Words of love: Talking about love in different languages

[Soundtrack: Christopher O’Riley – True Love Waits – cover of one of the best love songs ever]

Once I had some pretty epic karaoke birthday celebrations in Japan.

Fully embracing, for once, the philosophy of “the more the merrier” I had asked my friends to spread the invitation.

Must have been out of my introvert mind, right?

Well, it turned out to be an unforgettable party, with lots of people I had never met popping up, introducing themselves and even bringing me presents. For a few months afterwards, I would meet people at bars telling me “Oh, you’re the birthday girl”.

Cho-san, a Korean classmate from Japanese school, joined in too and amazed us with a stunning singing voice. He used to be a bit of a clown in class, childishly mocking other people and behaving poorly. That night, though, he was really lovely and sweet. After a few cocktails, we were chatting and taking silly selfies.

With my Japanese being still quite weak at the time, I told him やさしいチョさんが好き!/yasashii Cho-san ga suki/, I like you when you’re nice. When he looked at me with eyes wide open I added 友達として /tomodachi to shite/, as a friend.

I wasn’t so familiar with Japanese yet, so instead of saying that I enjoyed this kinder side of his, I had basically declared my love.

 

Fast forward a few years. I’m having dinner with a French friend and I tell him “Tu sais que tu me plaîs!”. Uh-oh, same wide eyes look. He explains to me that telling someone in French “tu me plaîs” is like telling them you’re starting to have feelings for them. I switch to English and explain, you know what I mean, I like you as a person.

 

So why is it so difficult to tell people in a different language that you like them as human beings? Without declaring love or having them think you fancy them, that is.

I’m sure you know the answer. Yep, cultural differences.

 

To celebrate Valentine’s day I’d like to take you through a little nerdy stroll among words of love. Should I write anything inaccurate about your native language, please correct me! And I’d love to read in the comments some words of love and cultural quirks of the languages you know. 🙂

Let’s start!

Love words

Italian

Italian and I have a weird relationship. It’s my native language, but I haven’t used it as my main everyday language for a long time now.

After living the most recent half of my sentimental life in English, saying Ti amo in Italian feels almost… violent.
Of course, if I say “I love you” in English to my boyfriend, I mean the same thing.

But in my own language, it gets almost unbearably intense.

It’s interesting how emotional words in our native language have so much power, isn’t it?

 

There’s more than the emotional side, though.

“Ti amo” and “I love you” don’t mean exactly the same thing in every situation.

In Italy, when you say “Ti amo” it’s undoubtedly to express the feeling that connects you to your special one.
Some people may say it to their parents or children, but the most common use is, by far, with your partner.
With family members, it’s more common to use it when speaking about them indirectly: “amo la mia famiglia” (I love my family), “amo i miei figli” (I love my children).

But you wouldn’t say it, as in English, to a friend.

For that, we have a convenient expression, much missed whenever I’m abroad: Ti voglio bene. This can translate to “I love you”, but in a broader sense. You’d say it to your family, friends, or to a partner if you’re not ready to jump to the big A.

The closest (but still somehow unsatisfactory) translation would be I care about you, I wish you well, I want good things for you.

We also say Sono innamorato (if you’re a man) /innamorata (if you’re a woman) di te, which means I’m in love with you. It’s more natural to use this expression when you talk about a third person, though. So you would say “Sono innamorato di Francesco” (I’m in love with Francesco) or ask “Sei innamorata di lui?” (are you in love with him?).

 

Finally, Mi piaci has pretty much the same meaning as “I like you” in English.
It has a broad meaning, so a lot depends on the context.

You could be telling someone you have a crush on them, or just that you fancy them.
It’s less common to use it with friends because it could easily be misinterpreted.

 

English

I’ve often been feeling somehow unsatisfied with the English terms to express love and affection.
It has been the language I use in most of my friendships and relationships for almost 6 years, but still, I’m far from native-like fluency.

First of all, I miss an equivalent of the Italian “Ti voglio bene”. I love you feels too much; I care about you and I wish you well feel too little.

 

Then, English speakers say I love you way too easily, sometimes. When saying bye to a friend for the day, they throw in a casual “Love ya!”.
Even when I shopped at my local Morrisons’, the cashiers would often greet me with “You alright love?”.

Without entering in the dark realm of how long it took me to understand “You alright” doesn’t require a reply, at first I got puzzled by this familiarity.

It is, obviously, different nuances of “love”. But for someone who isn’t a native speaker, at the end of the day it’s the same four little letters put together.

 

In a mix of cultural and emotional distance, saying “I love you” in English never feels as powerful as it should.

Any native English speakers out there: how is it for you? Are there any other expressions for different nuances of affection that I have missed?

 

Japanese

First thing first: did you see those Pinterest images where it says suki means I like you, daisuki means I like you a lot, aishiteiru means I love you and so on? Well… forget it.

 

As you might have guessed by the anecdote I told you at the beginning (or by watching ANY shoujo anime, for what matters), telling someone 好きです /suki desu/ can be a full-on declaration of love.

Yes, it also translates as the English I like you, but you have to be extra careful if you want to use it with a friend. This is even more true for 大好きです /daisuki desu/, I really like you.

Outside of romantic relationships, especially in writing it can be a way to end a letter to your close (female) friends. The gender note is important because men don’t often express their affection through words in Japan.

 

The most common translation of I love you in Japanese on the Internet is 愛してる /ai shiteru/. This is both extremely strong and extremely uncommon. While you’ll hear it a lot in drama and romantic movies, the chances of hearing it in real life are low.

