On my third night in Buenos Aires, one of my housemates found my Tinder. He was a better coquette than I, and an expert deployer of emoji flirt bombs, so I watched as he proceeded to net about seven guys into fairly long conversations. About an hour passed.
“Eduardo wants a date,” my friend said. “Do you want to date Eduardo I could totally get you on a date with Eduardo.”
“No for Eduardo,” I said.
“Okay well so does Jorge,” he said. “He’s cute. Also he complemented my Castellano. Honestly this is just great for practicing Spanish.”
My friend had a point. Swiping was low stakes, no last names, and a treasure trove of slang practice. This fascinated me, so I went online. A Google search led me to an article by Maria Yagoda on Bustle, with the claim: Tinder is the best way to practice a language.
“In the past few weeks, I’ve spoken, written, and read more French and Italian than I have since actually spending time in France and Italy,” she wrote. “And not only has my French and Italian vocabulary become more sophisticated, I’ve made a few good friends.”
The article affirmed what I had assumed, but also offered a new theory: Tinder could be stripped of its romantic connotations, and used for something more pure.
I decided to search for people my age, in Buenos Aires and beyond, who could tell me about their experiences with language exchange apps. Many people I spoke to had heard of people using Tinder to find “language partners,” or a relationship of mutual learning between two people who speak different languages, and some agreed to speak with me.
All the people I spoke to seemed to have different ideas of what they wanted out of their language exchanges. These discrepancies became even more convoluted for Tinder-users. Tinder is not built to facilitate other sorts of sharing, so the boundaries around what exactly constitutes a “language exchange” are hazily drawn. Some of the people I spoke to only wanted to practice a new language. Some wanted romance, and found the language benefits to be a healthy side effect. Some weren’t really sure if they were on dates or not.
Grace’s story fits the latter category:
A language partner turned accidental date. She had lived in a primarily Hispanic neighborhood in New York City for about a year. Grace already spoke Chinese and some French; her family came to the United States from China when she was five, and she took French in high school. But neither of those languages, nor her poet’s command of English, would help her speak to neighbors in East Harlem.
The initial plan was to find someone in her apartment. But posting a flier advertising her services felt too weird, so she tried Craigslist next, which failed — there was no way to customize her mile radius, and no guarantee that she would find someone down to meet up.
Of course, she realized, there was an app for this. She downloaded Tinder and switched her bio to “Native English-Speaker Looking for Spanish Language Partner.”
One of her matches seemed promising. He was from Colombia, and suggested they meet up to go play basketball. The meeting place turned out to be a residence in the Projects, which she couldn’t enter because of security.
“I think I’m here,” she told him over Tinder. He came out to meet her, and they realized they had already miscommunicated; she assumed their meeting would be shorter and more formal. He imagined something different. There wasn’t time to play basketball anymore, which Grace was never really wedded to, so they walked through East Harlem.
He seemed warm and friendly, which Grace found to be confusing. He offered to take her out salsa dancing, and invited her to a meeting with his professional mentor, and Grace wasn’t sure how to respond. He could have been hitting on her, or he could have just been a non New Yorker, someone who wanted to knock down the artificial barriers of anonymity and actually get to know her.
She never met up with him again, partially because she wanted to get better at Spanish and partially because his tone confused her. She enrolled in a Spanish class and stopped messaging him.
A study abroad
Rosy’s Spanish is fluent, so she never intended to find a language partner; she wanted someone to be involved with beyond just Spanish practice. She also didn’t know of any language sharing apps. Rosy figured she’d meet people on Tinder who were down to help her practice the language, and maybe she could do cool, non-touristy things. That didn’t happen, but she did get to speak Spanish.
She went on about four mediocre Tinder dates until she met the man she kept dating. Rosy was into him just from seeing his Tinder profile, and could also tell that he was tall, which was a plus for her.
He messaged her. They talked for a bit until they moved to Whatsapp (the classic ‘move to WhatsApp!’) and they agreed on a place to date. She almost bailed after he didn’t show up for 30 minutes, but when he did, the connection was palpable. Also he felt terrible for being late.
Rosy remembers immediately feeling comfortable with him, and for the first time, didn’t feel self-conscious about her Spanish at all. He spoke no English, she told me, which took some of the pressure off of her. They talked so long they almost forgot to eat dinner.
The alternative to Tinder
Neither Alec nor Robbie (not his real name) use Tinder for language exchange. Alec prefers HelloTalk, since it has a feature built for correcting mistakes; you can click on a sent message and edit it for grammar and spelling. It takes a certain kindness and diligence to keep this relationship up. His first conversation with a person on HelloTalk proved to be the strongest. They speak almost daily, switching between English and Spanish for weeks at a time. He prefers these sort of long-term friendships to transient messages with a lot of people.
