Love in Five Languages / 用五种语言说爱情

When I first learned the word ‘love,’ it was from my mother. My mother has always loved me, and has told me so.


“I love you,” she would say.

“I love you too,” I would respond, before it became a tennis volley of, “I love you,” and, “I love you more.” I suppose that’s why a tennis score of draw is always ‘love.’


I learned later that love meant more than a transaction. It was always a word that I was fascinated by, and looked up the foreign variant when I was learning a new language.

To love someone is to show commitment, adoration and affection.The European languages, because of their similarities with English, gave me an expanded expression of this concept. When I learned German, I learned that you could call a beloved person liebling (basically ‘loveling’). Likewise, ‘to love’ in French is aimer and related to the word amicable (friendly). Interestingly, amis means ‘friends.’ It took me such a long time to understand why a French-speaking friend of mine had such an open view towards relationships. She did not have the English conception of ‘love’ as something a friend does not have the right to. And perhaps this is something that is encoded in the language.

Meanwhile, my actual language learning focus has mainly been on Chinese and Japanese.The first Chinese character I learned, which has the same meaning universally, is 愛. It is a highly aesthetic symbol composed of other meaningful symbols such as ‘heart’ (心), and ‘receive’ (受). In Chinese, like in English, there is familial, platonic and conjugal love, but the love that you have for your family always outstrips other kinds of love. The list of kinship terms that Mandarin and other Chinese languages have is immense, but it is not limited strictly to family. In order to express his affections for me, my Chinese housemate called himself my gēge 哥哥 (older brother).

In Chinese, love is habitual. Hobby, for instance, is aihao (love-like). One of the first questions that my Chinese housemate asked me, a native of Shanghai, was ni ai ganjing ma? With the word-for-word translation of, “Do you love cleaning?” But with the implied meaning of, “Will you clean the house often?” Ke ai 可愛 and the Japanese kawaii have the same meaning – ‘adorable.’ Literally, it means ‘loveable.’ If you are into manga and anime, you may have thought to yourself that you overused that well-known Japanese phrase and that it has lost the meaning of ‘cute.’ Well, I am here to tell you that it doesn’t matter.

The special thing about Japanese from an English-speaker’s point of view is how popular it is as a foreign language. Almost everyone I have been in a relationship with has either known a few Japanese words or been receptive to learning new ones. And because of the contextual nature of Japanese, it is the perfect language for exploring the nature of a relationship. For instance, aishiteriru  愛している: (I) love (you) and aishiteimashita 愛していました: (I) loved (them). It’s not necessary to overburden the sentence with lots of subject words such as I, you and me. You say aishiteiru when you are with someone you love, and you say aishiteimashita when you are describing someone that you loved. Somehow, I think not having to name the object of your love or define yourself before you even begin to love is potentially a liberating tool.

What is love but a tool with which to relate to other human beings?



  • Aimer: To love 
  • Libeling: Darling
  • 愛: Love
  • 心: Heart
  • 受: Receive 
  • 愛している: (I) love (you)
  • 愛していました: (I) loved (them)

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