 

Final myth to debunk is about 恋してる /koi shiteru/, which would sound unnatural if you were to say it to a Japanese partner. The word 恋 /koi/ is used more when you talk to a third person about someone you’ve fallen for. A teenage girl could say to a friend: 恋に落ちちゃった /koi ni ochicchatta/, oops, I fell in love.

 

In general Japanese people, especially men, don’t use words of love often. When they do, they’ll likely use 好き /suki/ or 大好き /daisuki/.

 

French

French words of affection baffled me at first.

As you might know, Je t’aime is the big one, the I love you to use with your significant other.
But if you tell someone Je t’aime bien or Je t’aime beaucoup, you actually make it less of a big deal. This is what you could say to a friend and has a much lighter meaning.

 

Things get a bit intricated with Tu me plaîs because it’s hard to say if one is talking feelings or physical attraction. In general, though, it’s something more than a pure expression of friendship.

 

Finally, there are some important differences between Italian and French when you talk about ways to show your affection.

In Italian, abbracciare means to hug, but in French, you would say prendre dans ses bras, enlacer or faire un calîn. Be careful, because embrasser means to kiss.

In a similar way, baciare means to kiss in Italian, but do not confuse it with the French baiser, which means (if you’ll excuse my French – lol) to fuck.

 

Swedish

There are two expressions in Swedish that translate to I like you: Jag tycker om dig and Jag gillar dig.

Though the stubborn language nerd in me asked everyone what’s the difference – because if there are two expressions there must be a difference… everyone told me it’s pretty much the same.

 

To talk about romantic feelings, you can use Jag är kär i dig or Jag älskar dig.

The first sentence is similar to the English “To be in love with”, while the second is the big “I love you”. So you would use “Jag är kär i dig” in the beginning of a relationship when all is sparkles and new emotions, and “Jag älskar dig” when you are in a long-term, serious love relationship.

While “Jag älskar dig” could be used with a member of the family to show them love, “Jag är kär i dig” can only be used with a significant other.

 

Please note that I’m still a beginner in Swedish, so there might be other expressions that I missed. If you know any, please leave a comment!

 

Spanish

Just a tiny fact about a language I don’t speak, but I kind of understand.

Once I was chatting about this topic with two Spanish friends. One of them said she would use Te quiero to express love for her partner, but Te amo sounds like South American soap opera. The other, who has Argentinian origins, said she would use both “Te quiero” and “Te amo”.

Spanish natives or Spanish speakers: what do you think?

 

What can we learn from this?

First of all, that culture plays a huge role in language learning, so you better take your time to understand what’s behind the words.

No tricks or hacks can teach you the delicate nuances of expressing affection. Aiming at getting fluent fast will most definitely leave gaps in your cultural awareness and overall ability to properly communicate in the language.

 

Second: making mistakes about such a sensitive topic teaches you things you will never forget.

Sure, it can be embarrassing for a moment, but you’ll be forgiven and the misunderstanding will be cleared – after all, you’re not a native speaker. The things you learnt through this faux pas, though, will stay with you.

These kind of mistakes are worth making if you ask me!

What do you say when you talk about love in your language? Or in the languages you know?
Leave a comment and let me know! I would like for this post to become a big collection of love. <3

love words

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Elena

I’m Elena Gabrielli, introvert, grammar geek & proud Ravenclaw :)
I’m on my way to start a slow learning revolution to help introverts keep anxiety out of language learning.

6 Comments

  1. Panna Farkas
    15th February 2018 / 11:59 am

    Ahhh the English part made me laugh out loud mainly because it’s my day-to-day life! I’m kind of glad I’m not the only one who took ages getting used to not giving a short version of my life to anyone asking “how are you?” and so on!
    And interestingly I’m the same with using “I love you” in my native language, Hungarian. While I have no problem saying “love ya” even sometimes as a half-hearted apology to my friends when I annoy them, I definitely couldn’t do the same with “szeretlek” in Hungarian. 🙂

    • Elena
      Author
      15th February 2018 / 1:43 pm

      Hello, Panna!
      Haha yes, I can’t count how many times I was replying to the “question” and the other person was already walking away lol.
      I’ve been chatting with many friends who live abroad, and despite living their sentimental relationships in English they all agree about saying I love you in your own language.
      It’s so interesting how our native language is closely related to our emotions, while the ones we learn afterwards stay somehow “distant” from our heart.

  2. 16th February 2018 / 4:25 am

    This is so interesting Elena! I agree that English speakers overuse love, we loooooooove everything! lol I’ve never had an English speaking friend say that they like me, but some close friends of mine say love you (in a non romantic way). Strange, isn’t it?! To me, if you say I like you to someone it means that you want a relationship with them or have a crush on them. I love these types of cultural observations about language!

    • Elena
      Author
      20th February 2018 / 9:33 am

      Thank you, Kelly!
      Yes, I think in Italy we say “Mi piace” much more, while in English you often say “I love” in the same context a lot.
      True, mostly “I like you” would be a way to tell someone you have a crush on them. I think I told it to my friends only when they were not feeling good about themselves and needed to hear they were appreciated.
      It’s fun to think about cultural differences and how language reflects them!

  3. 20th February 2018 / 1:49 am

    Quality post.

    Here in Costa Rica, there’s a distinction between “Te amo” and “Te quiero”.

    Both can be used in various situations but generally speaking, “Te amo” is used with your partner or children, and “Te quiero” with friends or other people you like VERY much.

    In other words, saying “Te amo” generally conveys a deeper love than “Te quiero”.

    • Elena
      Author
      20th February 2018 / 9:36 am

      Hi Noel, thank you for your comment!
      Ah, I see. That’s interesting to see how Spanish has different nuances in different countries where it’s spoken. Thank you for the clarification, I finally understand the difference between those two.