We’re super excited this week to be speaking to bilingual singer and actress, Caitlin McNerney, about how learning languages has helped her to become a Disney Princess!
Caitlin’s upbringing has gifted her with the ability to speak six languages: English, French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish. Born in America, Caitlin and her parents moved to England when she was little and then moved again to Switzerland when she was seven. Living in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, Caitlin studied in a French school while speaking in English at home with her family. As there’s such a value placed on languages in the Swiss curriculum, Caitlin was also taught German from the age of eight when she arrived at the school until nineteen. During high school, Caitlin chose to pick up Italian classes, which she continued while studying at University, as well as deciding to start learning Russian and Spanish. That’s a lot of languages!
Fast forward to now and Caitlin is working in the performing arts as a singer, actor and dancer after receiving her MA in Music Theatre from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. From playing 580 shows with Disney in the frozen city of Arendelle, to travelling to Beirut to star in Beauty and the Beast and Alice in Wonderland, Caitlin’s ability with languages has led her to some very exciting jobs.
So, Caitlin, you’ve been learning and speaking other languages your whole life. What have you found are the main benefits of being bilingual?
“For me, it’s the ability to understand people and break down boundaries. There’s always more of a connection with someone when you can understand their culture. I’ve never been a grammar perfectionist when it comes to languages, I’m much more interested in being able to understand and talk to people than whether I say the right verb.”
Do you think your knowledge of languages has improved your confidence?
“Definitely. For me, as an actor, I’m so much more confident because I have this niche that so few people have. Both jobs that I’ve had so far have involved speaking languages, which gives me confidence as I know that I can be employed because I can speak languages as well as being able to sing, dance and act. Learning languages also puts you into situations where you feel like a fish out of water – like when I went to study at The Russian State Institute of Performing Arts in Saint Petersburg for a year during University. It was really lonely for the first two months as I could understand so little, but afterwards you’re so proud of yourself that you threw yourself into that situation and that completely builds your confidence.”
Why do you think it’s so important for us to make an effort with languages?
“It just makes such a big difference for the person you’re speaking to! One of my job opportunities has been going to Lebanon to perform in two shows: Beauty and the Beast and Alice in Wonderland. One of the things we did while there was go round a shopping centre, in full costume, and greet children while in character. I asked a Lebanese friend to translate some phrases for me, so that I could ask the children what their names were and whether they wanted to take a photo in Arabic. It was such a cute experience, because the kids just stare at you like you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to them! It really changes a lot if you speak someone’s language, it makes it so much more personal.”
What opportunities have been opened up to you because of languages?
“So many! I was able to work for two summers in Italy as an entertainer at a resort; I studied at a drama school in Russia for a year; I’ve performed with Disney in their Frozen Singalong show… Basically it’s given me the chance to do the things I love, but in a host of different countries. In Frozen, the character of Anna had to be bilingual because she needed to sing in English and French. So luckily enough, in the London auditions I was one of the few people who spoke French. That gave me a huge advantage – when I started singing in French and English, the audition panel’s faces just lit up! In Lebanon, I also ended up doing the French narration for the shows and helping the other actors learn their cues, as they didn’t speak French themselves.”
You must be such a helpful person to have on set! Does it ever annoy you when you’re relied upon to help with languages?
“Never! When people ask me if I’d mind translating something for them or help out with speaking a language on set, I’m always so happy to because it’s not an effort for me to do. I really enjoy it and it makes me feel useful. It’s really down to my parents that I’ve had such a brilliant experience with languages. I’m so thankful that they put me in a French-speaking school, and it’s really paid off as all of their children are bilingual.”
What is life like as a Disney princess performer?
“It’s funny because I never thought I would perform as a Disney princess! When I was cast as Anna, I was so aware that I was living out what so many little girls would want to do. I got to meet competition winners while I was out in Paris and lots of the kids I met couldn’t breathe because they were so excited. To them, you’re a star and you’re real, so you need to keep up the magic. It’s definitely an interesting topic of conversation when people ask me what I do for a job and I can say I’m a princess! I’ve been really lucky that I’ve played some of the more adventurous Disney princesses – Anna is a real go-getter; Belle loves to read; Alice is so curious. That’s made me really happy to set those examples to children. It’s not all glamorous though – during the January performances of Frozen, it was minus 8 degrees on stage. People would try to clap after we finished singing and you could just hear a dull thudding of gloves coming from the audience!”