Oct 21st, 2018, 05:41 PM

Using Dating Apps to Learn Languages

By Lauren Williams
Nika Dehghani in her Parisian apartment. Photo Credit: Lauren Williams
New to France, Nika Delghani found her language learning style through going on dates.


“With dates, you’re motivated, you know, you get dressed up and meet someone new,” says Nika Dehghani with a mischievous smile. “Really, French just came naturally once I’d see them. It was fun just to swipe and chat a bit and, if he seemed interesting, I’d meet him.”

We meet in a modern and stylish three-story apartment in the vibrant eleventh arrondissement to talk about Nika’s unusual approach to learning French through Tinder dating. She greets me at the door dressed in typical Parisian fashion: black from head to toe, looking casual and chic. She is warm and welcoming, with wide brown eyes as she sits down at the kitchen table.

With three languages already under her belt before she moved to France, Nika is like any typical college graduate from Stockholm. She moved to France with the confidence and determination to add a fourth tongue to her list. Born in a multicultural city where nearly everyone’s fluent in at least two languages, she was formally taught English from a young age.

“Persian I learned at home,” she says. “My parents are from Iran, so they thought if they just speak Persian with my brother and me, we will learn Swedish at school.”

Nika quickly explains that she was in the process of finding a new place to live, but like many other young people in Paris, had not met with much luck. She presents the apartment as the home of a generous couple she found on a “Swedes Living Abroad” Facebook page. They offered to let her and her roommate stay until they were able to find something elsewhere.

Regardless, she seems at home here, as if being unsettled is next to nothing for her. Nika, from the jump, is the kind of person who makes it work.

“[She’s] a ball of sunshine, sometimes it’s like she’s on ecstasy,” says her former roommate Janvier Kasra. “Nika is just an incredibly bold girl.”

Nika and her current roommate, Olivia Karsten, have known each other since childhood and have gone through most major steps in life together, from high school to college, to their first adult relocation: France, where they enrolled at a popular school in Paris, Language Studies International.

However, things took an unexpected turn for Nika when she decided that her language classes weren’t advancing her conversational skills in the ways she had hoped.

“After four months I realized it [class] wasn’t helping anymore, it was just conjugating, and doing grammar stuff,” she says casually, with a confident air that seems well above her age. “So I quit school. I realized that it’s better just to stay home, listen to the radio and talk to people. So then I got the idea: maybe I can get in contact with some French men to practice the language. But I thought — how can I do that?”

French culture has always interested Nika, so it’s only natural that the idea of spending time with natives was exciting for her. She did what many millennials would see as one of the easiest ways to get in contact with Parisians: signed up on online dating apps.

Online dating is nothing new; it is rather a very normal part of life for millennials in 2018. No longer a matter of confidentiality, it’s not uncommon for a couple to say they met through Tinder or one of the many other apps on which men and women seek some kind of relationship, be it emotional or physical. 

Nika’s story is a bit different. As soon as she got to Paris, she went online, however, the original appeal of meeting the French man of her dreams quickly morphed into an opportunity to master her fourth language.

“I’m single, so I downloaded all of the apps — you know, I’m in a new city, and I have nothing to hide,” she says.

Dating apps are used virtually everywhere. According to Yahoo Finance, last year the most popular dating apps were Tinder, Bumble, OkCupid, PlentyOFfish, Match, and CMB — two of which Nika uses to better her language skills. She uses different applications for more diverse options. With more apps in use, means more guys to choose from, which ultimately means more opportunities to improve in her language skills.

She adds that Tinder always worked when she wanted to match up with someone. It’s one of the most popular apps with no shortage of women and men swiping all throughout Paris looking to grab a “verre” or catch the sunset on the Seine.

Her educational dates were like any normal evening between two strangers. “We would typically meet at a bar, I would like for them to choose because they’re locals,” she says.  

For Nika, it was not an entirely random swiping lesson. She was careful about who she selected. Instead of someone in search purely for a mate, she scanned for people with interesting details.

“I would choose guys who had interesting jobs, or traveled to similar places so we could have things to talk about,” she says.

She didn’t immediately write off each guy as someone who could solely be her teacher, there had to be some potential there in order for the conversation to flow.

