Walking Dictionaries

“Wow! You speak Chinese so well …. you must have a Walking Dictionary!? 哈哈哈哈”
“Wow! You speak Thai so well …. you must have a Walking Dictionary!? 5555”
“Wow! You speak Korean so well …. you must have a Walking Dictionary!? ㅋㅋㅋㅋ”
“Wow! You speak Bahasa Indonesia so well …. you must have a Walking Dictionary!? ngakak2 wakakka hohohoh”
“Wow! You speak Spanish so well …. you must have a Walking Dictionary!? jajajaja”

Here’s a call out to the guys out there that have ever learned a language before. Have you ever heard native speakers of ‘X’ language that you’re learning say something similar to this to you? I don’t know how many times I have heard people say this to me over the years all over the world. Personally, I think it’s a combination of urban myth, cultural programming and people just trying to get their head around the fact that you’re speaking their language. They need to slot you into a ‘fathomable’ box for them.

The Walking Dictionary Myth

I feel that I have a little authority speaking on this topic.   I know, I know,  it’s a lovely concept to hold on to.   You’re out clubbing …  a hot woman walks up to you…  you buy her a drink … she’s interested in you … and then you start hitting her up for *conjugational *visits of the past participle kind.

I’m here to tell you that Walking Dictionaries ARE A MYTH.

Yeah sure, supposing you are in some form of a relationship with someone who speaks the target language that you’re learning, the actual ‘concept’ of you learning his or her language might have been a ‘cute’ and novel thing in the beginning.  Heck, it could have been the initial reason that the two of you hooked up.   After about the first 48 hrs together however, unless he or she is genuinely linguistically inclined, the whole ‘Isn’t it wonderful that I’m learning your language’ thing is going to become very ordinary, very fast especially if you persist in asking questions about their language to them all the time.

Think about speakers of YOUR mother tongue.  How much do they know about their own language?  Supposing it was English.  If a learner of English went up to them and asked

“In your language, you have ‘I – me, he – him, she – her, we – us, they – them’ …. so what about the word ‘you’?”

For learners of English from many linguistic backgrounds would think that this is a very straight forward and logical question as their language also has the ‘you’ version.  Chances are though, if your average native speaker was asked this question, they would probably stop, think a little, scratch their head and then respond with “Why the F#@$ would you want to know that? We just don’t”

Now let’s compound that with a relationship between two people.  You have enough cultural differences that are getting under your partner’s skin by now that everything you do starts to annoy them.  They’re thinking ‘ok, ok, I know that their culture knows nothing about manners and respect and cleanliness and how you should speak to people and I know people from their culture are usually loud and obnoxious … but maybe if I just be a little more patient things will get better… 加油加油 สู้สู้สู้ .. .jangan putus asa dong!

Now let’s superimpose the question about “What is the ‘you’ equivalent of ‘I – me, he – him’?” on top of that situation.

It could just be that one ‘what does that mean?’ could be one request too much and will be enough to push your partner over the edge and respond with the dreaded …

“Who do you think I am?  I’m not your  walking dictionary you know!!!!”

Sadly, I’m going to have to burst your bubble if you’re planning to learning a language by finding a girlfriend / boyfriend / husband / wife that is a native speaker of that language and have them teach you.  From everything my experience has taught me, I think I can safely say that for most people…


If you are one of the few people who has met someone that isn’t like this, please forward their contact details to my email address 🙂

So What am I Dating them For?

If after reading what I just wrote you are asking yourself “So what am I dating them for?”, I suggest a dose of serious introspection.  Perhaps you need to reassess your ideas of what a relationship is.  Getting into a relationship just to learn a language can only work out badly.

It’s not all bad news though … actually, it gets much better.

Dating someone who speaks the language you’re wanting to learn is a fantastic way to improve your language, but not because of what people usually think … i.e. that your partner will personally help you and coach you until you’re fluent in their language.

If you’re in a relationship and want to learn your partner’s language, all your language learning has to be done by stealth.

Any learning that is happening as a result of your partner should come about through observation of natural usage of language by them.  You’ll be introduced to ‘natural’ cultural environments that as an outsider you might never have had the opportunity to be exposed to.  You will be able to absorb the rhythm of the language while he / she is speaking with his / her friends.

