Pentalingualness

I wrote this piece as part of a non-fiction exercise for university, based on the prompt of “things people misunderstand.” I won’t tell you too much about it: it speaks for itself.

Pentalingualness

So tell me something about yourself.”

She sounds almost bored, this invisible woman on the other side of the internet. Pauline, her e-mail said her name was. I glance back at the notes I had made before calling, little scribblings of why I would be perfect for teaching English in case I started to nervously stutter.

My name is Maaike, and I’m from the Netherlands but I have been going to English schools since I was eight and am currently studying English Literature with Creative Writing in England…”

So what passport do you have?”

I stop midway my sentence. “Excuse me?”

Your passport,” she repeats, slightly irritated. “Is it British or Dutch?” Dutch. Why? “Because we only want native speakers, so if your passport isn’t British or American…”

Maybe she hadn’t heard me say I’ve been going to English schools since I was eight. I repeat it, just to make sure. I know it’s a bit weird, Pauline, I want to tell her, but my life is a bit weird. You see, in my nineteen years of life I’ve moved six times, to five different countries. My passport might be Dutch, but I’ve lived there the shortest time of all: I moved away when I was three. I’ve only gone to a Dutch school for five months; my vocabulary is based on books my relatives gave for my birthday. Either way, my English is good enough to study literature at a top university, I’m sure I can manage teaching someone how to order a coffee. Surely if you need to ask what my passport is you can’t tell from my accent that I’m not native?

Of course I don’t tell her all this. She doesn’t care either way: it’s around lunch time, and she just wants to tick her boxes and go eat. She mumbles something about that she’ll check and hangs up, leaving me staring at my screen in complete confusion.

I have heard this term “native speaker” before, Pauline. The first time I heard it was as the title of my German class: Deutsch A, Muttersprache. Native speaker German, with kids who had grown up hearing it every single day of their lives, and some who didn’t speak anything else except the most basic scratches of English that they’d picked up from TV. We don’t speak German in the Netherlands, but they’d put me in here anyway. I have no doubt my classmates found this amusing: the girl with the slightly off accent who talked slightly slower than the rest of them because she had to string the words together first. Being a non-native speaker clearly meant my German would be below everyone else’s.

She started keep track of our language, this teacher. With every essay she gave back, she would give us a sheet telling us how many comma, spelling, capitalisation, and various other mistakes we’d made. Needless to say, Pauline, I always ended up with all the articles in the wrong case. But overall, I still ended up with less than most. The native speakers definitely weren’t native writers. Why was this wrong? Capitalise nouns? What’s a noun? And why is this wrong? It sounds right when you say it.

It has its slight drawbacks, this native speaker deal. The “because it sounds right” excuse first and foremost. Especially when you can’t tell. To this day, I cannot write a flawless essay in Dutch. Thing that “sound right” to me turn out to be completely wrong. Or Flemish.

The name in German is slightly problematic anyway. Muttersprache: mother language. I suppose this runs on the assumption that because the mother is the one who is around most it is her language a child will pick up first, which is problematic nowadays anyway, but let’s run with it. Perhaps this is why an online dictionary also translates it as “first language.”

First language.

First.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Princess Amalia’s Dutch or Spanish? Her mother spoke both to her. Her first sentences contained traces of both. Technically, that makes two first languages.

Two. First. Languages.

Two. First.

Pauline, we have a problem.

Still trying to puzzle out why my passport meant my English was worse than that of sister’s ex, who is technically native but would ask if a verb is a kind of vegetable, I wander to the kitchen with my laptop. Two of my flatmates are having lunch. After giving me thoroughly confused looks as I recount my conversation with Pauline with various remarks of “but you sound American,” my one flatmate decides this talk of languages has reminded him he has German homework. While we continue talking he puzzles over his exercises.

What are Kaiserbrötchen?” he asks suddenly.

Little, hard, white round bread rolls.” As an afterthought, I add, “We call them Semmel in Austria.” He rolls his eyes. “What?”

You’re not Austrian,” he points out a little exasperatedly. “So why do you say we?”

Personally, I hadn’t noticed. But thinking back, he has a point. I always refer to every single country I live in by the personal pronoun ‘we’. Not they. In Belgium, ‘we’. In England, ‘we’. Even in China, ‘we’. I’m aware I’m not Chinese, nor Belgian nor English nor Austrian. Thank you for pointing that out. You, Pauline and my passport should start a club. Much as I’m not a native speaker of German, but still in a German class, I am part of all these countries and yet not really part of them. Even to my own. Because equally, in Holland, ‘we’. Yet to my Dutch classmates, I was “that weird English girl” with the BBC accent which was to be admired and at the same time regarded suspiciously like one of those things your mum claims are healthy but which taste horrible. There is a clear difference between my Dutch and that of my parents.

So how do you pronounce V-O-O-R?” my language-obsessed flatmate asked at some point.

Vohr.”

But then why did you pronounce it like an F just now when you called your grandparents?”

Had I? “Um… Because…”

Because her Dutch isn’t Dutch anymore,” my mother helpfully chimed in over the webcam.

My Dutch isn’t Dutch, but my English isn’t English either. In fact, the masses can’t decide whether it’s Canadian, English, American, or the notorious International School Accent. Both linguistically and otherwise, growing up multiculturally and multilingually puts you in a sort of permanent state of in-betweenness.You’re not quite in that ‘we’ of your passport country, but also can’t use it for the country you’re in without being frowned upon. Both are still your home: I’ve lived longer in Austria than I have in Holland. I know my way around Vienna; drop me off in Amsterdam and I will probably get lost. It’s like a roommate who is technically not your family but you still like to refer to them as being so, because you spend so much time together they may well be. Unless you lived under a rock, you were still part of a city, a culture, and in an attempt to feel at home assimilated. To say ‘they’ sounds almost like an act of treason to that feeling of home.

