Before I start I just have to say that this is kind of a vulnerable post. It’s a topic that is fracturing my entire self-concept and leaves me feeling very open to criticism. I don’t know why I’m writing it at all, except that I spend so much time thinking about it. So anyway.
A few weeks ago, an article titled Are We Different People in Different Languages? was circulating Facebook amongst various of my international friends. It’s a brilliant article on creative writing and multilingualism, and I recommend it if you’re interested in either of those subjects. But the discussion online was centred mostly on the title of the article. Several of my friends agreed that yes, people had told them their personality changed based on which language they were speaking. Some languages, it seems, brought out people’s funny side, while others made them more assertive or outgoing. Personally, I recall being very flirty in Arabic (a million years ago when I used to still be able to speak Arabic), which was not necessarily the ideal personality emphasis for a young Western woman in the Arab world.
I’m sure this sort of linguistically-determined personality variance must be due to a combination of factors, perhaps including relative comfort with the language, the context in which someone learned it, the culture(s) associated with the language, or with whom one normally speaks it. But whatever a language brings out in someone, I tend to think it had to have been there already, latent, just waiting for a chance at expression. As if each new language we learn unlocks a different side of us, allowing us to express ourselves more fully as a person. Of course, this is all just me and my speculation. If there are linguists in the room, I’d be interested in research that might explore links between personality and language in multilinguals.
This subject has been on my mind lately not only because of the article and ensuing conversation, but also because last month Amsterdam and I celebrated our two-year anniversary. And my interaction so far with the Dutch language is really messing with my mind. Our relationship status, besides being complicated, can best be described as casual acquaintance. Although it’s true that in January I finished up a “survival” Dutch class through Tony’s work, what that means in practice is that I have now graduated from saying, “sorry, I don’t speak Dutch” to “sorry, I speak very bad Dutch”. In English, to really drive the point home.
In effect, I’ve become the Ugly American, or a least That Expat who doesn’t learn the local language, presumably because of apathy, cultural chauvinism, laziness, or any number of other character flaws. This has been bothering me, and I must say, also mystifying me for over a year. After all, I learned Spanish in Chile. I learned Italian in Italy. I think I still have enough brain cells left for linguistic competence, especially in a Germanic language that is about as closely related to my mother tongue as you can get. What is wrong with me? And why don’t I know Dutch yet?
After quite some time of asking these questions rhetorically (not to mention beating myself over the head with them), I decided to ask them once again, and this time give myself a chance to answer.
There are a few logistical reasons I’ll get out of the way first. Such as working American time (afternoons and evenings) for my first several months here, which somewhat pre-empted having a social life, let alone learning a language that had nothing to do with my job. Similarly, my job at the archive requires zero knowledge of Dutch, and nearly all of my coworkers are internationals. My kids’ school is bilingual and sends me all communications in English; school meetings of every sort from parent-teacher conferences to information evenings are in English.
Almost without exception, shop-keepers, customer service representatives, waiters, neighbors, and random people on the street speak excellent English. There is a thriving English-language theatre scene. I tried several different yoga studios before settling on the one where I go now, and everywhere lessons were conducted in English. There is a huge and very much connected community of internationals from all over the world living in Amsterdam, many of whom also don’t speak Dutch, and among whom English is defaulted to everywhere and often.
Suffice it to say that real, practical reasons for learning Dutch are thin on the ground. In fact, a couple of months ago when I started watching a Norwegian Netflix series, I was rather tickled to find that the only subtitles available were Dutch ones, giving me an actual, bona fide reason to improve my Dutch.
Now of course I know that learning Dutch will give me better insights into Dutch culture, and that learning the language of the prevailing majority in one’s country of residence is the polite thing to do. Believe me, I know. And if I didn’t, I have literally had dozens of Dutch people lecture me about it in ever-so-lightly-accented but otherwise perfect English. And there’s the rub.
