When I was a kid, I thought everybody in this world spoke Dutch. I must have been six or seven. I had never heard anyone else speaking another language than my own. I grew up in the countryside in the eastern part of the Netherlands and next to the language we spoke at school I only knew about a so called ‘farmers dialect’. But this dialect was still close to Dutch and I could certainly understand many parts of it.
The first new and strange language I heard was German. My hometown was only about 30 km away from the German border. We would sit behind the television and watch cartoons on Duitsland I and Duitsland II.
Soon we knew a little bit how to pronounce some German words and after a while you unconsciously got familiar with this neighboring language and soon we said ‘tjuus’ and ‘vielen dank’ to each other. I think I then realized that Dutch wasn’t a world language. I must have been about nine or ten.
Why do I tell you this? Because when you have never been exposed to other languages it’s quite a challenge to learn a new language at an older age. I remember that an American student from Kansas worked as an intern at the the university I studied.
One day Michael asked me how to order a bread in an Utrecht bakery. I rehearsed the sentence “Een bruin brood, alstublieft” several times with him before he set off. At the moment of truth, when he had to give his order to the lady behind the counter, he had not been able to utter the three Dutch words and used his own familiar language. Everybody in Holland understood English, so that was easy. Later he explained to me that it was simply impossible to hear himself pronounce other worlds than English words. It sounded so strange, those Dutch words. I suddenly understood that this guy never needed to use another language, let alone, had to learn one at school. At American schools other languages were at that time (in the nineteen eighties) optional.
He also told me that he had forgotten how to pronounce the three words. A note with [en brun brod, älstubleft] would perhaps have helped him a bit. Or not… Poor Michael … How would he do know? I should invite him to Holland again, in Dutch …