If you use more than one token a month with your partner, you'll probably be looking for a new partner within two months. Even if you're not looking for a new partner after 2 months, she probably will definitely be doing so...by stealth ... just like your language learning should have been done.It’s all about motivations.  As far as your partner is concerned, consider that you’re issued with 12 language tokens a year with them.  That is, you can probably ask them about 1 language related question a month without the risk of them reacting negatively and whacking you across the head with a “Who do you think I am, your own personal walking dictionary!?”.  If you use more than one token a month with your partner, you’ll probably be looking for a new partner within two months.  Even if you’re not looking for a new partner after 2 months, she probably will definitely be doing so.

Enter – the FRIENDS

Now THIS is where the magic starts happening.   From now on for ease of writing’s sake, let’s refer to this fictitious partner as a female.  While HER motivation in being with you is because she wants to have a nice, happy, loving life with you … a person that hopefully her parents, family and friends can accept.  Her FRIENDS motivation with you is to try and make you the person that she wants you to be.  This can work in your advantage.  You not having to pester her with language questions and you understanding her culture means that she is going to be much happier and she won’t be a burden on her friends, calling them up for hours on end complaining about how much of a pain in the arse you are and how little you understand about her, her culture, her family and you don’t take any notice of what SHE likes… if you did, you would know that asking her about language only p*sses her off!

Start asking her friends fun questions…

“If I want to make her laugh, what should I say?”
“Am I saying this right?  I don’t want to say the wrong thing and annoy her”
“What does it mean when she says this?”

You get the idea … her friends working in her best interest start being a valuable language and cultural resource for you.

I mentioned earlier that language learning should be done by stealth.   That is, that in the eyes of most people around you, the improvement in your language skills should be an aggregate of several people and other learning activities.  Your improvement in that language should leave each one of those people both impressed and in awe, wondering how you’re learning so fast … when last time they met you your level was ‘here’, but this time it’s up HERE.

Spread the Burden

There’s gotta be something in it for people who help you learn a language.  If not money, some kind of motivation.  One great form of motivation that’s FREE is inspiring pride and self worth in people.  I’ve mentioned this method in other interviews, but I’ll mention it again as I think it’s a fantastic learning strategy.

Find someone who isn’t your partner that you can bounce language questions off of.  Remember though, for each person you find, you shouldn’t hit them with too many questions.

Spend an hour or so with them talking about what they like, and craftily tie your own language stuff into it.  Kind of like a language ‘skin’ you apply to camouflage your burning desire to interrogate them about everything you can about the language.  If you can do this, ‘You’ become more palatable to a greater number of people.    If you do it properly, they won’t even notice that you’re getting lessons from them as you chat away.  They will probably be happy that you’re learning parts of the language that relate to things that they’re interested in too.  Try and learn something really out of left field from them… something that your average garden variety learner of that language wouldn’t know.

Go home, make as many notes as you want in private, record your thoughts with an MP3 player … do anything you need to do to reinforce what you just spoke about.  Once you can reproduce what you learned, go and try it out on another one of your friends.  They will in turn be blown away by what you know and the bar for what they’re going to teach you and talk to you about will raise.  As it raises, your language is not only perceived to be at a higher level by everyone .. eventually it actual COMES TRUE and you are speaking much more native-like than many other learners of that language do.  You know things that other people don’t know and your partner now is going to be so proud of you because undoubtedly by speaking to all your friends about what they like, you have probably learned some things during it all that your partner likes.  You’ve also learned to listen which is very important.


  1. Don’t use your partner as a walking dictionary – assume you have 1 Language Learning Request Token per month.  Maybe even tell them about the token system and they will probably be happy and more forgiving.
  2. Use your partner’s friends to find out how to make your partner happy and in doing so, you’ll be learning valuable linguistic and cultural things
  3. Set up a network of people that you can spread the burden with when it comes to helping you with learning that language.  The bonus is that you’ll blow each one of them away regularly because your learning will be an aggregate of what all of them have shared with you.

This topic leads into another topic that I have mixed feelings on – ‘Language Exchange’ … but I’ll leave that for another post.

Have you ever successfully learned language directly from your partner? … or did it end up with being hit with a ‘Who do you think I am?  Your own personal walking dictionary!?’



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Written by

Stuart Jay Raj