In This Episode
We say love is love is love is love. And that’s true! But it’s also รัก if you’re Thai. Yêu và quý if you’re Vietnamese. And a lot of hard work no matter where you’re from. In this episode of Radiolingo, the sweet sticky mess that is romance.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: The year was 1997 and Lee was late to work.
Lee Thach: I lived near the subway, but I never took the subway so I, my car broke down that day. So I had, I didn’t have a choice to take the subway in and then Loan—
Loan Thach: It was my, my was my first time going on—
Lee Thach: Yeah, first time going on the subway.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: And that second voice there is Loan. At the time, Lee was a dental student and preferred to drive, but Loan? She was a totally new immigrant. She had come to the United States only about three days prior, Lee thought she needed some help.
Lee Thach: So then I was walking down the stairs and then she, to me, she looked lost. So I just approached her and I asked if she needed help and then that’s how we met.
Loan Thach: Yeah.
Lee Thach: And I remember you, you said—
Loan Thach: Um, at that time I didn’t speak English very well, so I just asked him, are you Vietnamese? And he say, no, I am Chinese and I say, okay, forget it. [laughter] Because I dunno how to speak Chinese.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: And Lee didn’t know how to speak Vietnamese. They had to kind of fumble together with the very little language they shared.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Loan. Were you lost when he approached you?
Loan Thach: Um, actually. I wasn’t lost at all. I just was nervous because my first time I see the, the, um, the—
Lee Thach: The subway.
Loan Thach: So, and I don’t, I didn’t speak English, so I’m worried.
Lee Thach: So I just say, here’s my phone number.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Written on his student doctor card.
Lee Thach: And then she got off the train, right? And then—
Loan Thach: And then I went home, I showed my sister about his card and the whole family said, oh, he’s a liar. No student, doctor. [laughter]
Ahmed Ali Akbar: It was an extremely unlikely meeting. Two subway passengers, united by their distaste for the subway. But for Lee and Loan, that meet cute changed their lives. Despite the fact they had no shared language, Lee was taken. Loan’s demeanor, her smile, the way she dressed. It’s still the image he has of her in his head.
Lee Thach: I remember going to the lab and there was, um, I saw my Vietnamese friend and I said, look, I met someone she’s Vietnamese, and I think I’m gonna marry her.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: You, you knew already?
Lee Thach: Yeah. Yeah.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: You knew from the first meeting?
Lee Thach: I did, it was weird.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Oh my God. And for Loan—
Loan Thach: The, the first time he impressed me because he looked very— [speaks Vietnamese]
Lee Thach: [speaks Vietnamese] What’s that word for him? It’s not gentle. I guess kind, someone who look kind and—
Loan Thach: Yeah when I see him, he looked like very, um, gentle
Lee Thach: Gentle. Yeah, I guess.
Loan Thach: So that’s attracted me.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Spoiler alert, Lee and Loan Thach are still together, almost twenty-five some years later, obviously still crazy about each other. Married with children, in fact. They fell in love without a common language, but over the years, Lee learned Vietnamese, and Loan learned English. To me, there’s nothing more romantic than learning a language for someone else and between the two of them, they did it twice. If there’s one thing that I hear a lot when it comes to successful relationships, it’s communication, communication, communication. Communication in relationships goes so far beyond just conversation. There’s the nonverbal stuff, like physical attraction, body language, and someone’s smile, that all speaks volumes. When it comes to conversation, there’s actually so much going on below the surface, unconscious things happening in our language that may even predict the success or failure of a relationship. From Crooked Media and Duolingo, I’m Ahmed Ali Akbar and this is Radiolingo. Today’s episode, That’s Amore. [music break] Okay, but I’m getting ahead of myself. We heard about Lee and Loan’s subway meet cute, what about the early days of their relationship?
Lee Thach: In the beginning we wrote, I wrote her a lot of notes and letters and stuff too. But things she would look, you know, look things up if, if there’s something she didn’t underst— Yeah. So that’s, we communicate. A lot of cards and, and notes and letters. Yeah. In the beginning. Anyway.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: But is it the language you primarily communicate in? Is English? What language are you primarily communicating in now?
Lee Thach: Now it’s Vietnamese.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Okay.
Lee Thach: So even with our kids, yeah.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: In my personal life, I’m surrounded by couples like Lee and Loan, both from my parents’ generation and my own. Couples where multiple languages were spoken by each partner with English as the common language. That goes for me and my wife as well. We both speak Urdu and English, but her family speaks Amharic. We’ve recently been looking into Amharic lessons, but wow, it’s a long, difficult process. For couples like us, usually, the easier option is default to our common language, while picking up only words or phrases in the partner’s language. Partnering with someone who isn’t fluent in your first language raises some thorny questions. What language should we speak as a couple, both at home and in the world? Should I learn my partner’s language even if it’s not spoken where we live? What if we have kids, what should they speak? You’ll want to have answers for when things get serious. So, I wanted to reach out to a therapist who helps interlinguistic and intercultural couples navigate this minefield.
