Walking Dictionaries

walking dictionaries

Wow.. you speak Chinese so well! .. You must have a walking dictionary? The reality of Long Haired Walking Dictionaries is a Myth. If you are in a relationship and want to learn your partners language, all of your language learning needs to be done by STEALTH

“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.

language learning token

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!?’

Let me know in the comments section!

Stuart Jay Raj.

Stuart Jay Raj is a polyglot who specializes in the languages and dialects spoken in South East Asia and China. His talents have allowed him to earn a professional living as a simultaneous interpreter in Thai, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Indonesian, among others, providing language and cultural training for multinational companies in the region and hosting his own TV programme on Thailand's Channel 5. He holds a degree in Cognitive and Applied Linguistics from Griffith University and has become an expert in the field of language acquisition with a strong track record of success. Stuart's background knowledge of Sanskrit, Khmer, Lao and various Chinese dialects and minority languages enables him to present a fascinating and unique perspective on the Thai language which makes everything fall logically into place.
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  • Language is about immersion. With a local girlfriend, you get full time immersion in the language. She’s not going to give you grmmar tips, you’ll just pick it up by talking with her (them?) or hours.

    • Right. I have so many women in Thailand, China and Indonesia contact me each day asking how to explain stuff to their boyfriends … or even better, whether they could put their boyfriends in contact with me so they don’t need to bug them with questions anymore. Like I mentioned in the post – it can work, but as far as the partner is concerned, your learning should happen by ‘stealth’.

  • Alif

    Hi Stuart. This is really nice. Also I think you’ve misspelled “partners.”

    • Thanks Alif! … just fixed up the typos. I’m sure there are probably more as you go through. It’s author typo blindness! 🙂

  • Scott

    There is always the flipside to this,
    such as being a full time Indonesian student,
    who starts seeing a Chinese girl,
    and 1 month into the relationship, instead of her telling you to stop asking questions, she (and her parents) want to know why you are watching dangdut videos and not learning characters… 🙂

    • hahaha… Ahh, I can imagine the look on their faces! Tell them that you’re practicing translating the lyrics into Chinese 🙂

  • Hi Stuart,

    I love the way you put it, “Stealth” language learning. Kids do that all the time without themselves knowing. Do you have any techniques that can change the mindset of a person about learning a certain subject that they had a bad experience with?


    • It’s so true. I think the whole motivation and enjoying what you’re learning works for anything … not just languages. All it takes is someone successful at ‘x’ subject and has a passion about it to be put in front of them. They see the benefits, the enthusiasm is contagious and it goes from there.

      The other day I had the honour of speaking for about 20 minutes to a group of grade 4 – grade 8 students at the school just around the corner from me. The special thing about these kids is that they are part of what I believe is Australia’s only Chinese immersion programme. That is – by the 3rd year of the programme, they are doing subjects like Math IN Chinese. I am really pumped about this programme – and it’s one of the reasons why I moved my family from Bangkok over to this city.

      I had spoken to some of the kids in the past and their Chinese wasn’t where I would have thought it would be. Their highlight of the year will be coming up in 1 week – a 12 day homestay in Beijing. Rather than just go there as a normal study tour, I will be working with them and giving them tricks and secrets that they can do while they’re there … hopefully as they see it rubbing off, they’ll be able to do things they couldn’t do before, they’ll get positive reinforcement from the Chinese people they meet, and when they get back, they’ll be pumped and see the value in what they’re learning. I want them to go through my ‘learning junkie’ thing that I mentioned in this post: http://stujay.com/2010/08/11/how-to-become-gifted-at-learning-languages-youre-never-too-old/
      The Evolution of Stu the Junkie

      * Stu can’t do ‘X’ –>
      * Stu wants to do ‘X’ –>
      * Stu starts learning ‘X’ –>
      * Stu has ‘breakthrough moments’ in learning ‘X’ –>
      * ‘Breakthrough moments’ give Stu a ‘high’ and energize him to want to have more of them –>
      * ‘Stu gets addicted to the highs’ –>
      * The thresh-hold for the ‘highs’ gets higher and higher pushing Stu to NEED to learn more –>
      * Language proficiency is a by-product of Stu’s addiction!
      I believe that this can be applied to ANY learning. You just need to build the right environment up around you.

