“I’m not really a teacher.”

“I’m not really a waitress” – the refrain, almost a plea, of many an aspiring actress, as well as the name of a color of nail polish surely worn by many an aspiring actress. (How could you not love it?)

And then there’s “I’m not really a teacher.” It was my own refrain for quite a while after becoming just that, in a matter of weeks, once a year and a half of luckless searching for a position as a lawyer or anything in a legal-related field (not as a stepping stone, but as a conscious step back from the lifestyle associated with my previous position in a massive international law firm) had passed.

I said that the wheel turned.

And it did. In a way.

No matter how grateful I was for the opportunities presented to me by the turning of the wheel, it took me some time to accept the way that it turned when it came to my career.

To become a lawyer in the specialized field I chose, I spent nine years studying in institutions of higher education for a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and then a law degree. I passed the bar exam in the state generally considered to have the nation’s most difficult. And eventually my dream came true and I was hired by the same attorney who had inspired my legal career years before, when I was an undergraduate interning at a government agency that was imposing civil sanctions on his client.

All of this took huge effort, dedication, and sacrifice. And all of this, I will admit, resulted in my feeling a certain amount of pride. I was proud of what I had accomplished. I was proud to do what I did. I was proud to work with globally recognized clients on cases that were featured in the news. I was proud to tell others what I did because I liked hearing them say that I didn’t look like a lawyer, whatever that means. I was proud to hand over my fancy business card. I was proud to wear a fitted suit and high heels and carry a red leather briefcase stuffed with important files and Us Weekly.

For better or for worse, being a Biglaw lawyer was an integral part of my identity. It was how I made friends once my student days finally came to an end, it was how I socialized, and it was how I spent my weekends. (As I said, for better or for worse.)

To become a teacher, I spent four weeks doing teacher training that anybody with a high school diploma, a good grasp of the English language, and their wits about them could do. (To be very clear, this concerns training to become a language teacher to adults – completely different from becoming any kind of teacher to children.) I don’t mean that negatively towards the training program or the job that might result from it. What I mean is that for me, personally, it was a shock to find myself, an experienced lawyer with almost a decade of higher education, in that classroom with students like the cheery eighteen-year-old looking for something to do to fund her gap year.

Some basic questions and answers in the language-learning context are about personal details: name, age, nationality, marital and family status, and … job.

“What do you do?” I ask the students.

They respond, and I gesture for them to repeat the question back to me.

“What do you do?” they ask.

It took a long time for me to stop feeling like a fraud when I say, “I’m a teacher.”

I’m not really a teacher,” a little voice would whisper back to me.

The whisper got quieter over time, and is now almost completely silenced. I’ve been in my current position almost as long as I practiced law, and those days of research and memorandums and legal briefs seem much longer ago than that.

If I’m not really a teacher, then what am I?

In need of a new nail polish color, that’s what.


Joining a gym, the Swiss way.

[This content is reposted, in a modified form, from a different blog that I began shortly after moving to Switzerland.]

I recently got off my ass, literally and figuratively, and joined a gym. And of course, this being Switzerland, there was a twist to the procedure that made me grin. (I really didn’t mean for that to be an almost-poem.)

I paid a visit to my preferred choice of fitness centers wearing workout gear, expecting a tour and a trial workout. Sure enough, the receptionist offered to show me around before letting me try out the equipment. When she came out from behind the counter to give me the tour, I saw that she had covered her shoes with little blue plastic booties … kind of like what a doctor or a scientist might wear when entering an environment where even one errant bacterium could lead to grave consequences.

As I was following her towards the exercise area, she said something to me that I didn’t quite understand. I continued after her without pause. “Non. NON! Stop. Stop!”

I stopped and finally understood that I too had to put on the blue plastic booties, over my (not dirty, at least to my eyes) athletic shoes. Why? “We cannot enter the exercise area wearing shoes that have been worn outside! It’s clean in here!” she explained in a rather condescending tone, like I was crazy – or worse, a filthy foreigner – for thinking it might be permissible to just enter a gym wearing the same athletic shoes in which I had walked there.

When members enter, she told me, they have to either take off their outdoor shoes or slip the booties on over them in order to walk over to the locker room area, where they can then put on other athletic shoes that must be reserved for indoor gym use only.

So I rendered myself sufficiently sterile for entering the gym by slipping my feet into the booties, and we walked around together in our matching footgear so she could show me everything. The equipment looked great.

Then it was time for the trial workout. I asked her if I had to continue wearing my booties while exercising.

She hesitated.

