Speaking in tongues

By Allison Hamburger

When Fede Brecha ’12 was little, she sometimes spoke in two languages at once.

“I would say half the line in English and the other half in Italian because I didn’t know the difference,” she said.

Brecha is fluent in Italian and English and often speaks Italian at home with her mom, who grew up in Italy.

“My dad always spoke to me in English, and my mom always spoke to me in Italian, so I grew up with both,” she said.

Melissa Flores ’12 was also introduced to two languages at a young age. Flores’s first language was Spanish, but she learned English in preschool by watching shows like “Barney” and “Sesame Street” to hear the language and learn the alphabet.

“I learned to speak [English] first by listening to what people said and figuring out what that meant, and I kind of adopted it simultaneously with Spanish,” Flores said. Though she says she is more English-oriented now, Flores still frequently speaks Spanish with her family, since her mom particularly can understand Spanish more clearly than English.

Chanah Haddad ’11 and Hanna Huang ’11 are bilingual as well. Haddad and her family always speak French at home. Her dad is from Tunisia, and her mom knows French from high school and from living in France when she was younger. Haddad also knows bits of Hebrew, Spanish and Chinese.

Huang is fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin because her mom’s family is from Hong Kong, and her father is from Taiwan. Huang takes Directed Studies Chinese at school. Haddad is also enrolled in a class of her second language, French Literature Honors.

Haddad and Huang agreed that their knowledge of French and Chinese at home sometimes help them in class.

“It helps when I’m trying to express myself orally, but it doesn’t really help in writing because in French the spelling is not phonetic at all,” Haddad said.

Huang said that though the grammar and vocabulary of Chinese come more easily to her, a common misconception among her peers is that she does not have to pay as much attention in class.

“But that’s not true because you can’t know everything, so I still have to work hard to get good grades in that class,” Huang said.

Michael Zaks ’13, who is currently in AP Spanish Language, has been fluent in Russian since he could talk because his entire family speaks the language. He learned English in preschool and takes Russian lessons once a week to preserve his bilingualism.

Though Spanish and Russian are dissimilar, Zaks said that Russian has helped him understand the grammar of both English and Spanish better by knowing the structure of a sentence.

Brecha agreed that Italian affects her in language classes Spanish III Honors and AP French language.

“If I’m writing something in French, I’ll say something in Italian because that’s like my next language to go to normally, not English,” she said. “When I’m writing in French or Spanish it’s easy for me to go to Italian because it’s similar.”

Flores is now learning three additional languages at school, Latin, Chinese and Greek. However, when she was younger, Flores was reluctant to speak English. Flores could read and understand English well, she said, but disliked verbalizing it until she was about six or seven because she was nervous about the complex pronunciation rules of English.

“I feel more comfortable writing than I am speaking just because it can be awkward and it’s kind of embarrassing if you are mispronouncing [an English word],” Flores said.

All five of these students said that their languages other than English allow them to communicate with a wider population of people.

“I wouldn’t be able to talk to my grandparents, my cousins, my aunt, my uncle if my mom hadn’t taught me Italian when I was little,” Brecha said. “That’s really important to me.” She visits Italy twice a year.

“I have citizenship in both [Italy and the United States] and I love Italian culture and art and food and people and the language. I just love it so much so I consider both to bereally close to me,” she said.

Zaks traveled to Russia for the first time two years ago and enjoyed the experience.

“I went to Moscow and St. Petersburg,” Zaks said. “They are both really beautiful, and they were a lot of fun because I could talk to the people there.”

Haddad said that French can be a good way to form connections with other people if they speak French too and want to converse. Flores has had a different experience when people find out that she is fluent in Spanish.

“Sometimes people will be like ‘oh now help me with my Spanish homework’ which can be really annoying but at the same time it’s just a part of who I’ve always been,” Flores said, “It’s like another feature, like oh yeah brown hair, speaks Spanish, speaks English.”