It was when I found myself on the verge of tears, mashing my fist into the telephone keypad for the fourth time, that I accepted living in Amsterdam might not be all tulips and poffertjes.
All I wanted was to check the details of an electricity bill with my provider — a tough enough exercise in your first language — but it was clear that my hard won Dutch language skills were not up to the task of tackling the behemoth that was the automated telephone system of Nuon.
Learning a new language later in life is a daunting task. Even more so when you’ve moved to a new country and your day to day life is put on hold until you master the basics. You can’t programme the heating; you have no idea where the parcel delivered while you were out has landed up (although that one might just be a universal experience); and doing the laundry for the first time requires an hour long Internet search for an English language washing machine manual.
I have a theory that it’s harder if you work in communications. Your entire professional worth lies in finding the right words for the right time. You are good at this stuff, it’s why people pay you the moderately sized bucks, and all of a sudden you can’t even say the word for pocket without people looking at you in a funny way.
So you start from the beginning again. You proudly announce to your Dutch teacher that the thing on a table is a pencil and that it is lying on the table, not standing on it, not inside the table and not going through it. In return, he teaches you to point at it and proclaim that it is not a bicycle (A singularly unhelpful phrase to learn in the first lesson. As far as I can see, about 99% of things in Amsterdam are, in fact, bicycles).
Your cocktail party chat about free trade movement diminishes to observing that President Obama is an American man who is married to an American woman, while trying to load the tone and phrase with a depth of unspoken meaning about national perspectives influencing global policy, all delivered with a knowing look.
You go to the local grocers to buy vegetables and end up insisting to the shopkeeper that you are related to courgettes. The man in question still waves at me when I walk past and holds up something seasonal, just in case I am concerned about missing family members.
And then you want to give up. You are exhausted with making a fool of yourself. You can no longer summon up the energy to spend half an hour preparing yourself to collect a prescription or post a parcel back home. You are an incompetent. An interloper. And you can’t make those ‘G’ sounds without sounding as if you’re coughing up a fly.
The Dutch don’t have this problem with a second language. Visitors to the Netherlands will have noticed that English is spoken with confidence and fluency. Statistics estimate that over 90% of Dutch people speak some level of conversational English. The same percentage can’t be said to apply to the expats whose first language is English.
I’m sure that most of this is down to embarrassment over our inadequacies. Other nationalities learning English are open about their limitations and constantly seek guidance on vocabulary and construction. The English speaking nationalities raise their voices, slow down their speech and then proudly order another badly pronounced beer.
And, by doing so, so we limit ourselves in our understanding of our new home country. We let our nervousness cut us off from the richness of the language and the cultural understanding that comes from learning and adopting common phrases. We consign ourselves to always being the ‘other’, to being the new kid in town.
Too bad. Or as the Dutch would say, “Helaas, pindakaas”.
i: Small Dutch pancakes;
ii: Zak: Pocket, bag without handles or sack, or colloquialism for scrotum;
iii: Literal translation: “Unfortunately, peanut butter”.