Dr. Lind Seal: So my name is Kirsten Lind Seal. I am a doctoral level licensed marriage of family marriage and family therapist. The rise of intercultural couples in the US is significant in the last like twenty years. The joke in my or a saying in my field is that all couples are cross-cultural couples. But I would say I would argue some couples are more cross-cultural than others.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: And intercultural couples need help navigating their relationships, same as any other couple.
Dr. Lind Seal: No marriage or relationship is ever 50-50. That’s just, that just doesn’t happen. And, and it’s when the relationship gets very imbalanced. And those are the couples that will come and find me.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: The advice Dr. Lind Seal has for intercultural couples is pretty similar to what we all might hear in any relationship, be kind, be open, more communication is better. And for multilingual couples, that can mean putting in effort to learn each other’s languages.
Dr. Lind Seal: Because what that says is it’s a basic respect for where the other person is coming from you know, maybe switching off days. Like this may seem, this is a very concrete suggestion, but, you know, one day speaking French, one day speaking English, right. One day speaking Urdu, one day speaking English, it’s that intentionality that I think is really important. And then when we add on that to think about cultures, right, to sort of think about the cultural piece, about meeting each other in a, what I would call a both and fashion.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Not an either or but a both and. What I find so admirable about Lee and Loan is that they seemed to have figured this out very quickly. Lee started tuning into the Vietnamese being spoken around him when he visited Loan. They held hands and watched Vietnamese TV, which is very cute, but eventually Lee had to learn to speak.
Lee Thach: And I remember being in big groups with her family, I would be very quiet. I wouldn’t really say much. I would absorb a lot. And then they probably thought I was taking that as being very shy, which I’m not that shy. I was just learning, observing. And then I think even after a month I was able, able to at least say things, maybe not correctly. So.
Loan Thach: No, not a month.
Kee Thach: Not a month?
Loan Thach: Like a year later.
Lee Thach: A year, ok, ok, a year. [laughter]
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Learning another language is the result of a lot of hard, slow work. And even if you get to a high level of fluency in that language, you might not be able to easily express everything. It might seem obvious, but the languages we learn earliest usually have more emotional resonance, more emotional depth for us. But if you communicate with your romantic partner in a second language that you learned mostly in school or in professional settings? Dr. Lind Seal says that could be a challenge.
Dr. Lind Seal: So if someone is, like say, really good, you know, like working in tech, they’ll learn all the English in tech. But that doesn’t mean that they learn the English for talking about really deep emotions or, you know, really trying to explain how how they feel, you know, sort of disserved by their partner or if they feel betrayed or left out or lonely.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: That’s obviously a challenging situation. So I thought of a couple who found joy in that challenge.
David Toborowsky: Good morning, Ahmed. How are you?
Ahmed Ali Akbar: This is David Toborowsky. He’s an American from Kentucky.
Annie Suwan: Hi there.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: And this is his wife, Annie Suwan, who met David in Thailand only a few years after she learned English.
David Toborowsky: Now, I had taught in Thailand for two and a half years. My Thai is very, very little. Annie taught herself English at the age of 21.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: What was the communication like in those early days? How did you really express that you were interested in each other and what role did you kind of language play in that attraction?
Annie Suwan: At the first met, my English is, you know, I’m able to communicate, but not in everything. But, you know, when you’re there, you meet in person. The body language is also help a lot.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Okay, so I’ve been burying the lede a little, if you’re a fan of reality TV, you may recognize these two. David and Annie are 90 day royalty, as my friends told me. That is, the TV show 90 Day Fiancé from TLC. The show follows Americans and their international spouses on their journey to marriage on a K-1 Visa. Not all the couples stay together. But David and Annie?
David Toborowsky: Almost six years in September.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: They say non-verbal communication is a big part of what makes things work.
David Toborowsky: And as far as expressing with love, I mean, body language, you know, when it comes to interpersonal relationships, sex, I mean, that’s easy. I mean, people obviously had sex long before there was language. [laughs] You know, it was that’s just part of life and laughter with us. And listening to what she says in body language. So I have a better understanding. And after so long, she might say a word that’s so off. But I understand what she means.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Nonverbal communication really helped when David met Annie’s family because David can understand some Thai but Annie’s family speaks no English. And—
David Toborowsky: They speak a dialect called Isan, which is a mixture of Thai and Laotian. Where she’s from, the closest town is on the Mekong River, which is a half mile from Laos. So it’s Laotian. So it is difficult because for example, when you say in, you know, [speaks Thai] how are you in Thai, they say [speaks Laotian].