I frowned.

She reluctantly said I could take them off, but only if I cleaned my shoes to an appropriate level of “let’s pretend they’ve never been worn outside.”

The janitor was tracked down to give me a scrubbing brush and a towel, and then they left me to it in the locker room. I did my best to remove each speck of whatever outdoor matter the shoes could have collected, putting down the brush only when it seemed that the shoes were clean enough to eat off and thus suitable for use on the Swiss gym equipment.

Anyway, exigent standards of cleanliness aside (good thing no home visit is necessary before members are accepted), it was the right place for me. I joined and never looked back … just over my shoulder from time to time, on the days I forgot to bring a spare pair of “indoor-only” athletic shoes and ended up taking off the shoes I’d walked there in, padding over to the locker room in socks, and then slipping the same shoes back on.

Shhhh. Don’t tell.

Yes not yeah, thank you not thanks.

There are certainly disadvantages to being your child’s primary source of a language that is not the native or principal one of the surrounding community, but one advantage is that you have more control over how said child expresses him- or herself in that language. They say what you model for them to say, and that’s it! No pesky playground interference, for as long as you can keep them off the playground when traveling back to a country where your child’s minority language is spoken.

That’s why around here it’s “yes” not “yeah,” “thank you” not “thanks,” and “shit” not “poop,” except in the context of Poopy. (Oops.) The girls don’t know that the word “stupid” exists, and we watch the “telly” instead of the “TV” (the British word is so muctableth cuter, assuming that I’m allowed to use it despite my generally “not sounding British enough” to please most Brits). Never mind that our telly is really a tablet.

We’re living in a little language bubble, and it’s nice. It won’t always be this way – last time we traveled to the US I saw the Big Girl adopting more and more of her little American friends’ way of talking – but for now, I like the purity of the English we speak at home.

Throwing money around, the Swiss way.

[This content is reposted, in a modified form, from a different blog that I began shortly after moving to Switzerland.]

Throwing money around? Well, that’s not really an accurate description. The Swiss are much too discreet for that. If anyone feels like they’re throwing it around, it’s me, thanks to the horrendous exchange rate against the dollar and the high cost of (a pretty wonderful) life. But if you are interested in hearing some of my more accurate observations on the modernly styled, prettily colored Swiss banknotes and their accompanying coins, you’ve found the right post.

As a friend who arrived here on a visit with Euros in hand learned the hard way, Switzerland uses its own currency, the Swiss franc, which is currently valued at slightly more than a dollar. (The country is not in the European Union, thus it’s not in the Eurozone.) The franc is divided into one hundred centimes. Bills here come in denominations of ten, twenty, fifty, one hundred, two hundred, and … one thousand francs. Unlike in the US, where anything greater than a twenty is eyed suspiciously to the point of not being accepted as payment, here in Switzerland it’s not difficult, or even uncommon, to use a bill of high denomination to buy something as small as a pack of gum.

One of the first times I withdrew money from an ATM here, I received a two-hundred franc note and immediately started worrying about what to do with it. I presented my dilemma to the Husband, who didn’t at first understand why I was so concerned. He told me to just go to the supermarket and buy a soda, that there wouldn’t be a problem. The next day I did just that, handing over the note hesitatingly. The cashier took it and quickly returned one hundred and ninety-eight francs and fifty centimes in change to me without batting an eye. Oh.

I’ve only seen a thousand-franc note being used a few times (never, unfortunately, by myself). Once was at a supermarket, where the frail little old lady in line ahead of me tried to pull one, slowly, painfully, out of her wallet. The cashier was advancing the next customer’s groceries on the conveyor belt when the bill slipped from the wallet, landed on the belt, and got sucked around and under. A short moment of panic ensued until the bill was retrieved from the “crumb box” the conveyor belt dumps into and all was put right.

Coins here represent values of five francs, two francs, one franc, fifty centimes, twenty centimes, ten centimes, and five centimes. (No one-centime pieces, which, coming from the US, I don’t miss.) When I first arrived, I wasn’t used to coins having much real value, since the highest denomination in common circulation in the US is twenty-five cents. It took going through my stash and finding I had close to fifty francs  in coins to realize that I should pay a bit of attention to the metal money, too.

Despite having been here quite long enough to accustom myself to them, I still can’t easily distinguish most of the coins. The five-franc piece is easy – it’s huge – and so is the five-centime – it’s tiny, and a different color. All the others resemble each other too much. I still pick through my change like a tourist, turning over the coins to read the denomination. Embarrassing! [And even more embarrassing as, more than five years later, this is still true. The two fivers are the only ones I can easily recognize.]

