first person

How Duolingo saved my sex life and helped get me laid all over the world

When it comes down to it, speaking a foreign language isn’t a prerequisite for hooking up with a foreign guy. With a few gestures and grunts, one can administrate sex for oneself, just like a caveman. It’s called thinking outside the box! But over time, the experience of standing naked and confused in front of a man who is shouting and gesticulating in Danish can feel less like a fun time and more like one is about to be murdered. Enter: Duolingo!

The first time I ever used the foreign language app for practical purposes was on Grindr in Spain. “Hola,” the man said. “Hola,” I responded. And then he sent me his pics. And then Dora the Explorer kicked down my bedroom door, raised her hands in the air, and screamed, “Lo hicimos! We did it!!!” And then the meds wore off.

Later that day, however, I began to feel emboldened about my Spanish use. I proceeded to deploy Duolingo’s intermediate and even advanced phrases such as “Como estás” and “Me gusta Sean Cody.” I even proceeded to learn that “activo,” “pasivo,” and “Que tal?” meant “top,” “bottom,” and “I am about to send you 15 messages every day until you die,” and that every “masajista” with Zac Efron as their profile pic was actually a 53-year-old woman in Croatia.

But often, learning a language can build bridges. Take Tiago, my first squeeze in Florianópolis, Brazil, for example.

Tiago knew only some English and I knew even less Portuguese; still, each of us attempted to communicate in the other’s language. Every two minutes, however, our brains would break, and we would have no idea how to communicate with each other. We’d pause, mortified, waiting for words to come; then, when they didn’t, we’d laugh, shrug, and move on to a different conversation topic, like poppers. Eventually, though, we found a way around this.

Sometimes, when Tiago didn’t know a word in English, I’d say, “Say the word in Portuguese” – and 80% of the time, I’d know the word once he said it. “Lo hicimos, we did it,” Dora the Explorer would then scream at me after jumping from behind a tree. “Do you see her?” I’d shout, pointing at the tree. But no one ever saw her.

Tiago and I had whole conversations this way, inventing our version of Portuglish, growing its vocabulary, assembling a linguistic Frankenstein monster. Still, there were moments of misunderstanding, like on the night when he turned to me in bed, grinned, and said, “I want to break up with you.” At first, I thought it was because I had just told him that Dora the Explorer often appeared to me at my happiest moments just to destroy my relationships and undermine my grip on reality, but then he corrected himself and said, “Wait, no, that’s not right. I meant I want to wake up with you!”

Then there was Émile, a French flame, who invited me to spend a week with him in his cottage in Normandy.

Émile would pronounce many English words as if they were French: “Addition” became “ad-dee-see-OHn”, and “trench” became “TRONCH.” He’d also mix up prepositions and leave out entire words from sentences. Still, his English was better than my French, so our lingua franca became broken English. But by the second day of our week in his cottage, I realized that Émile had become prone to long silences.

This behavior lent itself well to contemplative strolls across the shores of Mont-Saint-Michel Bay, but not to sexy tête-à-têtes. “What’s wrong,” I asked? “Are you worried? Did I anger you?” “Non,” he said, digging his toes into the sand. “It’s just … Every time I speak, I worry you’ll judge my English.”

From that moment on, I encouraged him to word-vomit sh*tty English at me. I would then call upon my experience with bridging language gaps to break down his walls and coax out his intentions. (“We can walk on the beach later when the water is murdered,” he’d say. “Oh, you mean when the tide goes out,” I’d respond. Then we’d make out.) He even began to feel comfortable explaining things partially in French to me, so that I would understand better.

It was in this way that I learned that Normandy, contrary to most Americans’ romantic notions of it, is actually France’s version of West Virginia. It was also in this way that I learned to say “À tes souhaits” on the first two times someone sneezes and “À tes amours” on the third sneeze. On our last day together, when he sneezed three times, I said “Bless you” instead of “À tes amours.”

“Are you breaking up with French?” he asked.

“No, I’m breaking up with you,” I thought.

Many months later – after Émile, after Tiago – I found myself on the flip side of one of these unequal language exchanges. I was on a date in Brazil; and, with my Portuguese finally at a point where I could converse happily with my date, I embraced the chaos.

But I occasionally found myself in moments where I knew I was saying ridiculous things similar to “when the water is murdered,” but in Portuguese. I smiled to myself. My date even looked at me with pity and affection every time I pronounced something oddly or said something unintentionally hilarious. I felt like a toddler. I loved it.

You see, while languages had built bridges for me in the past, and had even won me love, however temporarily, they had never quite achieved what they were doing right now. They had never stomped on my ego, humbled me, forced me to speak like a baby learning to read. They had never crippled my legs and impelled me to stumble blindly ahead, sans direction, sans defenses. They had never asked me to stop thinking and just… live.

So, I lived.

I didn’t worry when I accidentally said in Portuguese that I ate waterfalls for breakfast, or that I had never seen the sun before. I didn’t even blink when Dora the Explorer appeared in my mirror like Blood Mary and menacingly mouthed the words, “Lo hicimos, we did it.” Instead, I turned to her. “You’re not real,” I said, finally acknowledging her. “Huh?” said my date. “Shh,” I said, placing a finger over his lips. “She won’t hurt us now.”

Evan Lambert (he/they) is a career journalist, essayist and short fiction writer who has written for Mic, the Santa Fe Writer’s Project, and most recently INTO. If you liked today’s piece, then give him a shout on Insta at @icantevannnn or check out his other work at www.evanlambert.contently.com.