  • For some, have a local girlfriend/boyfriend can be positive because it can get them out of their expat bubble and speaking language X more often. Your thoughts about the local not being an expert in the language and getting annoyed by more than one language comment a month is right on the money. Besides, having someone date you just for your language is kind of like only being a couple because you have money, you have a nice car, you’re the boss, you’re famous, dating you makes her friends jealous, etc. If you are lonely it might sound nice for a while but it’s going to get old fast.

    • Actually, in Thailand this can be disastrous for many ‘Farang’ (foreigners) that go and live there. They meet a girl and think that the girl ‘loves him for who he is’ and that she’ll be over the moon to teach him her language. That belief in many cases couldn’t be further from the truth.

  • Excellent. While my English was pretty good when I met my wife, I can use some native help here and there. But it is the most rare thing that we teach each other’s language at home. Of course, we turn to each other as the most authentic resource, but for example when my wife wanted to learn Hungarian, she attended a course and asked me when something wasn’t clear. And for that matter, a relationship is lot’s of effort, and if one does not enjoy it for anything other than the language, a teacher will pay off in no time.

    • Right. I find the best tack with your partner is to ask something that you’re pretty sure of what it is ‘in passing’ just to ‘make sure’ you’re getting it right. Make sure that you’ve done all the heavy lifting first. Even that sometimes can be treading on thin ice 🙂

  • Jonathan Mahoney

    I dated a Brazilian girl for almost 2 years and we constantly asked each other language questions. Of course our relationship wasn’t based on this, but I found it very fun. I never found myself feeling annoyed by her questions, though it did require a lot of patience in the beginning, and I never felt like I was bothering her. Maybe this article speaks more to Asian cultures. I like what Ryan said though, dating somebody for their language is as stupid as dating them for their car: It’s not likely to last long.

    • In the end, it definitely is up to the individual. I have a Thai friend that has just married an Italian guy and they have a great relationship – and he’s successfully teaching her Italian. I think this is probably not the norm though. The first time I received the ‘I’m not your dictionary’ slam was from my first girlfriend who was Chilean … in response to my questions about Spanish.

  • My girlfriend and I met because we have a love of languages. We speak English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean! But I think the basic premise of your post is right; you can’t count on a random native speaker to teach you their language, no matter how much you like each other.

    “Who do you think I am? I’m not you’re walking dictionary you know!!!!” – the “you’re” should be “your”.

    Maybe you should write a full post about the Chinese immersion thing you mentioned in a reply above!!

  • Nelson

    But as for me, it’s the other way round. I got together with my Thai girlfriend before I actually developed the interest to learn Thai, and then started ‘using’ her ever since.. hehe

    I think it’s cumbersome for her to teach if you ask ‘beginner’s stuff’, but it’s okay if you occasionally ask for 1 or 2 difficult words to be translated into her language. Although.. sometimes my girlfriend finds it hard to explain/translate. I don’t think she is a ‘good’ walking dictionary.. Haha.. I rather consult my paperback dictionary 😛

    Stu, I was wondering, whether the guy or the girl in a relationship is more inclined to learn his/her partner’s mothertongue. My girlfriend never ask anything about my language 🙁 I think it’s because we are already speaking perfect English, but I thought learning her language allows me to talk to her ‘jai’ directly.

    Do you think guys are the ones making the effort? Like my brother too, he picks up Mandarin (very fluent now) for the sake of his girlfriend, and she is still incompetent in English.

    • I think it varies. It depends on priorities and motivation. For many, the girl learning the guy’s language is a matter of survival. Sometimes it’s the other way around.

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  • Furyou Gaijin

    A great article and there is another aspect to it which hasn’t been mentioned by Stuart. Couples usually develop a way to communicate together which may be quite far from a standard, grammatically correct way of speaking a certain language. Someone may have no difficulty being understood by his partner (who just got used to him saying things that way because of constant exposure) – and be unpleasantly surprised when others actually struggle to understand him or offer criticism.

  • Matheo

    What a relief to read this… My experience with a foreign girl friend is exactly like this. In the beginning I thought “Cool it looks like I’ll learn a new language too” and in the first year I put almost no effort to learn my girl friend’s language… and nothing happened. The second year I really put some effort on learning her language, but to my surprise, she was not so enthusiastic helping me and answering all my language questions 🙂 But well it looks like it’s normal… and I can understand it’s an annoying way to learn by always asking those language questions. So thanks Stu for showing the stealth way!

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