The bills are easier to tell apart, since they are different colors, and different sizes, too, increasing with denomination, but I had a mistaken-bill incident that I can’t even blame on miscarriage brain since it occurred before that particular hell presented itself. Buying a magazine at a kiosk, I handed over what I thought was a ten-franc note and, expecting only coins in change, closed the billfold portion of my wallet and opened the coin purse for the change. “Here’s three fifty,” said the cashier, giving me the coins, “… and ninety.”

Right. The bills. Thanks!


boatWe live by a big lake, and the Little Girl loves to hear the noises made by the boats passing by. “Bateau. Uhhhhhhh,” she says to her father, imitating the horn.

“Yes,” I encourage her, and – trying to elicit the term in English – “what do you say to Mama?”

She looks at me quizzically. “Please, Mama? Thank you, Mama?”

Who could fault her, when that is usually exactly the response I seek when asking such a question?

The mysterious case of other-language interference in my bilingual-from-birth daughter.

“I need a jacket; it’s fresh outside,” the Big Girl tells me.

Zut alors! Other-language interference has reared its head and poked its muzzle into my bilingual-from-birth daughter’s otherwise native-level (well, almost otherwise native-level) proficiency in English!

What is this beast, “other-language interference?” And why is my child exhibiting it?

The first question is easy to answer, but first we should note that it is said that children who are bilingual from birth learn both languages through acquisition rather than learning, while older learners of another language are unable to merely acquire it and, rather, must actively learn it.¹

For these older learners, who must truly learn instead of acquire, the learning process may be affected by what is known as “first language interference,” which causes errors in a second language resulting from the person’s knowledge of, and attempt to apply – erroneously – their first language to the second.²

As a teacher of the English language to adults, I see this phenomenon frequently in my classroom. As the students are very often native French speakers, and because I have a decent understanding of French, I’m usually able to identify the source of this interference and, in addition to correcting the error in teacher-ly ways, can contrast the two languages to the student so he or she becomes aware of the source of the error and can try to better control it.

The times I don’t understand this phenomenon are when I hear it from the Big Girl, who is, like her younger sister the Little Girl, bilingual from birth. Shouldn’t she thus be exempt from other-language interference, given that she’s acquiring – absorbing – English, rathfresher than actively learning it? Shouldn’t she have acquired the ability to say that it’s chilly outside, rather than fresh? Make no mistake, although I will admit to other linguistic foibles (ahem), I have never modeled this use of fresh, and I imagine I can say the same for others with whom she speaks English, all of whom are native speakers.

Let me explain the source of the interference. The French word frais has several meanings. One such meaning can be translated as cool or chilly; another is equivalent to fresh, as in fresh milk or fresh fruit. French-speaking learners of English frequently confuse the two. It’s not uncommon to hear, let’s say, that a jacket is needed because it’s a bit fresh outside, or that this drink would be better served fresh, so shouldn’t it be popped into the fridge for a few minutes?

It’s just a typical example of first-language interference. For a non-native adult learner of English. 

Is it typical for a bilingual-from-birth child to also make this kind of error? For the moment, I don’t have an answer. I do, however, have a challenge, and a homework assignment: to get to the bottom of this and report back soon. Next up: some additional examples of other-language interference in the Big Girl’s linguistic repertoire.

Before I go, though: zut alors? Nobody really says that anymore. Unless they’re a Brit on holiday.

¹ See Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, Raising Multilingual Children 18-19 (Bergin & Garvey 2001) (“The First Window of Opportunity [to learn a new language] is from birth to nine months old. … At this point in your child’s life languages are ‘acquired’ rather than ‘learned’; they are part and parcel of his developing being; languages are ‘naturally’ incorporated into a child’s repertoire of abilities. … We adults must learn a language as opposed to the infant’s acquisition of it.”)

² In one source, this is referred to as “mother tongue interference”; the author explains that such errors are made when “the native language behaves in ways which are not applicable to English, but the learner treats them as equivalents.” Rosemary Aitken, Teaching Tenses 9 (ELB Publishing 2002). The process is also called “language transfer,” “linguistic interference,” and “crosslinguistic influence.”

Book-banning on the basis of dactylonomics.

As the Big Girl is starting school shortly, we thought we would check out several books on the topic from the library, hoping they’d be helpful in preparing for the transition.

And then, because of what was depicted on the wall in this drawing, and also because of this, I thought to take one book immediately back.

Finger Counting