is: anything is possible. Can two people who are not romantically involved become strong and devoted language partners, capable to doing what has been described by myself and others? Why not? I have my doubts, but perhaps it does exist. Similarly, could one attain native-level proficiency without ever having lived in the country of the target language? I really don't know, but I do know that it would be very difficult.

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