‘Orange Is The New Black’ Star Jessica Pimentel On Learning Swedish For Love

Our conversation about learning Swedish for her partner, language challenges on the OITNB set and singing in metal bands.
Jessica Pimentel in Orange is the New Black

When Jessica Pimentel tweeted that she’s been using Babbel to learn Swedish, we had to find out more. It turns out the Orange is the New Black star is a Renaissance woman. She may be best known for her role on OITNB as Litchfield Penitentiary inmate Maria Ruiz, but Pimentel also sings in three metal bands, has played bass in a fourth, and is a bit of a language lover. She speaks English and Spanish fluently and has learned parts of other languages, including Swedish — the language of her partner Tomas Haake, drummer and lyricist for the Swedish metal band Meshuggah.

We asked Pimentel about her knack for language learning, her time on Orange is the New Black and more.

What languages do you speak, and how did you learn them?

I was born and raised in New York City, USA, so I speak English. My parents and family are from the Dominican Republic, so we also spoke Spanish at home.

When I was a teen, I discovered that there was a small town in Italy named Pimentel, which sparked my interest in learning Italian, so I took classes in high school. As an adult, I would find from DNA tests that I am part Italian! Later, several of my cousins met, fell in love with and married Italians and started families in the United States and in Italy. I have been lucky enough to have visited several times, but not Pimentel … yet!

I am a Buddhist and many of the books and practices are written in Tibetan, so I have some understanding of that language.

We hear you’re learning Swedish for love. Can you tell us more about why you decided to learn the language?

I have had the joy of being involved with a wonderful man from Sweden and have been calling the country my second home for five years now.

How are you finding Swedish so far? Any favorite learning tips?

Swedish has been really fun to learn, but I warn you, it will be hard to practice when you are in Sweden as almost everyone here speaks English really well! So a tip is to ask people to speak Swedish to you (slowly) as there are a lot of sounds that your mouth may not be used to, and to try translating as you go to gain comprehension.

Besides trying to do a daily review with Babbel, if you’re not feeling up for a full lesson, I would recommend trying to use any word you know whenever you can, even if it’s only one word and the rest of the sentence is in your native tongue. Vocabulary is key because even if you don’t feel confident enough to speak a new language in public right away, at the very least you’ll be able to understand what is being said around you and feel part of the conversation.

Do you have a favorite Swedish word?

Lagom. It’s not just a word — it’s the Swedish way of life. It means, “Not too much, not too little. Just the right amount.”

What do you like about learning with Babbel?

I really love the options for how I can review what I have learned thus far. You can listen, speak, use flashcards or type. I think that is really important so you can better tailor and sharpen the skills you personally need to improve on. I also love the conversation mode. It’s nice to hear real people speaking and get to mimic back along with them. The sentences and phrases given for learning are extremely practical and useful. Not just random words thrown together, but conversations that one may actually have when living or traveling abroad.

[Babbel’s] sentences and phrases given for learning are extremely practical and useful. Not just random words thrown together, but conversations that one may actually have when living or traveling abroad.

Many of the Orange Is The New Black characters, including yours, spoke some Spanish throughout the series. How did language play a role in the show?

All of our Latina actresses were fluent in Spanish. The biggest challenge was translating and adapting scenes from English to make them make sense. Each character had their own specific background story, and we had to make sure the terminology, slang, dialect and expressions they used matched up to where they were from. We also had to work with our writers to find equivalent idioms for things that don’t make sense when translated directly from English into Spanish, and vice versa.

You also sing in three bands! Do you find it easier to connect with music in certain languages?

The language doesn’t matter as long as I can feel the meaning. Some of my favorite songs are in languages I don’t speak, but if the singer is singing from the heart then the universal language of music is enough. It’s usually a wonderful surprise to look up the lyrics and discover that your feeling of what the song meant was correct. 

I find it very different writing lyrics in English versus Spanish, as most Spanish words have similar word endings depending on if the word is an action or if it’s in the past tense, et cetera. I feel like much more of a poet when I can make all my thoughts neatly rhyme and words seem to flow easier. But English being my primary language, I feel I am better able to communicate imagery that is subtle and metaphorical, especially since I can make use of so many great homonyms and colorful idioms.

What are you working on currently, and where can people follow you online?

I am currently working on new music with my bands Alekhine’s Gun, Brujeria and Black Heart Sutra.

Instagram: Thecrusher007
Twitter: Thecrusher007
IMDb: http://imdb.me/jessicapimentel
My weekly radio show on Wed 12pm PT/3pm ET on Gimme Radio

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

Header image: Netflix

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