Alec likes that HelloTalk does not come with Tinder’s extra set of romantic expectations. The app actually takes preventative measures against becoming a dating platform — users are blocked from enlarging the tiny profile picture, and if you try, it shuts you down with a message: “As an application for learning languages HelloTalk has decided not to allow enlarging profile photos.”
Robbie tried Tinder, but for him it remains a dating and hookup application. Romantically, however, he gravitates toward people who speak foreign languages, so he’ll swipe right to people who indicate foreign languages.
He feels more motivated to meet up with someone or study with them if he feels he could develop a non-platonic relationship with that person. And for whatever reason, he told me, he feels more comfortable making language mistakes around women.
For language exchange, he uses Mixxer. During an extended language exchange with a woman he met on that app, Robbie sent a WhatsApp video of his band playing a hardcore punk song in which they just shouted her name.
We’ve lived long enough to know how love should work, what form it takes, what language it speaks. It goes like this: Two people meet, they talk, they kiss. Matters progress. Conversations repeat themselves until they’re familiar.
But when a connection begins with a shared language, the transaction feels different. What does it mean to look for a connection with someone across a language barrier? What does that add to a relationship, and what does that prevent?
Grace occasionally messages a Peruvian post-doc at Columbia University, who she found funny and intelligent. He was flirty at first, but she decided to keep texting him.
Grace supposes it would be nice to date someone who could help her with her Spanish, but it feels unlikely. Her Spanish isn’t strong enough to allow her to express herself fully enough, she realized, to form the sort of bond that she would expect in a romantic partner. To Grace, dating someone with a strong command of language is essential—she values people who can express themselves well, since that’s often an indicator for other, self-reflective qualities.
As well, she wasn’t sure Tinder was the best outlet for her romantic curiosity. It made her feel less generous, she told me, to dismiss someone that quickly.
Robbie and Rosy found that a romantic relationship with a native speaker became the best way to learn a language. When Robbie studied Spanish intensely he was also dating a Spaniard, and since he was constantly with this person, he spoke Spanish constantly. You use different words with colleagues and shopkeepers than with a lover, he realized. Intimacy gave him an entirely new vocabulary set.
Rosy’s relationship gave her an insight into what it’s like to be a teenager in Buenos Aires. Beyond just language, they exchanged cultural norms; what it might be like to grow up here, stay late after school, drink beer outside in a city with no (or at least flexible) open container laws.
I started these Tinder interviews under the auspices of researching the connections between love and foreign languages. I realized I was probably looking for something else — for an insight into what makes a relationship work, a way to explain my own. For someone to tell me that I’d find someone who I could share a language with again, that I hadn’t lost this forever.
Fluency is just another way of saying comprehension. I understand you, you understand me. Understanding can cross over languages, sure, but people can both speak perfect English and be unable to understand each other. You can’t have intimacy without a shared language, but the reverse is also true.
When you’re close to someone, you develop your own language. Relationships create a deeper fluency, a shorthand of meaning and abbreviations that allow single words to mean more than what they mean. Eventually, you don’t need words, comfortable with the knowledge that between you and someone else there is an entire lexicon of words that can hang between you until you know someone well enough to know them without speaking, until you know their minds by sight and silence, eggplant emojis, their weird wells of bravery and annoyance and compassion and disgust and honest-to-goodness humanity that make them different from you in the most essential and gorgeous ways.
I don’t want to go on Tinder again, but not for the reasons Rosy, Grace, Aaron and Robbie gave. They’re all a little braver than me right now. For all of their different impulses, they’re linked by their desire to connect across languages, to delve into something deeper, something more beautiful. I’m not there yet. But I will be.
Rosy had listened to the word “llovenando” and just assumed it was another wacky porteño pronunciation. The correct conjugation of the word “llover,” or “to rain,” would be “lloviendo,” according to grammatical rules. No, her boyfriend corrected her. There’s more nuance. “Está lloviendo” means “it’s raining.” But “está llovenando” means “it’s drizzling.”
Alec likes the word “huevon.” In a Chilean context, it means somewhere between “idiot” and “asshole.”
In mathematics, there’s a concept called “The Pigeonhole Principle.” Robbie is a mathematician, and explained the concept to me: If you have two drawers and three pieces of paper between the two drawers, one of the drawers will have to have at least two pieces of paper in it. In Spanish, “The Pigeonhole Principle” is “el principio del palomar.”
Grace recognized “ojala” from the Arabic “Inshallah.” It translates to “God willing,” or “hope,” or “wish.” As in: “I hope / wish to talk to you again.”