My tirade against the aural qualities of the Dutch language is probably born of the need to find fault somewhere with a nation of people who speak English better than most New Zealanders. I’ve talked of my chagrin over my monolinguality before. Of all the countries I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to, living in Holland, I haven’t even had to learn how to say ‘do you speak English?’ It is a fairly safe bet to presume that everyone under the age of forty-five, from your classmates to the supermarket tellers, will probably be more fluent than John Key, and seemingly are more than happy to converse with you.
Despite that, I can’t get past the feeling that it is disrespectful that I, a foreigner, should come to a country, or indeed a continent with only the most basic, phrasebook-clutching knowledge of the local languages, whilst this underlying attitude that the host be required to speak to me in my (only) language seemingly pervades all cross cultural interactions.
This sensation was amplified when I went to London for Christmas, after over six months of not being in any official ‘English’ speaking country, and in spite of that, realising how few language-related issues I’d had.
There, I rejoiced in being able to understand everything that was going on with a bubbly and probably inappropriate sense of exuberance. I bought two newspapers and a book before I’d even left the airport. I chatted to every stranger as far as was socially acceptable – the grouchy customs desk people, the woman clipping my ticket on the train, the bored man at the tourist information centre. Problematically, I realised how much I’d truly missed my mother-tongue.
Which, if you think about it, is a pretty strange reaction to have. Like I say, the language abilities of the people of the Netherlands is truly great. I was actively discouraged from making the effort to learn Dutch by many sources. My multilingual language guide book doesn’t even bother to include a section on Dutch.
But, in reacting to my own discomfort at the expectations most English speakers seem to have in engaging with non-native speakers, I dealt with it in the wrong way. I let my fear of seeming presumptuous prevent me from actively engaging with many of the Dutch people I might have encountered. With the result being that I probably just seemed a bit rude instead. Human logic, right?
The fact that I’d missed English feels a bit problematic because of how privileged I really am that by sheer luck of birthplace, and the pervasive remnants of colonialism, my single language entitles me to relatively easy global travel, international universities catering courses to accommodate me, and whole education systems being defined as good based on to what extent English language is taught. Consider how many misguided voluntourists on their Tshirt Brigade Gap Yahs go storming through small villages in South America to teach not Spanish, say, so that the locals might better be able to communicate with the powers in control of their political systems, but the language of another excolonial power.
Perhaps my uneasiness is just an erroneous counter-reaction to the distaste that comes with all things westerncentric. The argument put forward by every Dutch person I’ve spoken about this with is that it does make sense for them to learn English, given that doing so enables them to communicate with 1.8 billion people - more than any other language in the world.
Though, certainly, the next time I am living in another country I will do all within my power to actually learn the local language. Even if for no other reason than the sheer joy to be had in it.
By what can only be described as learning by osmosis, I got irrationally excited when I realised I understood roughly what the announcement on the train was about (a special deal being offered related to bringing your bike on the train with you). Or when I realised that ‘peanut butter’ is literally ‘peanut cheese’ (pindakaas) here. Which is gross, when you first think about it. Until you realise that it is really no worse than its English counterpart.