it's complicated

Surviving the Embarrassments of Dating in a Foreign Language

Photo: J.V. Aranda

I recognized him as soon as I saw him. He looked just like his Tinder photo; he was smiling and he seemed normal. In ordinary circumstances, this would have calmed my nerves. But this time my biggest fear wasn’t what he looked like — it was what he sounded like.

Hola,” I said, walking up to him and giving him the standard Spanish two kisses. “Yo soy Radhika.”

Marcel,” he said, kissing me back. “Como andas? Fue seshlo para vosh shegar asha?”

I froze. Oh, God. I didn’t understand a word he’d said.

Perdona,” I said. “Otra vez?” He repeated it, like I’d asked, but I still couldn’t understand his Argentinian accent. Mortified, I asked him to repeat himself one more time. He said it slowly, and I finally realized he was trying to ask me if it had been easy for me to get there. I sighed in relief and said yes. And then didn’t understand his next question.

When I moved to Barcelona this summer, I hadn’t really thought much about the language. I’d lived in the city six years ago, as well as in Chile, and my Spanish is decent. Or, at least, it was. It turns out that six years without practicing a language can have quite a detrimental effect on your abilities. Especially when you’re on a first date with someone from Argentina who’s using a pronoun you’ve never heard before and has an accent so strong that you feel like a non-English speaker trying to get by in Scotland.

The date was tough. It took a solid 40 minutes of my smiling politely and panic-guessing what he was saying before my ear started to attune to his accent and we could communicate properly. But even when I did understand what he was saying, I made mistakes. I was so nervous (and, possibly, drunk — I’d started early to calm my nerves) that I made the kind of basic errors only beginners would. Then I berated myself so much for making those mistakes that I made more. The whole stress of it only ended when he leaned in to kiss me. Possibly out of pity.

I used to be great at dates. I know what to say to get a conversation going, I’m confident enough to steer us toward more interesting ground, and if it’s dull, I’ll either turn it into a free therapy session or use my journalistic skills to interrogate them.

But dating in another language has been a completely different experience. I’m always missing irony or sarcasm, I can’t crack jokes, I might take five minutes instead of 50 seconds to tell a complicated anecdote, and I once accidentally told a Tinder date that I was seriously horny when I meant to say I was feeling hot.

As a lifelong perfectionist who hates being wrong, this has not been easy for me. On recent dates, I’ve been so embarrassed to make mistakes with my Spanish that I’ve lied to them about basic things just to avoid having to explain a more grammatically complex truth. Pablo still thinks I’m a foreign news reporter instead of a freelance features writer, columnist, and author. And while I have a strict anti-ghosting policy back home in London, it’s been different here. I know how to literally say “It was really fun, but I’m not feeling it,” in Spanish, but how do I get across the right tone? Better to avoid it altogether.

At times I’ve found it so stressful I’ve wanted to just give up. But so far, I haven’t. And so far, it’s been worth surviving the everyday embarrassments that come with dating in a foreign language. Like when I was out recently and an attractive man came up to me. We flirted for a while, and when he asked me if I wanted to go to a salsa bar with him the next day, I decided to just answer honestly. “Yes, but I’m too embarrassed by my bad Spanish,” I said. “I’m a lot funnier in English. And I really hate salsa.”

“I think you’re funny,” he said. “Or, at least, your attempt to speak Spanish is funny. And forget salsa — let’s go on a hike to a waterfall instead.” The sheer novelty of having a first date at a waterfall was enough to convince me. I ignored the voice in my head panicking that I’d humiliate myself by saying something wrong. Besides, there are ways to communicate without language.

Surviving the Embarrassments of Dating in a Foreign Language