Thoughts on language and the 'Great Belgian Divide'

Thoughts on language and the 'Great Belgian Divide'

1st July 2009, Comments 0 comments

"Gradually, foreign sounds find nesting places in your vocabulary and once entrenched, it becomes hard to remember what it was like before they were there."

It's funny how a new language soon becomes your own.

Gradually, foreign sounds find nesting places in your vocabulary and once entrenched, it becomes hard to remember what it was like before they were there.

My second language is Dutch - yes, I'm a good example of the 'Great Belgian Divide'; I speak one of the country's languages and not the other (I am learning a little French however).

And joining the first birthday party of the son of close friends on Sunday, I was surprised again at the level of Dutch fluency I have at my disposal.

It was not a sudden realisation because I remember the day some five years ago when Dutch suddenly 'clicked', giving me the key to a language I had committed to.

On Sunday, however, it was a realisation of how 'expatriated' I had become.

In conversational English, I have a tendency to use Dutch grammar and when speaking to my three-year-old son, though I speak English, he often replies in Dutch!

To put things simply: I cannot ignore the subtitles on television, though the film I am watching might be in English. I concentrate for five minutes (at best), only to return again to multitask listening and reading.

Jokes about my lack of attention span aside, I recall what I felt when I first arrived in Europe: confusion, isolation (and yes excitement) of suddenly being stone deaf.

Though those days are long gone, year after year, another plane load of expats arrives to confront the same issues that I (and others) have already overcome.

It is not easy, but the message here perhaps, is that it does get easier.

However, I also remember what a colleague once told me, a Canadian who initially spoke both English and French:

Struggling to learn Dutch, he joked about the possibility he might only have a finite capacity for language, i.e. that as he learned a new Dutch word, it would squeeze a French word out of his head.

Now, I'm not so sure that this can be true, but it serves as good context for what my Dutch teacher said about her sister, who was in her 30s and living in Australia with her 'Aussie man':

Over time, my teacher was witnessing the decline of her sister's Dutch language skills.

And yet at the other extreme, I know an elderly Rotterdam man who settled in my Australian hometown after World War II and who - according to my wife - has not yet lost his Rotterdam accent when he speaks Dutch. This is despite the fact he emigrated some 50 years ago.

All of this makes me wonder whether language really does determine who we are? Is it a notion of belonging? Do we forget part of who we are as we forgo an old in learning a new language?

Or is language just a byproduct of the regions in which we have lived, needing only a translation (or time) to help us cross the divide?

Perhaps it nothing more or less, than a way of telling a story.

Aaron Gray-Block

Updated 2009


Dear editor,

I was glad to read your article about the oddities of speaking a foreign language and at the same time losing some of your mother tongue in the process. I've been working in Germany for the past six years now and consider my German to be fluent in all aspects.

While, like yourself, I'm proud of having learnt a foreign language (especially as a lazy- tongued Australian), I was really starting to become quite concerned that I have serious memory problem. Large fragments of my mother tongue started breaking away and as you also described, my English was becoming overrun with German grammar.

I break out into a cold sweat if someone asks me to translate a word from German into English at times, terrified that the word has left the 'active zone' and settled down in my passive zone, only being awakened when I watch a DVD in English again.
I feel much better now that I'm not alone and there's no serious damage. 
Ray Southward


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