The languages I have a relationship with

I recently had a discussion with my wife and mother-in-law.  They both know an artist who is, by all accounts, a genius.  He can do things with a paint brush few other people on this earth know how to do.  He also lives in a trailer in relatively obscurity.  My wife was pointing out that there are many people who are mediocre artists compared to this guy.  Yet, they call themselves artists, sell work, etc.

I countered with the fact that, for me, even if someone is terrible at painting, they can call themselves a painter on one condition: that they paint.  Maybe no one likes your stuff.  Maybe you are terrible by any metrics anyone can think of.  If you paint consistently, for me, you are a painter.  You don’t have to be talented, you don’t have to sell a lot of work.  You have to have put in a certain amount of time in front of the canvas; that is all.

My wife then brought this point up: “Let’s say you are at a party and someone comes in and says: ‘I know Chinese!’  You go and talk to them and figure out they know how to count to 10 and know how to say ‘hello’.  You have spent years studying Chinese and put in a significant amount of time into maintaining it.  Wouldn’t you be upset that they claim to speak Chinese when their ‘I know Chinese’ and your ‘I know Chinese’ are obviously two different things?!”

Fair point.  Hence, the title of this post.  It’s not called “Languages I know” or “Languages I speak” for a reason.  For me, for someone to claim either of those, all that has to be true is that they have a relationship with the language.  They speak it, read it, study its grammar, or write in it habitually.  For me, you are then justified in saying “I speak ______”.  Even if you don’t speak very well.  Below I try to describe my relationships with the languages in my life.


 English is my native language, more so than Russian.  It is my L1, if you will.  I am atypical in this because it is not the language I heard for the first few years of my life.  I do most of my thinking in it, I can express myself most fluently in it.  I can effortlessly switch registers, make puns, quote literature, talk about different dialects.  My accent is standard American and even though I grew up around New York, my accent is not markedly New York.

I have had to write a lot in English and it is the language in which I feel most comfortable writing.

Because I have taught this language for about a decade, I understand its grammar better than most native speakers and know how to explain it to foreign students, especially students whose foreign languages I speak.

I have also read more in English than in any other language and have a bigger vocabulary than in any other language.


This is the language of my childhood and my memories of childhood are in it.  I will never have another childhood, so I will never have the same connection to another language 🙂  Lullabies, childhood poems, early school was in Russian.  Memories of my parents and relatives speaking to me.  Little jokes and anecdotes that people have from childhood.

I can switch registers and use “fancy language” but I sometimes lack the right words for things like bureaucracy, and more involved technical vocabulary.

Also, having left Russia when I was still fairly young, I did not do a lot of school in Russia, so I often feel left out of conversations of people reminiscing about their middle and high school days.

As far as reading fluency, I read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, etc. in Russian without a dictionary, although I do sometimes ask my mom what exactly a word means 🙂  Most of my favorite writers are Russian.

I also don’t know how to use bad words in Russian that well, probably because I left before my peers really started to curse like sailors.

Although I can write in Russian, I did not write hundreds of pages of academic prose, like I did for English.

Finally, I will finally one day learn how to type in Russian, I promise :p  But for now, I am terrible at using the Russian keyboard…


I can express pretty much anything I want in this language, but every so often, I am reminded that I did not grow up in France and I have no idea how to say certain things.  I think most people can tell French is not my native language, but sometimes mistake me for Belgian.  I usually take this as a compliment.  I need this language for everyday life in France.

French people can usually tell that I am a foreigner, but usually not right away.  I have an accent, but it is not very clear that it is an American one.  I studied French in school and was an exchange student in France for about a year.

One of my favorite writers, Albert Camus, also wrote in French.

I went to school for one year in France, which is where my French probably first got to the C2 level.

In some sense, my vocabulary is richer here than in Russian.  As a teacher to French people, I have to think about things like: qu’est-ce la difference entre s’adherer et s’affilier par rapport aux insurances?


Chinese grabbed my attention as soon as I was looking for a language to study in university.  The writing system (which may be on its way out) is beautiful, if unnecessarily complicated.  In college, we cut out teeth on  The Tang Poems (唐诗),Confucius (孔子), and Lao Tzu (老子)before we really knew how to speak.  It was because of this academic approach that I began to be interested in the development of Chinese Characters and 说文解字.  I want to be able to speak to native Chinese speakers in Mandarin, I would like to be able to read the news in Chinese, read some classics.  I want to be able to speak to native speakers

On good days, I feel like I am at a C1 level (when I have finished reading an article on without too much help from the dictionary).  On other days, I can’t express really simple ideas and feel I am at a B1 level :p

I have to keep up with Chinese every day in order not to forget it and it is the language I put the most conscious work into.  I try to read a newspaper every day and listen to an interview or a lecture in Chinese daily.  I also have language partners that I work with in order to keep my speaking at a good level.



I learned Spanish mostly while volunteering in Nicaragua for 3 months.  I looked at the grammar before going and had a few meetings with language partners.

When I came to Nicaragua, I could not understand Spanish very well and there was a lot of smiling and nodding.  There was an especially rude shock because I was met at the airport by a Spanish girl.  She was very nice, welcoming, and full of life!  The problem was how fast she spoke.  If you have spoken to Spanish people, you have probably noticed they speak faster than their American counterparts.

By the end of my stay, I could talk about most topics that came up.

At one point, about 2 months into my stay, a guy from Nicaragua said: do you come from Spain?  Even though I had only been speaking to him for a few minutes, it was a nice compliment and I felt like I had passed some sort of test  🙂

Because I use French every day, it sometimes influences my Spanish and I have to pay attention in order to not mix up the two languages.  Right now, I am keeping up with my Spanish once a week by speaking to my awesome language partner, Dolores.

I can read the newspaper and listen to news in Spanish.  I do not do much writing, though I should probably start.


I have been studying Italian for about an hour a day since the beginning of April using Assimil and relying heavily on its similarity to French.  I can understand articles on google news and a good percentage of the interviews I listen to on youtube.  This seems a bit unfair, since it took me years and years to do this with Chinese…I soon hope to have a language partner and improve my Italian fairly quickly!  With both Spanish and Italian, I have to keep in mind that they are not simply translations of French, even though they share a common grammatical structure, many similar institutions, and have many metaphors in common.


One thought on “The languages I have a relationship with

  1. Gula

    How would you describe your English accent? Is there a hint of Balamorean in it? Or is it kind of standardized American accent?

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