In my previous life as an expat, my attempts at practicing my Spanish, Arabic, or Italian with native speakers were met with an uninterrupted succession of warmth, enthusiasm, and exaggerated praise. I knew my accent wasn’t perfect, nor were my grammar and vocabulary, but it sure didn’t hurt to hear the kind white lies that people kept telling me about my attempts at speaking. Or for them to be endlessly patient and seemingly delighted with my bumbling butchery of their beautiful languages. They were so nice they made me want to learn because I wanted to talk to them. Every positive experience speaking a new language motivated me to speak it more. And I did speak. A lot, and improved quickly. I still have very passable Spanish and Italian, although my Arabic has mostly faded away from lack of practice.
So I suppose that when I moved here I naively expected the same, having never experienced anything different. Bizarrely, here in the Netherlands my attempts to speak Dutch have been met almost without exception by a mix of laughter, determined incomprehension, and obsessive insistence that I correct my pronunciation of words and phrases not once or twice, but six or seven times, invariably finishing up with a head shaking assertion that my pronunciation was a bad as ever, and that “Dutch is a hard language.” I cannot recall a single really positive interaction I have had while trying to practice my Dutch with actual Dutch people, other than my long-suffering Dutch teacher, who, let’s be real, is paid to be nice to foreigners. The Dutch are famous for their “directness,” and nowhere is it more evident than in their response to someone attempting to speak their language. The more embarrassing and unpleasant experiences I have, the less I want to speak, compounding my difficulties in learning.
My experience is corroborated by many of my American and British friends, among whom this topic is frequently discussed and bemoaned. Interestingly, when I’ve discussed this with expats whose mother tongue isn’t English they are much more likely to report differing experiences. I have a working theory that there is some (conscious or unconscious) punishing of perceived cultural chauvinism going on in the Dutch reaction to us Anglo-Saxons and our apparently inadequate attempts at speaking their language. But whatever the reason, the experience is what it is, and surpasses the weather as the most difficult thing about living in Amsterdam for me.
And here’s where it comes back to the subject of personality. I have yet to discover my personality in Dutch, of course, since I am terrified of speaking it to Dutch people. So while my passive understanding of both written and spoken Dutch continues to improve, my personality in Dutch amounts to a shy, big-eyed, silent girl who really just desperately hopes she doesn’t get yelled at or lectured today.
It’s obvious that it’s not only the Dutch national character at play here. My unfortunate experience is very much composed of a combination of these interactions with my personality as a sensitive introvert. Empathy and sensitivity to the emotions of others is usually something I consider to me one of my more positive personality traits. However, in this case it’s lethal, since the vibe I tend to pick up from Dutch people suffering through my halting language attempts is typically annoyance, criticality, or at best, indifference. I’m also an introvert, so the fact that I’m talking at all represents an emotional effort, and when that’s met with typical Dutch directness I want to crawl into a hole and hide. I spent a lot of time crying in bathrooms my first year here. Now I just completely avoid speaking Dutch. I don’t tend to admit these things out loud to Dutch people (or anyone). But I have my experiences learning other languages to corroborate the fact that there is something going on here beyond general linguistic incompetence.
If you think this entire thing is pathetic and over-analysed and it’s time for me to just get myself together and start speaking Dutch, don’t worry, I’ve been informed of that by multiple Dutch people. In fact, if I were reading this myself two years ago before I moved to the Netherlands, I would probably agree with you. I don’t quite have a plan to fix it, although I do at some point intend and hope to speak Dutch. But I figure looking at the problem honestly and analysing what’s going on has got to be a good first step. I have a persistent fantasy that I will start reading Dutch novels and secretly teach myself Dutch without having to resort to all these scary and unpleasant language interactions. Probably at some point I will hunt down a place where I can practice my Dutch in a safe and positive environment. Until then, I’ll just be over here nodding and smiling and hoping no situation today requires me to venture into the dangerous terrain of Dutch.