Becoming a foreigner in my own language

I’ve been living and working in the Netherlands for three years now, learning the language because I think it’s important, but slowly because, well, life. I’m a much better ‘passive’ user of the language than active – reading and listening reasonable, speaking and writing something just short of Jip en Janneke taal, simple language named after characters in a famous series of childrens’ books.

Headquarters of the Taalunie, Den Haag

What’s really struck me in recent months, however, is how much I am marked as a foreigner not because we don’t share a language, but because of assumptions that we do. Most Dutch people speak pretty good English but they speak their version of it, and not any of the local varieties of English with their many different registers that I speak. The thing is, they are constantly told how good their English is – and it is! – but not how confusing it is. They deploy English amongst themselves and with fellow educated Europeans in their own, local ways. As a result, I am constantly finding myself puzzled by English text written by my Dutch and other European colleagues, and vice versa. I am feeling like a foreigner in my own language, and that is an unsettling experience.

Sometimes words are used idiosyncratically, often because they appear to be a direct translation of related Dutch words that turn out to be faux amis, or because they applied to different conceptual territory. One of my favourites is the word wetenschap which gets translated as ‘science’, instead of something closer to ‘knowledge’. One result is that ‘scientific’ standards get borrowed from Anglo ‘science’ but applied to wetenschap, which is almost as silly as applying the rules of American football to a literature competition. Imagine that for a second.

The registers issue is less of a problem but still stops me in my tracks sometimes. For instance, Dutch (and other European) users of English can be strikingly informal when they wouldn’t dream of being so in their own tongue: formal academic writing full of ‘wanna’ and ‘gotta’; while swear words that are dreadful in my English are treated as unproblematic in theirs.

Of course, I said ‘varieties of English’ above rather than ‘English’ to underline the point, made by my friend Haidee Kotze, that there is no one, universal standard language that all speakers use as a touchstone. Speakers of what appears to be ‘a’ language use a more-or-less-extensive repertoire of responses that are appropriate for certain people in certain settings, which means that languages are not static things with clear boundaries. This should be completely obvious where I am in South Limburg, surrounded by dialects that shade into one another, to the extent that around the German border it’s unclear what counts as Dutch and what counts as German. Languages are living things used and adapated and played with by different people for different purposes.

Similarly, the Dutch have created their own variety of English, which references US business English more than my Antipodean and British reference points, but which is not reducible to that. So I am doubly a foreigner. I don’t speak Dutch in many of the key registers – not chat-in-the-pub Dutch, not meeting-room Dutch, not philosophical Dutch. But I don’t speak their English either and they don’t speak mine, and while there are many overlaps, there are lots of little, everyday misunderstandings too, flowing in both directions.

These reflections led me to wonder whether discussions of the ‘Englishization’ of universities in the Netherlands has been adequately explored, because the discussion is framed in terms of ‘national standard’ languages. Briefly, the Englishization thesis – explored here by my colleagues René Gabriels and Bob Wilkinson – claims that speakers of other languages are hampered in learning how to express complex thought in their own tongue, with bad consequences for them and for their national public discourse. The problem is that, in the case of English, there is no national standard. The Dutch speaking world might have its Taalunie but the English-speaking world does not; and even if it did I cannot imagine Europeans taking kindly to being told that they ain’t talking proper like, no matter how happy they might be to mock others’ efforts. One implication of what I’ve said so far is that this could also present problems for people like me in Dutch-but-English-speaking classrooms. We cannot assume that we have been understood in the classroom or the meeting room; nor assume that words that look perfectly normal and natural to us are used in the same ways that we would use them.

Perhaps it is better, after all, that we agree on a ‘When in Rome’ principle: waneer in Nederland, schrijf als Nederlander (when in the Netherlands, write as a Dutch person). I, for one, would have happily signed up to requirements that I teach in Dutch within a certain timeframe, although even then, the selection of Standard Dutch is itself a political choice – it’s not the everyday language round here (it’s not the everyday language anywhere!), and speaking only that is not always welcome. There’s also a more practical objection: such a move would be seriously costly in the case of an international university like Maastricht. English is our lingua franca; half of our students are Dutch speakers; the vast majority of the rest use English as a second language; and so when we’re talking about English at Dutch universities we’re talking about non-native speakers: Spaniards and Syrians, Germans and Greeks, Iranians and Italians, and all the rest, most of whom would choose to go elsewhere for their employment or education if they couldn’t do it in English.

Given that context, I think we are led to a different conclusion than the ‘When in Rome’ conclusion. The fact of multiple Englishes, including Dutch English, imposes a duty on English speakers of all kinds, no matter where they come from, to check understandings with each other rather than making assumptions. That, in an academic environment, is surely a good thing.

And to those who fret about the cultural hegemony of English, cheer up, it won’t last forever.

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