“Honestly, the messaging with people inside of the app was great practice for me as well,” Nika said. “When I would message with them, they would write with abbreviations and slang as well and through that, I learned a lot, even though it wasn’t face to face.”

Usually, the only reason most of the men weren’t rewarded with a second date was that, in her own words, “they were just not that nice”.

She leans in with childlike excitement to recount one particular night when she’d had two dates.

“It was so funny,” she confides, “I let my second date of the night choose the bar we could go to, but as we began walking, we arrived at the same square I was at thirty minutes before. I started freaking out because he suggested the bar I was just at, and my first date was still there hanging out! It worked out though, I just pretended I knew a different bar and pointed at somewhere random across the street. That could’ve been super embarrassing.”

On her busiest week, Nika went on about five Tinder dates.

“When she first started to do this, I thought she was just being militant about looking for a boyfriend, then I realized in the way she would describe the dates that she was actually being rather clever. She would share details about what and how they ate, they way they talked about their friends and their jobs, the real ethnography of the men, rather than just talking about their attractiveness,” says her roommate, Olivia.

Nika says these meetings expedited her linguistic integration in France -- which is not the easiest country to settle in to -- especially Paris, a place known for its inhabitants’ cold shoulders towards foreigners. But Nika was able to make a space for herself within the city.

“I really understand French culture now,” she says. “They can help you; you learn something new every time. Even if it’s like small stuff, for example, when I was applying for my masters, or I needed to open a bank account, I would just ask. They could give me all kinds of tips.”

While this may seem like one-sided relationships, who’s to say what the point of dating applications really are? If the allure of dating apps is to find a partner, at the end of the day they are really about making connections. What those connections lead to is up to both people. For some, it may be a hookup, maybe even ending in marriage, but for plenty of others, it’s a one-time awkward meeting in a dark cocktail bar. Why not learn a bit in the process? That was precisely what Nika decided to do.

This could come off as problematic for some men if  they assume that the date may lead to something. However, William De Shaepmeester, a French and Dutch-speaking Belgian man living in Paris, finds Nika’s tactics clever.

“I have never thought of dating as a way to learn a language. I mean I have never hung out with someone in my personal life to learn something from them, rather the opposite,” William says. He continues to say that in reality not hearing back from a Tinder date is not be such a big deal because most of the guys he knows, “just use dating apps like Tinder for hookups anyways”.

Nika got to practice French, further grow her understanding of the language and talk to someone fairly interesting for an hour or two and that was enough. If the men were too pushy, she would just unmatch them and move on. “I would just be like okay I can’t hear you… and block them,” she says.

She did not fall into the trap of coercion that women and men may find themselves in when searching for a partner because she was getting more than that out of her dates.  

Nika speaks fondly of dating in France, not only fascinated by the culture and food, but also the people. Conversations typically flowed freely because she showed her interest in the French, who are particularly proud people, and that was appreciated by the men she would meet.

Nika explains that conversations often focused on her interest in France and why she decided to leave Stockholm.

“You just start to memorize the sentences,” she says. The more she was able to discuss similar things like her background, her studies, her friends and interests in French culture, the better she would get at speaking about those things.

Repetition is key for any learning any language, and by conversations starting from the same point and heading in similar directions each time, her confidence grew.

After just three months of dating regularly. With a full smile Nika tells me she became, “so confident, I could have full conversations in person as well as through text from the messaging features on the apps.”

Rocking from side to side in contemplation, she begins to speak softly.

“But, I mean, I would never date someone who was trying to learn Swedish. I just wouldn’t have time for that. I would prefer someone who speaks Eng-”, Nika stumbled for the first time throughout our conversation to correct herself and scrunched her brows, “no not even English, a native Swedish speaker only. I mean it’s my real personality, the real Nika”.

She takes a  different stance on dating in Sweden. In Paris, she finds dates who were open to meeting despite the language barrier endearing. She explains that, in Paris, guys are remarkably different from what she is used to in Sweden.

Regardless of her French level, they were encouraging of her, not only asking her to speak the language but really helping her through it. Her French dates often asked her for the reasons she was on Tinder.  

