When Eugenie Lund-Simon ’14 asks friends to “pardon my French,” she’s not apologizing for her profanity. A native French speaker, Lund-Simon frequently finds herself unconsciously slipping into her mother tongue.
Lund-Simon was born in Paris, France to an American father and French mother, moved to Los Angeles a age 8 — a move her family had not anticipated.
“We didn’t know we were going to move to Los Angeles, so I just never learned English,” she said.
Lund-Simon, who began attending the Lycée Francais de Los Angeles did not even being to learn English right away once she moved.
“I pretty much only spoke French,” Lund-Simon said. “I had one hour of English a week, but the first two years I was very young and lazy and didn’t really make an effort, especially because there is a large French community in Los Angeles, and it wasn’t really necessary to learn English right away.”
After Lund-Simon’s sister, Eléonore ’12, began attending Harvard-Westlake, her parents had similar aspirations for her, causing them to begin pushing Lund-Simon to learn English fluently. She began to force herself to speak English, while her dad began speaking only English to her.
Lund-Simon is now fluent in both languages but still finds herself more comfortable with French. At home, her family continues to speak French to each other.
“I’m fine with both, [but] in terms of vocabulary, sometimes in class I have no idea what I’m saying,” she said.
Lund-Simon has had some difficulty, especially in deciphering idioms that do not translate into French, such as “it’s raining cats and dogs.” Lund-Simon has found that this problem goes both ways as well, citing the French idiom that translates to “I’m peeing in a violin,” which, in French, means that no one is listening to you.
“In English class, sometimes I try to say an expression, and everyone gets confused,” she said. “It makes sense in French, but apparently not in English.”
Lund-Simon finds herself accidently slipping into French often, which earns her confused looks from classmates, especially in English classes.
“It’s very embarrassing, but I tend to do that a lot,” she said.
Anton Beer ’14, who was born in Germany, grew up speaking both English and German simultaneously and doesn’t remember learning one first.
“My mom grew up [in the United States], so she spoke English at home because she had just moved to Germany six years before I was born,” Beer said. “[Since] she spoke English at home, I spoke English as well.”
Beer has found that there are benefits to speaking multiple languages, as it has helped him succeed in his foreign language classes at school.
“[I’ve taken] two languages here, and I’m really good at them, but they’re not related to German and English,” he said. “Maybe it makes me more language-adept.”
For Alexandra Arreola ’15, being born to two “very proud Mexican parents,” speaking Spanish from a young age and as her first language was expected from her.
“Everyone in their family speaks Spanish, it’s kind of a passed down thing, so my mom wanted to make sure every one of her kids spoke Spanish, wrote in Spanish and can read Spanish,” she said. “When [your parents] are talking to you they’ll speak Spanish to you and you’re expected to answer back in Spanish, not English.”
Arreola was born in North Carolina, but moved to Mexico at age 2 in order to be closer to family.
Less than a year later, her family moved to California as her parents decided there were more opportunities for them back in the United States.
Arreola began learning English while attending a bilingual head-start preschool and doesn’t think she’s particularly special or out of the ordinary for having learned a different language first.
“People get surprised when I tell them I learned English and it wasn’t my first language,” she said.
Arreola sees only advantages to learning Spanish first and believs speaking it has not affected her English-speaking ability. Especially living in California, she has encountered many people who only speak Spanish and has been able to communicate with them because of her bilingualism.
Although Alisa Tsenter ’14 was born in the United States, her first language still wasn’t English. While most children were calling their parents mom and dad, Tsenter’s first words were “mama” and “papa,” mom and dad’s Russian equivalents. As Russian is the primary language spoken in her home, she began to learn English in preschool.
“I was really quiet the first couple of months, but then I started talking [more] because I started hearing more, and my parents started using English more often so I could learn it,” she said.
Now, although Tsenter continues to understand Russian fluently, she finds herself now answering her parents in English.
Although Koji Everard ’15 learned both Japanese and English from a young age, his first language was not one his English-speaking father actually spoke.
“I think my mom wanted me to be bilingual because that can open up a lot of options in the future in terms of college and work, and it allows me to connect with Japanese culture,” he said.
Everard was born in London and, before moving to Los Angeles, lived in Hong Kong and Japan. Since moving away from Japan, he has found it difficult to retain Japanese because he isn’t using it on a daily basis like he was in Japan.
“The hard part is when you live so completely in one of your languages, like I am now in Los Angeles,” Everard said. “I barely even write it so I have to try and work hard to maintain it and even then it slips away.”
“Being able to speak and interact with more people, even if you’re travelling, it’s really useful,” he said. “Culturally, if you know the language, it allows you to connect to the people. For example, Japanese people, they’re kind of differential but also distant from foreigners so when they speak English to me, but I reply to them in Japanese and eventually they catch on that I speak Japanese, and then they talk to me a little more like themselves.”