Annie Suwan: So at first met, you know, between David and my family like he just sits right there on the floor and he smile to everybody like a happy Buddha. That the best communication ever.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Before I met David and Annie, I wasn’t that familiar with 90 Day Fiancé beyond a few clips, but the concept has always really surprised me. It usually involves people with little exposure to the United States and a long-distance or rapid courtship. And most of the clips I’ve seen have been of people arguing. Total communication meltdown. Many of the couples end up separating. For Annie and David, things weren’t always easy. If you missed the show, David struggled a lot during their courtship. He had to borrow money to pay for dowry and tickets back home. His children didn’t approve. But despite that, David worked on himself and got his life together. And they’re still married. Happily married. Their joy, and the effort they put into maintaining that joy, is inspiring to their fans.
David Toborowsky: And we had somebody come up to us the other day and said they’ve been married for 25 years. And they said, we want to buy you a drink. Why? You know, you showed us what love is like. I’m like, you’ve been married for 25 years.
Annie Suwan: The most important thing is when the camera turns off, when they turn TV off, we stay who we are still and, you know, continue with our love and laughing and joking a lot and living our best life.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: It’s not hard to fall for a stranger but sticking with it? Committing to a longer, slower process of getting to know each other through body language or letters or translation apps while learning a whole new language that’s brave. But for those of us in monolingual couples, it usually is the first conversation that determines whether we have a second date and the conversation on the second date leads to five more until we talk about staying together for longer. Or not. After the break, we’re going to meet someone who studies those early dating conversations and how the language we use in our relationships can predict whether we’ll stay together.
James Pennebaker: We know that two people who are connecting with each other, who are paying close attention to each other, tend to have the same body language.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: This is Jamie Pennebaker. He’s a Psychology Professor at UT-Austin.
James Pennebaker: One person moves forward. The other one moves forward. One person crosses their legs. The other one does so. And this is the same issue, I think, with language.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Jamie studies how the language we use can be the key to understanding our personalities and our behavior in social situations. If we match in non-verbal communication. Jamie’s work suggests we match in language too. And what better place to observe this language matching than in conversations between couples?
Ahmed Ali Akbar: So, we like to think we know a lot about a couple just by the way they talk to each other. Oh, did you hear how much he interrupted her? Not a good sign. Or, the sweet words they use when they talk about her. The two of them are so in love. But Jamie isn’t a matchmaker, a gossip, or a therapist. He’s a scientist who likes cold hard data. He uses a text analysis technique called Language Style Matching that measures the subconscious ways that couples match their speaking styles.
James Pennebaker: We’re able to go in and get a sense of how people are thinking, how they’re connecting with others. Can we use their language to predict how what will happen with their relationship?
Ahmed Ali Akbar: When I heard this I thought, of course people who have similar interests will talk about similar things, and that will help them connect. But he’s not looking at words that express content, it’s all the little words that conjoin our ways of speaking and structure our sentences. Words like but, and, these, he, their, prepositions and pronouns and things like that. Jamie calls them function words.
James Pennebaker: They’re the shortest words in every language. They’re the most common words. And and they are processed in the brain very differently than content words like table and chair, walk. You know, these are hard words that convey content. And these function words are these little words in between all these content words.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: One example Pennebaker writes about illustrates this difference. Imagine two people, one who works in an office, and another who works in a rock quarry. When they talk about how their work day went, they’re going to be using very different content words, one might talk about filing a report, while the other might talk about a piece of heavy machinery. But the way they use function words might have a lot of overlap and that might reveal something about their relationship’s future.
Jamie Pennebaker: If two people are connecting, they use these words, these these function words at very similar rates. And if they’re not connecting, they don’t. In other words, they’re on the same page or they’re not. And we can pick this up with language.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: It’s not that you’re using more or less function words, it’s the rate and frequency of certain kinds of function words. It’s complicated, and there’s a fair amount of math involved. But the results are intriguing. One of the first projects Jamie did was a study he did alongside one of his students. They had a really juicy data set, transcripts from speed dates.
James Pennebaker: They’d talk to a prospective date for five minutes and then they afterwards would rate how much they would be interested in going on a real date with them. And then we would then do an analysis to see how closely the two people matched in this language style matching method. And what we found was we could predict who’d go on a subsequent date at higher rates than the people themselves.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: And it’s kind of like a chicken and egg question, like, did they find themselves attracted to each other because they already spoke that way or in the course of meeting this new person? Did they begin to start using language similarly?
