‘Spreekt u Nederlands’? Three years ago, when someone posed this question to me, I answered softly ‘een beetje’. Today, three years later, I answer, with a little more volume, ‘ja wel, maar niet heel goed’.
When it comes to speaking a ‘non- native’ tongue, I’ll choose imperfection over shutting up. I’m opportunistic and love to talk. This sort of attitude makes some people in the Netherlands see me as an outsider.
Unfortunately for them, I see myself as an Amsterdammer, despite my ‘sub standard’ Dutch, and I plan to live inside the Netherlands for the time being.
On that note, Kush Jain was the perfect find. A few years ago, I stood in a room the size of a large cupboard that stands in for a classroom in suburban Mumbai in India. Kush, an English language trainer of adults, encourages her students. “Come come,” she says. A thin young woman comes forward and tidies her mangal sutra (marriage necklace) before a full-length mirror. Then she meets her eyes in her reflection and says, “I like myself. I like myself the way I am. I love myself. I love myself the way I am. I accept myself. I accept myself the way I am. I am in love with myself.”
Others are encouraged and prompted by Ms. Jain to do the same. She gives the following advice to the aspiring English speakers looking up in adoration at her: “I always tell all my students, speak incorrect English, but speak it confidently.” The manager, of VETA English training school, Nilima explains that students sometimes question her about the pedagogy of VETA, which tends to show a lack of consistency. Nilima’s view is that one should be comfortable when learning a foreign language. For example, because the simple present tense is not used in major Indian languages it is replaced by the present continuous tense in the streets of India. Most Indians, who are not native English speakers, say ‘Are you wanting it?’ in English instead of ‘Do you want it?’ VETA’s motto is to be comfortable with what most Indians are comfortable with most of the time when speaking a non-native tongue.
This is the India I’ve been nurtured in. We have the annoying Hindu habit of taking everything in the world that threatens to overcome us, and making it ‘ours’. So one is not required to ‘convert’ to English speaking. Just to ‘Indianize’ it.
It is really being that simple. And frankly my dear, I am liking it.
A world beyond national borders
The art of loving oneself and speaking incorrect English confidently is connecting thousands of Indians to a world beyond national borders and creating a new kind of belonging. And making them money. So there must be something in it. In the eight years that I have been trying to learn ‘good’ Dutch, ‘bad’ English seems to have become a phenomenon in India. Mumbai and other towns and cities in India are filled with hoardings and advertisements for schools like VETA. VETA claims to be one of the up-market schools and proudly displays a shiny board in their office that reads ‘Excellence in spoken English’. In these cramped cupboard-like spaces in crowded noisy buildings, history is being made as the most international of languages is going through a process of nationalization with flair.
‘Spreekt u Nederlands’? Three years ago, when someone posed this question to me ‘Do you speak Dutch’? I answered softly ‘een beetje’ (a little). Today, three years later, when they ask me, I answer, with a little more volume, ‘ja wel, maar niet heel goed’ (yes, but not that well). So how many more years will it take for me to answer like some of the folks in Mumbai whom I have met recently and spoken with, when they are asked if they speak English? Eye contact and a clear ‘yes’. And when the conversation continues, I understand yes, it is English but it’s their version of English. A Dutchman speaking to India via Skype on the computer to them understands them as well, and in return speaks his version of English. And the conversation continues. I have placed this on record.
The Dutch of an allochtone
Back in Amsterdam, my new ‘home- town’ (as we say in India), I wonder why I can’t apply what I have learned in Mumbai. Speak incorrect Dutch and speak it confidently. So I stand in front of my mirror every day, look myself in the eye and say, ‘Ik hou van mezelf, hoe ik ben…..’
I say it in Dutch. The Dutch of an allochtone – the politically correct name given to the ‘non Westernized immigrant’ in the Netherlands. It means something like, ‘the one who does not originate from….’. Ever since I moved here, the ability to speak or not speak Dutch well, has taken on significance in the life of people in Holland. No wonder then, that Amsterdam has several adult language learning schools for Dutch to cater to the allochtone. The opposite of allochtone is autochtone the ‘born and made in the Netherlands’ person. One measure of the difference between the allochtone and the autochtone is taal – language. A taal tale.
These last eight years I’ve been pre occupied with questions of language, belonging and cultural integration–inburgering. I think I’ve been properly ingeburgered. I transport myself, my children and other living and non-living things via bicycle for all the four seasons of the year. I welcome gays kissing on the streets of Amsterdam without blinking an eye. I went to Dutch school, passed my exams, and speak Dutch to everyone in public, except my children and my Indian friends who live here. But sometimes I come home and tell my autochtone – Dutch born husband about someone who didn’t quite treat me right in a grocery store, the doctor’s practice, the street or a restaurant. And to my surprise, his first reaction is, ‘They must have noticed your ‘bad’ Dutch’.
My artist friend Anja makes the kind of art that I like. Recently she developed an artwork called ‘Hysterical Bubble’. To carry forward my idea of speaking ‘bad’ Dutch confidently, I think I’ll ask her to design a taal art piece for me. I’ll wear a deflated cloth balloon on my shoulder and go to a place like my son’s up-market hockey club. In the course of a conversation, my Dutch will fall to confident but allochtone, not quite perfect levels, as I speak. This will cause the balloon on my shoulder to blow up. On it will be embroidered a map of the Netherlands in Dutch cross-stitch style. After a couple of minutes, the voice of a virtual Dutch politician will address the surprised group that will have gathered before me. He will speak (in perfect Dutch) of the ills of immigration; say the Netherlands is too crowded anyway, and that the time has come to do something about it. In other words, ‘convert to being ‘Dutch’ or get the hell out’. He will then sing the national anthem.
A couple of months ago, Rebecca, daughter of good friends of mine had her Bat Mitswa. Each guest was requested to say a few lines as a part of the ritual. In the minutes between this announcement and my turn, I gathered my thoughts and battled with whether I should speak in my imperfect Dutch or proper English. When my turn came, I spoke in Dutch. I learned soon enough that not only did everybody understand me; they greatly appreciated the one allochtone’s participation in the ritual. An imperfect belonging.
It has become a personal matter. I am here. I’ve come to stay. My language is more than the sum of my words. And even when imperfect, yes, it’s also about belonging’. There’s more to me than what you see, or should I say…what you hear.
Nandini Bedi is a documentary filmmaker and writer.
Visit life in the Netherlands with Indian flavours at taal-tale.com
Expat story: Do you have a tale to tell?
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