“They are very open-minded,” Nika says matter-of-factly about the French, “and they are very straightforward. I like that. Swedish people hide a lot. They don’t always tell you what they are thinking. You really have to guess. However French people are very transparent.”

Nika, true to her candor, would typically tell the truth. “Oh, you know, to learn more about French culture and to practice French,” she says. “I just want to meet and speak with French people.” However, she says that if the date was a contender for a second, she would probably not admit to that, as she was open to something more. However, for Nika, this is an uncommon occurrence, after months of these meetings she has only seen two men a second time.

One of them, Nika admits she’s had a crush on. Her eyes widen as she describes him. “He was so French. He had such an adorable accent and I think he liked me too, but we just got busy with our lives and we stopped talking.”

Currently, she’s on Bumble dating more casually than before.  She discusses the new features, “You know, on Bumble they have ‘BFF’ and ‘business’ now, it’s actually quite cool, I haven’t really gotten into those features yet though,” she says.

She laughs and quickly locks her phone as it lights up with a new match notification. The Bumble BFF feature serves as a tool for women to connect with one another and hang out. You still swipe, similarly to the original application. However, both parties can message one another once they have matched, as opposed to the dating function in which girls must message the guys first. “Business” is similar in the sense that it connects women, but in this case, it connects women looking to network.

One may wonder, why not just find a group of friends to speak with or utilize new features in applications like Bumble that match can match you with likeminded people... unromantically?

To this, Nika may answer that there’s something novel about going on a date. The anticipation and excitement of the unknown are feelings that are nearly universal.

“I don’t think I would do the friend one, no, I don't know. With dating, the guy is very interested in me”, she says. That romantic interest adds excitement to the conversation for Nika.

Unlike dragging herself to class every morning, she had a reason to get out of the house and dress up. At the time, besides these dates, she spent most of her time babysitting two young boys, so this was a break from her youth-filled days. The possibility of a romantic interaction catalyzed prolonged attention, despite the language barrier.

William, a French millennial, agreed and explained that he wouldn't really mind going on a date with someone who didn’t speak perfect French. In fact, he would be open to someone using a date for practice, “as long as they mentioned their intentions up front, because if not it could become confusing.”

Nika chose to use the dating function of Bumble instead of ‘BFF’ function to meet people to practice with.

“Why would a girl want to hang out with me while I'm struggling in French. With a guy, they are interested. It helps because then you have more confidence to speak as well,” she says.

Speaking of confidence, she encouraged her roommate, Olivia to try out dating apps as well. Olivia, sitting across from her best friend, replies honestly, “For me, it seemed weird sometimes, all of the dates because it didn’t always seem like you were enjoying them. But I look up to you because you did learn lots of French. I mean you pushed me to do the same thing as you. Like, I met a French guy, and she really forced me on this date.”

The two burst out laughing as they shared the story of how Nika encouraged her to try going on a date of her own. Nika looks at Olivia, smirking.

“I actually matched with this guy, but only because he was Olivia’s type. I wrote to him and said, my friend is interested in you, here is her Instagram. If you are interested you should message her,” Nika says.

At first, things didn’t go as well for Olivia as they did for Nika, as she found herself extremely frustrated with the language barrier. Her date spoke no English.

“I was so mad, I was like, ‘Nika he’s ugly and short,’ but he's not. I was just frustrated about the barrier. But after I got over it, and we spoke again. I decided to go on another date with him, and it was one of the best I’ve ever had, like, I was really forcing myself to speak French,” Olivia says. She said that it was Nika’s fearlessness in meeting others and practicing the language that really inspired her.

Olivia wasn’t the only one of her expat friends that she inspired. Their old roommate, Kasra said that out of all of Nika’s friends, “she was the one who seemed to really try to understand the French culture.”

Nika even went as far as sharing what she learned with her friends. Olivia mentioned some of the things Nika shared with them after her dates that they could use to sound less foreign like, “C’est top” and “La vache.”

Now, Nika’s French is at a level where she isn’t seeking out so many meetings a week. “You know, now I am in my master's program. I am quite busy, and I really just don’t have much time. I am still on though, but I only go on dates if I really think I may like the person.” She giggles again, “But hey, maybe it’s time to learn another language… What do you think?”