James Pennebaker: It was a little bit of both. In other words, two people who naturally speak in a certain way, and if they’re similar, those are more likely to to have a high style matching connection afterwards. So that’s part of it. But there’s also another kind of magic ingredient, where sometimes the two of them start to talk. And all of a sudden, even though they’re not similar, they’re language that they they start glomming together. And what that magic ingredient is, I have no idea.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: So when two people start connecting, have chemistry, feel a vibe, they’ll begin to mirror each other’s speech patterns in a process often referred to as accommodation. That office worker won’t suddenly have a wealth of knowledge about marble, but the rhythm of their speech will begin to sound like the rock quarry worker. And vice versa. Jamie told me that social scientists have observed the same effect in couples who speak languages other than English, it looks like no matter what language is spoken, language style matching predicts a successful connection. And to be clear, all of this is subconscious.
James Pennebaker: It’s not as though I now can say, okay, I want you to just start paying attention to each other’s language and start to mimic it. We can’t do that. If I say pay really close attention to that other person, you will by definition start to talk like that person. That’s the way our attention works.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: So you can’t just try to imitate the way your crush talks and hope it’ll work out. This happens entirely subconsciously as a product of mutual attraction and openness to connection. You seem very tickled by your work. [laughs]
James Pennebaker: It, well, it’s just, you know, there’s nothing more exciting than discovering stuff that you’ve never thought about, you’ve never seen before. So, for me, it’s just like this is like being in a candy store all the time.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Okay so what about more established couples? Can a lack of language style matching predict a breakup? He and another one of his students devised a study.
James Pennebaker: We found college students, who are in a long-term relationship and who used instant messaging on a daily basis. And to be in our study, they would agree to give us ten days of their instant messages.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Oh, my God. I would never do that. [laughter]
James Pennebaker: Yeah. Yeah. Now, come on. This is science. We found the couples and asked questions like how close are you? How you know, how much do you care about each other? How likely do you think you’ll be together in six months in questions such as that? And then we simply went in and analyzed their texts.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: They found that couples whose texts did not match were less likely to stay together. But the wild thing was, when Jamie compared the couples’ language matching scores to how they thought their relationship was going—
James Pennebaker: There was absolutely no relationship to what they thought and whether or not they were together much further. In other words, the people themselves can’t tell how their relationship is going. But their style matching score can.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: A form of analysis that knows my relationships better than myself? It’s a pretty terrifying thought. I do not want Mark Zuckerberg to have this technology. But Pennebaker says he uses it only for good and isn’t tempted to turn the lens onto his own relationships.
James Pennebaker: You know. I’ve been married almost 50 years, so it’s been a long time since I was in a breakup.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: And your language matching is very good. [laughs] That’s what I think.
James Pennebaker: Well, it really helps to be married to someone that you really like and you you are able to have conversations with.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Same Jamie. Same. So can I share my love story now? It actually has a lot to do with language. My wife and I had a whole semester of Urdu together in college. We didn’t talk to each other though, we had our first conversation the first day of the following semester, and in the swirling cold wind of a Michigan winter we talked for two hours straight. There was a vibe. I’m willing to bet we would have gotten some crazy high language style matching scores. We were just friends for a long time after. And we’d take the time to tap out basic text messages in Urdu as our friendship grew. We wanted to practice. And as we finally started dating, continuing to practice that language became a big part of our story. And now, we’re taking on a new project together. Learning the language of her paternal family, Amharic. I’m excited guys. I’m very excited. [laughter] Our first Amharic class was just a few weeks ago. Yes, Lee and Loan really inspired me. I’m not sure we’ll have as much success as them, but even just taking that first step being open is huge.
Abraham: Now Ahmed, you’re gonna ask, uh, Salima.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Okay. Uh, Salam. Simi Ahmed nau. Simish mano?
Salimah: Simi Salimah nau.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Okay, so that was literally day one. Sorry it’s a little awkward to begin. But I know the work will be worth it. [music break] This was our last episode of this season of Radiolingo. Thanks for coming on this linguistic journey with us. I know I learned so much. The hidden hand of language that shapes our world is a little bit more visible to me. I hope it’s a little bit more visible to you too. And if you have lingering questions or stories about language send them my way. I’m on Twitter @radbrowndads. [music break] Radiolingo is an original podcast from Duolingo and Crooked Media I’m Ahmed Ali Akbar, your host, writer and producer. From Crooked Media, executive producers are Sandy Girard and Katie Long. From Duolingo, executive producers are Laura Macomber and Timothy Shey. This episode was produced and co-written by Brian Semel and story edited by Lacy Roberts. Our theme and original music is by Carly Bond with mixing sound design and additional music by Hannis Brown. Additional research and production support from Crooked Media’s Ari Schwartz and Duolingo’s Cindy Blanco, Emily Chiu, Alexa Fernandez and Hope Wilson. Special thanks to Crooked Media’s Danielle Jensen and Gabriella Leverette and Duolingo’s, Michaela Kron, Monica Earle and Sam Dulsimer for promotional support.