“We have never been conquered,” Elizabeth I is reported, perhaps apocryphally, to have said. “Save by the Normans,” replied a bold courtier. “But they could not have done it unless they had been us,” said the Virgin Queen, and in its way it is true: English eventually absorbed the conqueror. – The Adventure of English, The Biography of a Language (Melvyn Bragg)
Not long after my family arrived in The Netherlands, we received a letter. My daughter was to go for a mandatory health check. The pediatrician spoke in English to me and asked about the languages spoken at home.
“English and Spanish,” I replied
“I hope you don’t mix them up?”
“No,” I said, uncertain of her meaning.
The doctor brought out some picture flashcards and started asking my child what was what in Dutch. This, of course, drew no response.
“Where is the banana?” I asked
My daughter pointed to the banana.
“Oh, she doesn’t speak Dutch?”
This exchange is not uncommon. I had the same experience in our last posting in France. I remember one doctor exclaiming…”Ahhh…la pauvre!” It was tragic to her that there was no French spoken in the household. She further counseled that I should only speak French to my daughter at home. I asked her if she would do the same with her children if her family moved to England and she worked as a doctor there. The question stumped her.
“Quitter la France?” she responded
It turns out that leaving France was an unimaginable concept, let alone what my question entailed. The conversation ended there. By a strange twist of fate the very next day, I met a Spanish doctor at the train station. The trains to Paris had been diverted to the next town and she offered me a lift. There was no work for her in Spain and so she’d come to France not speaking a word of French. She spoke very good English.
“What did you do?” I asked, incredulous
“I learned it,” she replied with a Gallic shrug
“Chapeau,” I said to her
“Thank you. You are the first person to say this.”
She further explained that many of her patients are immigrants from Latin America, grateful to be able to communicate in Spanish. I nodded, understanding how language travels but also anchors a person. She showed me a photo of her boyfriend in Spain and told me how much she missed him. We parted at Gare du Nord and with a heavy heart, I let the city engulf me on my way to work. Before we left France for good, I paid one last visit to our French doctor. She praised my daughter when she heard her saying ‘ca’ and ‘ici’. I told her how many other words she was saying in English and Spanish but this drew no interest, just raised eyebrows. She asked one question about our relocation to The Netherlands.
“Ils parlent français?”
An estate agent I met one week after landing in Amsterdam lamented my move here.
“You must miss France.” he said, “I just came back from Paris. I could live there, so beautiful and romantic.”
“I do miss some things about France. But visiting Paris and living there are two very different things.”
“And I’m very happy to be here.”
He was very surprised. But it’s true. Most people think I’m Dutch but happily and politely switch to English. This helps so much with my integration. It makes me feel welcome. I am also eager to start learning Dutch and I will. I get a sense of deja vu as I walk the streets of Holland. The street signs I can sometimes decipher for they are like English or German. It reminds me of a German teacher I had in Ankara, Turkey. She happened to be French but from bilingual Strasbourg.
“Vrouw, Vrouw…” a little boy called out to me. He needed help retrieving his football.
I am addressed this way. It is pronounced the same way as Frau. I remember using it in German classes and seeing it in textbooks but I never thought I’d become one! The red bricked houses are like the neighbourhood where my grandmother lived in England. During home leaves, it was always to her we went. The Dutch leave their curtains open and as I walk past their houses during the day, there is an aura of London about them. It is familiar here.
I have also been asked here in The Netherlands whether my daughter will attend a Dutch school. I explain that she will attend the British School of The Netherlands. Don’t I want her to learn Dutch? I don’t mind if my daughter learns Dutch but I am not Dutch and neither is my husband. We are not going to remain here indefinitely so choosing a Dutch school doesn’t even appear an option to me. What a wasted opportunity, seems to be the unconscious message, of learning another language. What does not seem relevant is that my daughter is learning a language, in fact 2 of them. She communicates in English and Spanish at home and in her short life has already encountered French and Dutch on the streets she’s lived in. What I want, more than anything, is for her to speak accurately, fluently and in depth in one language. And that language is and will be English. I am British, she is half British. My husband and I speak in English to one another, our family will return one day to live permanently in the UK and it is the world’s lingua franca. All other languages, though welcome, are secondary concerns for me. I don’t include Spanish here.
I was 19 when I first moved to London. When asked why I loved the city so much I told them that everyone spoke English. I got a very strange look. But to me, it made perfect sense. I had already grown up in 7 countries and it was the first time, apart from the United States, where English was the official language. Even better, it was the home of English or where the language originated from. It was the language of my ancestors. Growing up, I had no extended family nearby, I left behind dear friends, I was adrift in cultures I did not understand, my roots where weak but there was always English. At home and at school. I am forever grateful for it. English was the only stability I had. It was through English that I computed the strange worlds I found myself in as a girl. These places could have invaded and overwhelmed me but English kept me steady. It was my security net. It still is, I feel safe in it. I love my language. But I absolutely acknowledge that this is not at all the case for every third culture kid.
I was sometimes shamefaced on my return to Britain when my compatriots told me my accent was off. That I pronounced words the American way. I would have done, I spent 6 years in American schools. So, I would try to regulate it, to fit in. I don’t today. I am proud of the rhythm of my English. It was nurtured by my parent’s English from Northern Ireland and Wales. It was curated in the 5 schools I developed in. It was buffeted by all the people I met along the routes of my childhood. I speak a World English perhaps.
“Vous parlez la langue de Shakespeare et Cromwell,” French people have said to me.
Yes, I do. I speak the language of the English farmer who weathered the storms of Roman, Viking and Norman conquests. I speak the language that went on a journey throughout the globe, for better or worse, and prevailed. I speak the language that unites the world and united all of mine.