As quiet language learners, sometimes we feel invisible. That’s why I decided to gather quiet language learners stories – our stories. To show that we are all different, that our personalities can shape our language learning experience, and that language learning can shape our lives in unique ways. That we can learn in a more mindful, kinder way.
And to make all quiet language learners feel empowered and seen.
Today, Jessica from French Sunny Side shares her personal love story with languages. Through her words, discover the therapeutic and healing power that languages can have on our lives – and how sometimes we need a detour before truly falling in love with a language. Enjoy!
Languages are love stories
Don’t you think language stories are like love stories? We casually flirt and with time we get to know each other. At first, we are hesitant, we want to make sure we are a good match. Until we fall madly in love and decide to commit for a long-term relationship, with the hope of making them a part of us and being a part of them forever.
The languages we learn and speak shape who we are and who we become. They change our perception of the world around us and make us able to understand it better, to connect with it and with ourselves differently. Rather than changing our personality, I believe they allow us on a journey of discovering who we are meant to be.
I’m Jessica. I’m a French online teacher and a mindful language coach. Today, I’m sharing with you my language journey, and how it has brought me the tools to understand myself and to heal.
First love: the origins
I grew up in Brussels, capital of Belgium, bilingual city of Europe. I was adopted and raised by an Italian family. My first words were stuttered in French, and at the age of 4 I started babbling in Italian with my “nonno”. I travelled to the south of Italy every summer and I soon developed a good command of the Italian language and culture, as you can imagine. The proper intonation, the proper gestures and body language, and even the uses of the regional dialect that was used at home. Like a “real” Italian, they said. Well, almost…
Something was never quite right: I never succeeded to trill my ‘r’s. I tried, I really tried. I wanted to fit in, to belong. My adoptive mother was desperate and made me repeat all these words: “albero” “roma”, “arancione”. She too wanted me to be like them. But nothing worked. We started to believe it was genetic.
I accepted it as it was: I would always be “the foreigner.”
Childhood: from fantasies to realities
Around the same age that I was introduced to Italian, I discovered that English sounds were beauty to my ears. I remember pretend-playing that I was American at the age of 5, which was surprising since nobody in my environment could speak or understand the language. At the age of 10, the whole school knew about my imaginary American boyfriend. I used to spend hours reading books about the United States of America, aka “my future home”. When I turned 13, I decided not to go to Italy for the summer as I usually would, instead, I would turn fantasies into realities and I started to teach myself English. Turns out, I was a natural.
The limitations that I had felt with Italian disappeared with English. It was all so easy: the grammar, the words, the pronunciation, the mindset… The shy and hurt little girl became a confident and positive teenager. I was freed from the emotional shackles of my other languages that were dictating me who to be and how to act in order to be accepted and loved. When writing in English in my journal, I felt such freedom to express whatever I wanted without being controlled. When speaking it, the stutter that I had when speaking French vanished. I was finally free to be me.
I wanted more. When I was 18, I asked my parents to go to Toronto on a language trip for three months. I knew that they had family there and that they would possibly allow me to go on my own. This changed my life in ways that I cannot start to explain. It was my first real taste of freedom. In that way, English had become my golden ticket. My way to escape the restraining walls of my home and to connect with the rest of the world.
Relationships and breakups
That same year, I started an MA program in modern languages in Brussels, in English and… Italian. See, I hadn’t quite given up the hope of one day belonging. The English program was heaven on earth for me: it brought me the knowledge and the culture that I was longing for. And being quite good at it, I grew more and more confident as a person. I was fascinated with the literature, I was learning lines out of Virginia Woolf and falling asleep with the words of T.S. Eliott.
The Italian program? Well… I was able to speak it better than most of my adoptive family members, which I was proud of. But my “r”s remained hopelessly foreign. I found the literature annoying, the culture unimpressive, and the mindset, the people, arh the people were the worst! It made me so angry!!!
A bit too angry maybe?
As I graduated, it was very clear: I would never ever speak Italian again. Instead, I would become a teacher and devote my career to English!
Falling madly in love
A few years down the line, at the age of 30, after having become a mother myself, I took a trip with Alex, my husband, to Rome. We had recently seen Woody Allen’s movie “To Rome, with Love” and… I dunno… I felt drawn. I had never been there, and as there was no connection between Rome and my family’s hometown, I wondered: “Is it maybe safe to venture?” “I wouldn’t dare speak Italian again, would I?”
We arrived in Roma Fiumicino. Unsurprisingly, a taxi driver tried to make us pay double the fare to go to the city centre. I laughed and with a smile, I insulted him… in Italian. A few hours later, we were on beautiful Piazza Navona. We had stopped by a gelateria to get a “limone e lamponi” Italian ice-cream. People were happily chatting with their charming accent in the light of dusk, and as I put the first spoonful of lemon ice-cream on my tongue, tears were rolling down my cheeks.
The taste of this lemon ice-cream was everything. I hadn’t been able to find this particular balance of sweetness and sourness since childhood. It’s what in French we call “La Madeleine de Proust.” In that spoonful was my whole love story, the one I wasn’t equipped to feel properly before, the one I was finally ready to live then.
We stayed in Rome for a week. I cried every day at the beauty that exists there. As I was visiting the Colosseo, I couldn’t believe that I was actually walking where Julius Ceasar had been, and I cried. When I was visiting Villa Borghese, I couldn’t take my eyes off the statues of Bernini, and I cried. In the evening, I was eating the best pizzas of my life, with a succulent Pinot Grigio, and of course, I cried. People started to believe I was depressed, but in fact, I had never been happier. I was connected to the language, and the people, in a way that I had never been before.
Marriage and new adventures
Lots of things have happened since. First of all, we got married in 2015. With Alex, I mean, not with Italian. And we decided to pursue our life-dream to live and travel in South-Eastern Asia and to move here to Vietnam in 2017.
We left with only one suitcase each, but in there were my Italian books. I started learning it again seriously when I arrived here, and… I can now trill my r’s! I’m also teaching it to my 6-year old daughter.
Being an adopted child is a complex thing, and we all have our difficult family stories. It took me a while to understand that I felt rejected by the language and the family, just as much as I rejected them. The newfound deep connection with Italian made me able to understand my ambiguous emotions and made me able to forgive them and to forgive myself. I am not able to be in a healthy relationship with the people who have raised me, but that doesn’t need to define my present anymore. And certainly not my future.
I’m now learning Vietnamese. It’s not easy and we don’t know if we’re going to stay friends or what, but I love the way people smile when I say a few words in their language. The Vietnamese people tend to keep to themselves, and me learning their language is definitely an effort that they appreciate. Again, a way to connect and to belong.
I have also started learning Spanish! We’d been flirting back and forth for years. I didn’t want to hide it anymore: I love Spanish. Learning it makes me want to dance in my living room. It connects me to my more spontaneous and joyful side and that is definitely something I want to explore.
Love yourself, be connected to the world
This is my story. This is why I will keep on learning and teaching languages.
Because speaking is what defines us, what makes us human, and what enables us to see the reality from different perspectives beyond the walls of the culture we were born in. Sometimes, our vision is blurred. Learning a language is adding a powerful lens through which we can understand ourselves and each other. If we understand, we can have empathy and feel love. In a society that is more and more dis-connected, learning languages is a wonderful way to feel united, to heal ourselves and to love ourselves.
Jessica is an online French teacher and language coach. Through mindfulness and self-development, she helps intermediate francophiles find their voice in French in order to express themselves freely and with confidence.