Found in Translation

I hear at least three languages every single day.

I hear at least three languages every single day. I don’t know how many people can say that, but I do sometimes wonder if it is doing the same thing to their minds as it is to mine.

I am English, and I will be all my life: my formative years were spent in that green and pleasant land. But for 10 months now, I have lived and studied in Amsterdam. I hear a lot of Dutch, but I’m taught in English, that lingua franca of scientists. When I come home in the evening, I walk into a patois of German-Polish-Portuguese-Greek-Spanish-Mandarin-French-English, with emphasis on the English.

These days, my voice is lower in my throat as I struggle to not seem too high-pitched to my Dutch friends. I have also developed the Netherlands habit of pronouncing some “th” sounds as “d”s.

Perhaps most frightening of all are the sudden blank spaces in my memory when someone asks me what a word is in English. One of these blank spaces persisted, off and on, after someone asked me what a rivierkreeft was. “Looks like a lobster but lives in the river.”

I smacked my forehead in frustration and told my friend I would have to get back to her. Two weeks later, I was talking to a German and she told me it was a crayfish. How embarrassing — outclassed by a non-native speaker.

There are benefits. Frequently, I am able to understand what people have said even though I do not know the words they have spoken. Tonal qualities have become extremely important, as have hand gestures and facial expressions. I find I am much more aware of these cues than I ever was in other countries.

One day this week it came to me that I could understand the majority of the Dutch I was hearing. I couldn’t reply — Dutch “r”s, of which there are three, are completely beyond me — but I understood. And, oh, it was a relief.

You see, something else arrived along with that understanding: Amsterdam is now home, just as much as England ever was.

Article © 2006 by Clare Jonas