by David Small
February is gone. It was there, but now it's not. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a time machine. Here I am to offer a recap, pull out some interesting bits—the highlights. It's like when you take a trip with someone and at the end, before you say goodbye and go your separate ways, you recap your favorite moments and tell each other how great of a time you had. Except when the trip ends with the two of you drinking too much Hungarian liquor on the return flight from Budapest and you're no longer speaking because of something you'd said but can't even remember, probably something lost in translation, then one of you disappears in the airport on the way to baggage claim. Okay, so they were just in the bathroom. But still. At least say "Hey" and then gesture toward the restrooms. The language barrier will inevitably complicate things, but a gesture toward a bathroom? That always translates.
It’s difficult to misinterpret basic phrases like “Where is the toilet?” or “Please call the police” but the complex stuff—emotions, meaning, nuance—easily gets lost in translation, and you usually don't know which parts got lost until it’s too late and the damage is done.
As a writer, editor, former English teacher and lifelong Spanish student, I’m fascinated by the nuances and power of languages and how we use them to communicate or to not communicate. To reward and punish. To express love or to really ruin someone's day. Then there's all the mess in between: the miscommunication. They say our world is 95% perception and 5% reality. Add a language barrier and I’d say that’s generous. There is so much room for error, for misunderstanding, so many blanks left for other people to fill in. This creates a confusing mix of words and body language ready to be misread. It’s like an inkblot test. You can see whatever you want.
I dated a Spanish girl when I lived Barcelona eight years ago. My Spanish wasn’t great at the time and she barely spoke English, so I filled in the gaps. Because I wanted her to be everything I wanted her to be, I filled them in with good things. What else could I do? I didn't understand her, so I invented an inaccurate projection of her. After we stopped seeing each other, my friends told me that what I saw in the inkblot was much better than what they saw. It makes me wonder what we can project onto a person or a situation when we have more room to interpret or misinterpret the message, when we must fill in the language gaps.
Still the idea of a foreign lover is romantic and exotic and pretty much the reason I’d moved to Spain. But after a couple months, when things start getting real and you can’t figure out why she’s crying while doing dishes after a lovely dinner at her place, suddenly the language barrier appears like a wall being built between you. You can't learn the language fast enough to scale the wall and there’s no way around or through. Eventually things fall apart and you're stuck on your respective sides, isolated with all the others who speak your language. Most never get the chance to traverse the wall, or never try to. But it's pretty cool to see what's over there, even if you can’t have it.
Naturally, we take this for granted in our home country, the luxury of understanding everything we read and hear. Even walking alone down the street you feel connected, picking up bits of conversation, recognizing words on store windows and street signs, and all the other invisible, familiar reminders that you are home. You belong. Living in a foreign country where you don't have this luxury, you either learn the language or just stop listening, stop reading. It all just glosses over and you’re just passing through, thinking your thoughts.
At work I manage a team of 14 people, all foreigners. Except that I'm the foreigner, the only American. Almost every nationality is represented in our office, but most of my team are Dutch and they speak Dutch most of time. This creates new challenges in the workplace. I respect the fact that I’m in the Netherlands, but we work for an American company and English is the language do business in. Everyone knows how to speak English at a masterful level. Some sound just like I do. “We grew up on The Simpsons and South Park,” they tell me.
Most days I don't speak to a single native English speaker, and most of the time people are speaking their native language, be it Dutch or French or whatever, and this makes sense. If you speak to them, they will immediately switch to English. Yet this is equally isolating. Yes, you’re surrounded by people—2,000 at work and 800,000 in the city not including tourists—and they’re always talking but it's not to you, it's near you and all around you all the time, but using the muscles in their mouth and throat to produce sounds that mean nothing to you. They might as well be on mute.
I’ve finally committed to studying Dutch. My corporate relocation package included 90 hours of online classes, which I’ve started and stopped three times now. My first teacher wasn't good, but this new guy seems to know what he’s doing. Twice a week I leave work early to get home by 7 and go through the most elementary components of this crazy language via webcam with a Dutch-born Moroccan who swears a lot and wears adidas track jackets.
From a tiny webcam window on my laptop, he walks me through the alphabet and numbers one to ten. Nul, Een, Twee, Drie ... He looks about 26 and speaks six languages. He’s enthusiastic about me learning a third, as am I, assuming I can get anywhere. People say Dutch is one of the most difficult languages to learn. I'm feeling pretty good about it, though, and slowly I’m building a vocabulary that will make life easier. My coworkers laugh at the new phrases I bring in each day, so if nothing else it’s good for team-building.
So far I can say:
Ik ben David. [Daw-fidd]
Ik kom uit Amerika.
Een olifant en een meisje eten een boterham.
Which translates as:
I'm from America.
An elephant and a girl eat a sandwich.
Few expats bother learning Dutch because it's so intimidating or because it doesn't sound good like French or Italian or because they're only passing through, which I can relate to. When you know you’re leaving, why get involved? Why break the surface?
Dutch does sound harsh, guttural, round. Even locals admit it’s not “pretty.” But there’s a melody to it. It almost bounces, and the Dutch speak with an enthusiasm and cheerfulness that makes you want in.
Many Dutch words are phonetically similar to English, though their spelling is an orthographic train wreck, like an 8-year-old emperor once ruled the land and instead of learning how to spell, he declared all words be spelled as he wanted them to be and so it was, you have words like vliegtuig (plan) and meervoudigepersoonlijkheidsstoornissen (multiple personality disorders).
My first encounter with a foreign language was in the fifth grade. We lived in Charleston, South Carolina, and one of my sisters and I transferred from a public school to an arts school. It was an amazing upgrade. They had a gymnasium and proper art class with supplies. I learned what a smock was. The girls were prettier. Then we had Spanish class and everything fell apart. I didn't even understand the concept of a foreign language. Why were we memorizing a new word for house? Was house no longer sufficient? I didn’t know that not everyone speaks English. I failed in that Spanish class and learned nothing.
There’s no real need to learn the language here because everyone else has already learned mine. English is the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, yet it's strange benefiting from a victory when I didn’t have to compete (see: privilege). That my language won over all others a long time ago and now most restaurants have a special menu just for me. In Amsterdam, you don't have to make any effort to speak Dutch and nobody seems to mind, yet at the same time you’re excluded, a welcomed outsider. It happens naturally, like species in the animal kingdom, where there’s no need for words and nothing gets lost in translation: you’re there, sharing the same territory, but you keep to your own because that’s what’s familiar. You can go hang out with the gazelles and they’re totally cool with that, but in the end you’re a zebra and everyone knows it.