Saturday, May 14, 2016

Leaping over language barriers

This article was first published on Aquila Style.

Adventures in picking up a new language doesn’t have much to do with meeting new people.
Image: Pixabay
At this moment, I live unwillingly in the Netherlands. I didn’t move here because I loved the language or the culture. After three and a half years, I can understand most of what people are saying, but since I haven’t had (read: couldn’t afford) any formal lessons and I’m not particularly fond of the language, the Dutch language requires the activation of a whole other part of my brain.

I’ve nothing against learning new languages. Or European languages for that matter. I stuck through French lessons in middle school before I finally realised how I actually loved speaking it when I participated in an immersion programme in a sleepy French town (and later, studied there for a year). I still speak decent French and try to not lose my skills by watching French films. And because I already speak English by virtue of being born and bred in a former British colony, I think two imperialist languages are enough for me, thank you.

The thing about speaking Dutch in the Netherlands is that… you don’t have to. Most people in the big cities speak decent English, which is enough to get by if all you want is to buy groceries at the supermarket, or find your way with public transport.

But there’s a double standard when it comes to speaking the local lingo. If you’re a Caucasian or European, you’re not expected to speak Dutch. Laws that allow free movement in the European Union also mean that for Europeans, learning Dutch is merely voluntary. However, for me as a non-European permanent resident, I have to take a language exam in the next two years or risk a severe fine.

Here, there are two types of people who are usually assumed to be unequivocally Dutch: White or Brown (thanks to colonial history). Because my appearance is typically Javanese or Indonesian, I’m often mistaken as being Dutch. Many Dutch people also have grandmothers or great-grandmothers who came over from the former colonies. These women often attempted to integrate totally by adopting the local language and ways of life.

At one point in time, I figured I’d similarly integrate by forcing myself to speak and listen to Dutch. I decided to start in a prenatal yoga group that I had just joined. I figured that I would do okay since I could understand most words relating to movement and parts of the body. Plus, it was a good opportunity to learn the relevant vocabulary for labour and delivery.

It turned out to be a very lonely 10 weeks. Even though I tried my best to speak a little bit of Dutch each lesson to the yoga instructor and to the other participants, I never got around to actually striking up a semblance of a friendship with the other mothers. Perhaps it was our age difference: Almost all the other women were well into their 30s, and some in their 40s. Perhaps we lived in different places: They live in the suburbs and I live in the city. Or perhaps I was just the only non-White person in the whole group.

I had a very different experience in a postnatal Pilates class I’m currently attending. It’s a small and cosy studio not too far from where I live, run by an English woman and attended by many English-speaking people (even though most of the instructors are Dutch). I take two different classes, and both instructors willingly carry out their lessons in a mix of Dutch and English to make sure I can understand.

I’ve also met some kindred souls in this class – a total change from awkward attempts at conversation in my previous yoga class. Whether it’s because women are more sympathetic when they can bond over how bad their hospital experience was, or whether it’s just a friendlier group of women, I haven’t needed to speak Dutch at all. (Besides, my go-to excuse is that my brain is too sleep-deprived caring for a baby to string together a sentence.)

I realised then that it’s not about the language we speak, but about our willingness to know the other. Now when someone speaks to me in Dutch, I don’t feel obligated to reply in the same language to prove I’m a “good” migrant. I’m perfectly happy to speak what is most comfortable to me because what is more important is our effort to communicate, not the language we communicate in.

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