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A Figure of Speech

Mane Sardaryan learned English with the help of Lucille Ball and Charles Dickens

Published in 2019 Southern California Rising Stars magazine

In 2011, Mane Sardaryan, a member of the championship team in the National Civil Trial Competition held at Loyola Law School, performed direct cross-examination of expert witnesses, responded to and argued objections, and gave closing arguments in her team’s victory.

Fifteen years earlier, she didn’t know a word of English.

The 31-year-old Sardaryan, now a litigation associate at Skiermont Derby in Los Angeles, was born in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. At age 5, her family moved to Russia. Three years later, they came to the U.S. and moved near relatives in the San Fernando Valley.

“My dad continued to live in Russia and came back to visit once every couple of months,” Sardaryan says. “My mom held down two to three jobs. She had always been the rock of the family, but it was tough for her because she didn’t speak English, either.”

Sardaryan developed her English skills with the help of a pair of unusual tutors—Lucille Ball and Charles Dickens. In grade school, she would watch I Love Lucy with her mother, who was learning the language herself; and in middle and high school, she pored over classics like Great Expectations, Gone With the Wind, Crime and Punishment and The Three Musketeers.

She remembers a breakthrough in third grade. Students were tossing around a beach ball with a world map on it. When a student caught the ball, they were supposed to say the name of a country. “When I did, everyone burst into applause, saying ‘Oh, she can speak.’”

At the same time, she says, “My parents didn’t want us to lose our language, so if we spoke English at home while we were having normal conversations with our elders or cousins, they became upset and we had to drop a quarter in a jar.”

By ninth grade, Sardaryan had transferred to a magnet school that focused on law and government. Though she became a top student in her English class, she was still required to attend ESL sessions because her mom kept checking a box on school forms that said English was not spoken at home. “I was reading all these classic novels, but I would have to come out of class once every two or three months to look at words on flash cards. It was crazy.”

Eventually she joined the high school’s speech team. Debate was tougher for her. “I was so scared and nervous, I freaked out and walked out [of the first meeting],” she says. Her English teacher prodded her to come back. Sardaryan was more comfortable with prepared speeches, and made it to the California High School Speech Association state championships two years in a row.

At USC, she majored in philosophy and joined the mock trial team. One time, she prepared an opening argument and the teacher asked her to do the closing. This time she didn’t walk out. “I stood up and forced myself,” she says.

After Pepperdine University School of Law, she joined Skiermont Derby. In 2014, she second-chaired a trial in Los Angeles Superior Court. “I just soaked up the whole process like a sponge,” she says. “Every day I was learning something new.”

As much as she loves being in the courtroom, she still prefers reading and writing—what she calls “head-down work.” For depositions, she has prepared question trees that fill up to 30 pages. “I am a perfectionist,” she explains. “I need to have every question written down and prepared.”

As for those butterflies before public speaking? “I would get nervous if I wasn’t nervous,” she says. 

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