Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Writing Wednesday - The one with the language barrier

The Dutch - thankfully - speak English.

Almost all of them, much to my embarrassment. I asked one or two people, "Spreekt u Engels?" but for the most part we just started in English and kept going.

One of the things I love about language is how it can be picked up by familiarity. I remember hearing that my cousins learnt Spanish by watching TV (they lived in Mexico at the time). For me, I had a quick lesson in Dutch by reading road signs as we drove from the ferry. 'Afrit' means junction; 'Uit' exit - at least, those are my (unverified) translations.

On the first evening we ate at a restaurant and foolishly forgot the Netherlands guide book. The waitress was able to translate the bits that were beyond us, but it was amazing how much I could deduce, grasping at the remnants of my 'O'-level French and German. I believe that the Dutch do a similar thing to the Germans, throwing their verbs to the end of the sentence. When you translate literally, word-for-word, it sounds like ye olde englishe... but sentences were never something we really attempted (just advertising, signs and menus!)

Thankfully, pannenkoek (pancakes) was both easy to translate, and easy for the children to choose. Over the fortnight we had quite a few of them, and almost daily warme chocolademelk met slagroom (the 'whipped cream' element of that translation amused our superficial minds).

Other words had a logic to them. Fiets for bicycle, sounds similar to 'feet', and after all we do use them in order to cycle anywhere. There may be no etymological link or derivation but it helped me to place the words, particularly as they came up on signs around the place.

Not the most challenging translation, but a bit of a surprise for me was to find that the town we were staying in was at the mouth of the 'Rijn' - the River Rhine. I haven't travelled much across Europe but to me this was a great river that ran the length of Germany that I learnt about in my schooldays. It may not be the longest river in Europe but it was certainly one I had to learn and be able to place on a map. Clearly I didn't place it perfectly as it ends in Holland (Did I ever know that? Could I have thought of that? Probably!) My excitement in seeing the end of such a vast river was tempered by my husband saying it was only one of its mouths, as it had to be split and diverted in different directions in order to prevent flooding/eliminating the Netherlands. How does he come to know this stuff, I wonder? And he was right (grrrr!!) It also wasn't particularly beautiful, blocked as it is by a huge dam and pumping station; although the photo does show that, at sunset, almost anything can look great.

Perhaps thanks to the internet, English is taking over the world. Had my teachers been different I would probably have taken languages to A-level (both my parents had language degrees) but their weakness and the maths teachers' strengths led me on a different route. But the logic of translation and comprehension lingers on. One of the things I loved about the Harry Potter books was how JK Rowling used Latin (in particular) to create words for spells, creatures and places. Seeing how words come together and evolve to create new words is a delight.

And now I am hopeful that the children will pick up a love of language too. My son sent his friends postcards with a list of Dutch words and their English counterpart. Perhaps I'll breed a linguist even if I failed myself. In my opinion words are not a barrier, but an enrichment of life.

1 comment:

Mark said...

I agree with you, though I struggle with languages. I very much want to learn Welsh, and feel bad that I have not yet done so. Just time, and other pressures too.

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