I won't do what you tell me
English slowly permeated my mind, even
before I was a teenager. Those foreign words on the radio were
not my own. They didn't bear any meaning, but they were just as
easily adopted as those words my brother and I made up for typical
household items; we both knew the Trr-pam was
the big mechanical alarm clock in the kitchen.
Take those words, shape them, reproduce and incorporate them. Eventually
they become your own, even though the words don't carry any emotion or
context. On my first trip to England as a teenager, my dad firmly
reminded me not to use "shit" as an expression of discontent.
Teenagers utter that word all the time, and it doesn't carry any weight
because it's foreign. Growing up as a teenager, Big Brother was the ever present baby-sitter that treats you with
TV, food, film, and
Oh double-tee eye double-you ee,
double-el double-you double-oh dee
It takes only a few months to learn English, but a lifetime to
master it. Or any language for that matter. At age twelve, they
drill you with English words and grammar. I remember my English teacher
complaining that teaching us meant unlearning all the incorrect
slang we had already acquired. But the teacher was a darling; she would
teach us Her Majesty's English, but would not object
to us using any other form as long as we applied it
consistently. A moot point for us who couldn't tell the difference
Language is so much more than simply words.
They can teach you the meaning of a word, but they can't make
you feel its meaning. They try anyway: our teacher spent at
least half an hour on the context and usage of the word
"sophisticated" in some English classic novel, but no translation to Dutch would do the
original work any justice. It works the other way around as well. I once
tried to explain the word "gezellig" to a friend, but my
attempts were in vain: "Come with me to Holland, and I'll
show you gezelligheid"." You paint a picture of a word in
your mind, and associate it with emotions, events, sounds, and smells.
Staring at it on a blackboard from a cheap plastic seat won't give you
I can speak English. I learn it from a book
Opportunities come and it's best to grab those by
the horns before they throw you off the playing field. In
Holland, your options are rather limited after obtaining a Bachelors.
But not in the US. of A., where almost every school from
rinky-dink to M.I.T. offer graduate programs. They'll take you as a
student and take your money; a LOT of money. unless you are fortunate
enough to get funded.
They hired me as a teaching assistant in exchange for a degree, and
some money to live on. I had done all the prerequisites: the TOEFL,
the GRE, F-1. But nothing can prepare you for the
culture shock that all the Study Abroad guides warn you for.
It's not one single shock. Culture didn't zap me down to the
linoleum as I stepped into the terminal at Logan. It works
more like an electric fence that you run into every now and then:
"I'm sorry Sir, your credit history is insufficient for obtaining our
Avarice Advantage credit card"
"Then tell me how the fuck I am supposed to get a credit
history without a credit card, hmm?"
Run into that fence enough, and eventually you remember the
borders of the pasture. You accept the boundaries that
life puts on you, just like you did back home.
Things are not better, nor worse: they are different. Accept
changes, and changes will accept you.
My assignment at the institute was to assist students with
their homework problems, and grade exams. Sometimes the job description
fit the actual work. Other times I was lecturing fifteen, twenty kids in front of the blackboard on
a topic that I had just mastered a few months ago, in a language that
was not entirely mine. Sometimes you fail miserably; other times you
win. These kids seemed genuinely embarrassed when the foreign kid tells
them they made a dozen grammatical errors in their lab report:
"They didn't hire you to correct my English."
Resistance is Futile
Speaking a foreign
language can be exhausting, both mentally and physically. Of course I
had spoken English on holidays, but not to the same extent. Speaking a
foreign language means producing unfamiliar sounds with your vocal
chords, throat and mouth. After a full day of speaking English, my jaw
and tongue were actually tired from speaking. It is a matter of
training those muscles.
The language forces itself into your system very quickly. It
must, or your brain becomes overworked from all the
translation work. It becomes part of you: you are no longer
translating, but expressing in your newly adopted
language. Already after a week, I started dreaming in English. It was a strange and somewhat unsettling
experience, because it felt as if I lost the ability to express myself
in my own language. In reality, you do lose that
ability to some degree, but it doesn't happen overnight: only after a
few years did I notice that I was searching for Dutch expressions that
were transparently replaced by English ones. You lose some flexibility
in the first, but gain a lot in the second language.
Not only does the ability to express yourself in a second language
advances with leaps and bounds, so does the ability to
comprehend. Listening to music becomes a new
experience: songs that previously could only be understood by sitting
down and focusing now enter the mind unhindered. Mind you, I haven't
touched that stuff for fifteen years. Language is a
tool. A new tool: pick it up, use it, and it becomes an extension of
Can I Graduate?
You never ever get rid of the accent, though. My grandfather lived in
Australia and England for the last 30 years of his life, and never
managed to do so: "Those English are too bloody polite. When I just
came here, they simply smiled at me when I jumbled together a dozen of
grammatical errors." It is not difficult to pick up that I'm a
foreigner. Or at least, that I'm not from around here. Not
that I am aiming for that. But sometimes it works
against you, since people expect that being a damn foreigner, you must
be slow on the uptake: "Ma'am. I am not deaf, at least not completely, and certainly
not stupid." On the other hand, you cannot measure your own
progress in language skills:
"I have an idea..."
"Ohmygod, did you realize what you just said?"
"Uhm, that I came up with something?"
"No, you said idea. You no longer talk about your driver's
license when you have an idea."
And then there is l'amour. My first love on this
side of the ocean did not have a real language
barrier, but like every newcomer she had deal with similar cultural
barriers. And with a boyfriend who is trying to express himself in a
second language. Sure, day-to-day talk is easy, and conveying basic
ideas and needs can be done with perhaps a couple hundred words. When it
comes to addressing emotions, I'm on slippery ice. Love, desire,
passion, but also hope, expectations, anger, and hate; feelings that are
already difficult to emote in one's own language. Saying the right words and saying them at the right time becomes a
major challenge. Even though the daily conversation seems so effortless.
Especially because it seems so effortless.
Let's not talk about the difficulties of relationships where both are
non-native English speakers.
Every day is another school day. Perhaps not consciously but
subconsciously you pick up new colloquialisms, polish
the accent, and play around with language. In speech and in
Home, sweet home; I'm not sure what that means anymore. Certainly I
don't feel at home in Wormtown: this place has always felt
as a temporary place to land. It is not Amsterdam either. I have been
away for so long that I can hardly recall the sounds, smell and sight of
it. Going back is synonymous with an inevitable Reverse culture shock.
I'm not an American, and I will never truly be. But I'm no longer a
Dutchman either. Holland-America, and I'm drifting somewhere inbetween.