November 21, 2005

Language as a Divider

A wonderful piece about language and experience by Meg had me recalling recent language adventures. Having been in the Netherlands, Brussels, Berlin, and Boston in recent weeks the shifting of language (and jet lag) and its impact on communication was brought back to me.

While much of the Netherlands (particularly Amsterdam) is fluent in English, I always feel badly using it as my default. The downside is I really do not speak Dutch, I have a vocabulary of about 20 or so words (although this last trip thank you was about the extent of it) so I fall back on English very quickly. Being of Dutch ancestry is the driver for the guilt, I feel like I am letting down previous generations.

The trip to Brussels was a little more problematic as English is not spoken everywhere, but they do speak French (I know a little more French than Dutch)and Flemish (close to Dutch, but not my forte). I had to rely on friends (mostly Dutch) to navigate menus and other essentials. But, Brussels is a very English friendly city.

Now we get to Berlin. I speak some German (Deutsch) from years of schooling. I can get by with my remedial Geutsch, but it does not get me as far as I would like. I can ask, "what beer is she drinking" and then follow-up with "I would like a large one of those, please". Food is fine, but complex directions (particularly with a city whose parts I am not familiar nor the transportation systems) were lost on me. These needed English. I also found that nearly all of the channels on my television at the hotel were in Deutsch (except for a time slice of CNN interwoven), although others friends in the hotel seemed to have more English channel access (could be related to my horribly flakey WiFi, which they did not experience either). All of the newspaper options in the hotel were in Deutsch, which made the Financial Times not quite as wonderful as usual.

When I got to Boston and checked into my hotel I went out to go to the reception and passed a newsstand on Harvard Square that was selling the Financial Times I had been trying all day (18 hours already) to get my hands on. When I went to ask for the paper my English had failed me. I had lost all languages for a moment. Language quickly returned, but I could easily ask for the paper in Deutsch, as well as for how much, and say thank you in Deutsch or Dutch. This I knew would not get me far. I just sort of mumbled something in some language and tucked my paper in the back pocket of my Barber coat and went off into the night.

I usually have this problem in English as I can always think of the larger words, but always pause to think of the more simple words or the one that is more culturally appropriate. English is not one language, but many culturally loaded variants. The use of sofa rather than couch or supper rather than dinner frames who you are in other people's minds. Let alone various terms from cross professional disciplines, which can quickly alienate you or engender you to those to whom you are speaking. So I often pause to pull from the appropriate vocabulary, but most often I can only think of one term and just go with it, then hope I get called on it so I can explain I am not exactly the person they think I am (that rarely happens and inferences of who I am are sealed). C'est la Vie!



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