Liliana Cardile is the Program Coordinator for the Visiting Scholar and Postdoc Affairs (VSPA) Office at UC Berkeley. In Italy, where she comes from, she worked for 17 years as a journalist covering international politics and cross-cultural topics for a major Italian weekly publication and for TV. She also traveled internationally, shooting documentaries for the Italian TV. Liliana met her husband in China where she was spending a sabbatical year learning Mandarin. Five days after their marriage, in 2008, she moved to the U.S. with him when her husband began a teaching career at UC Berkeley. In the Bay area she became officially a “spouse” and almost immediately attended the VSPA monthly orientation. Little did she know that, nine years and two children later, she was going to co-lead the VSPA monthly orientation herself. She is committed to taking care of the VSPA community, her first family when she arrived to the U.S.
I am from Japan and accompanied my husband who is a postdoc here in the department of electrical engineering and computer science. We came with our three young children who are all in elementary school. Because my husband is well respected and speaks almost perfect English, I feel embarrassed to ask for help with getting settled in the United States. For your information, I can write well as you can see but my speaking ability is not very good. In fact, people have to ask me to repeat myself over and over because they don't understand what I am saying. By the way, even my children speak perfect English and they have only been here six months.
In Japan, I took English as second language courses for many years and I thought I was doing well. But apparently, I am not very proficient as everyone has difficulty understanding me. When I go to the doctor, I have to take my children to explain what I need because my doctor doesn't understand what I am trying to say. Other than taking more courses in speaking better English, do you have any recommendations about how to improve my spoken English.
As you can see, I very stressed by this problem and my husband doesn't have time to support me. I am sure that I am not the only person to have this problem. But UC Los Angeles is a very prestigious university and I am ashamed of myself because other spouses don't have this level of problem.
Please help me.
Thank you for your email, written indeed in quite good English. You are right when you suggest that many other spouses of international scholars share your difficulties with language here in the United States. I myself fight daily battles with English, and there are times when I feel I am not winning this war. I came to the U.S. nine years ago to support my husband’s strong desire to work in academia. I had a very successful career in journalism - I even had my own weekly TV show on foreign politics -, but I thought my husband deserved this opportunity (and…I also believed we were going back after one year). I did not take into account that my spouse is a stellar researcher and, shortly after arriving to Berkeley, he was offered a permanent position as a faculty on this campus. Almost overnight, my professional identity was stripped away from me and I became the “wife of” an Assistant professor who struggled with her English and was often asked to repeat her sentences at the grocery shop, at the café, at my children’s school, at the doctor's office. For someone who mastered the art of writing and storytelling, this looked like Dante’s inferno. I didn’t know who I was anymore, as you probably don’t right now. And I was sometimes ashamed of my inadequate language skills, as you are now. My husband’s English was not superb, but he had his talent for science and people were paying attention to his data and articles. My kids, who were born here, are native speakers. They started to correct my English at a very early age and even now they occasionally laugh at my Italian pronunciation. I was the only one left with the burden of rebuilding my own identity in a new country.
See Haruna, I am convinced that you and I, and the thousands of “academia spouses” like us, are not ordinary people. I like to think of us as old-time pioneers, women who accepted great risks and uncertainty to make a better life in a foreign country. You may have not yet the language skills you need here, but you have a strength and a will that are exceptional. Read as much as you can to improve your English, watch TV (in my first months here, I was greedily swallowing all kind of shows from PBS documentaries to SNL, via the Colbert show to all the Bravo trashy shows), attend an adult school to meet new people. There will be always someone who will question our writing skills or ask us to repeat a sentence or a word– that still, and will always feel like a sting to me. You will take a deep breath, repeat your sentence slowly and move forward to the next challenge. The UC campuses, like UCLA where you live, shine because of international scholars like yours and my husband who come here to do research. And because of their spouses and partners, who accept the challenges of being foreigners and explorers on campus and in the real world (remember that WE deal with schools, shops, summer camps, doctors, childcare, baby-sitters while our husbands are in the labs all day). Universities in the U.S. have been slow to recognize our needs, but we can definitely help build a better life for the next spouses. This has been part of my goal in the new career I am building here in Berkeley. I invite you to get together with other spouses and make your voice heard. You should not be ashamed or embarrassed: with your broken English you are supporting your family here even more than you husband does.