In a strange way, they also become part of you, however cliché that sounds. You know, that oh what language do you think in kind of nonsense that people ask when they try to determine which language is your ‘dominant’ one. Well, I think in English. Unless it’s about stressing out. Stressing out happens in Dutch. Or unless it’s about the neighbour’s adorable cat, because cooing over little animals is just so much more effective in German. In some ways, it’s like having a mild case of split personality disorder. Flatmate number 2, you should be quite aware of this. When you speak English you’re fairly normal to the point of slightly quiet. When you speak Italian, however…. There just is no way of saying “ciao nonna” without the entire house hearing and switching on the mime actor mode.

Of course I don’t tell my flatmate that. Heck, it took me long enough to think of a way to describe that on paper, never mind on the spot. Either way, I’m saved from an explanation by the happy hum of the little green Skype phone telling me the Family is trying to call. Flatmate 1 has left the kitchen at this point, and Flatmate 2 is busy staring at his phone while eating. The Mother wants to ask if I’ve heard from my sister in Shanghai, who is busy with an MUN conference.

Ja, het gaat goed met haar, haar resolution passed, en er is niets… no clauses got struck, dus ze was super blij…”

Flatmate 2 bursts out laughing, making me stop. “What’s so funny?”

He pauses for a moment. “Dutch Dutch Dutch resolution Dutch Dutch clauses got struck…” Flatmate 1 has reentered, and starts to laugh as well.

It’s normal!” I protest.

And at the same time I realise it isn’t. I want to splutter it’s not my fault my family is…. and stumble trying to find a word for “fluent in five languages.” Pentalingual? Is that a thing? Not according to the spellcheck. And yet that is the way my family communicates, in a mixture of five or six different languages that float together like baby Amalia’s half Spanish half Dutch gebrabbel.

“What are we eating?”

“Sauerkraut mit Wurstel. We kunnen over vijf minuten aan tafel.”

“Hao de. Eet papa mee?”

“No, the big boss is here, dus hij eet later.”

A typical Wednesday night conversation. Completely normal. Ish.

There’s not even a word for it except multi-lingual, one of those vague, meaningless terms politicians use when they’re trying to encourage kids to take language GCSEs. Rude, others call it. Abnormal. Weird. Show-offy. Trying to be cool. Sure, you know this word in French, German, Dutch and Spanish but can’t think of it in English. Right.

Sure, everyone who lives abroad eventually becomes accustomed to the “oh, ok, cool/weird,” thing when you try to explain where you’re from, but maybe the scope of how unusual our lives are escape us. We get the impression they’re different, complicated, and incomprehensible from the way people tend to give us strange stares when the “but I live in…” bit of the answer begins, but we don’t get the impression just how fundamentally this living style makes us different. We don’t just have fancy stamps in our passports and slightly crazy stories about school trips: linguistically, we’re a mess of threads that need to be kept carefully apart for most people to understand. Given in one go, with the full Spanglish/Hinglish/Chinglish/Franglais or a combination of any of the above and more, we’re completely incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t left their home country. Much like our languages, we don’t fit neatly under one label.

We’re just as much a patchwork of cultures and experiences. The languages are just an outward manifestation, like a giant sign. Perhaps this is why we look for others like us on places like Facebook and blogs to rage about silly questions we get asked.

Sometimes it would be easy to change. We hide the fact that we can speak these other languages and speak in one, and acknowledge that we know others as, “oh, just a bit,” or not at all, because it’s ‘normal’ and certainly less difficult to explain: isn’t it hard keeping them all apart? Isn’t it hard always adjusting? In fact, how dare your parents ever even have thought of taking you abroad (I am looking at you, Meester Arie Wim). But then you realise the advantages. As there are more and more people like us, passports may stop being a qualification of a “native speaker.”

My flatmates have stopped laughing by this point, but have instead continued with their work. They’re used to it by now. Slowly but surely. As there are more and more people like us, passports may stop being a qualification of a “native speaker.” Multilingualism all the way!

Right, Pauline?

 

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Day 9: Word Count

It’s essay season!

And with essay season I mean I have an essay due next week which I may have procrastinated a little bit on. On a side note, if you have time, read the book City Gates by Elias Khoury. And an analysis just so it makes sense. Or just the analysis. 

Word Count

Word count

Word count

Have to hit this word count

This space resembles a dream space

Or nightmare space. Let’s call it dream space

Because nightmares sound unliterary

Except when they are literary

In a Kafka-esque way

I’m not really sure what that means

Because didn’t Kafka write multiple things?

Unless it was secretly all one thing in multiple

Ways

 

Word count

 

Like in a dream, the city’s gates have

disappeared. That’s what happens when

Things blow up, they disappear

Except in memories, which then seem like

A bad dream or nightmare because real things

Can’t be there one moment and gone the next

Yet the city gates are really really gone

They only made it into the title

Not even on the cover. Nothing is on the cover.

 

WORD COUNT

 

This loss of locus of referentiality causes this

Blur of fantasy and reality because how do you

Know what’s real and what isn’t if

Something you’ve just seen is no longer there

And everyone says it has never been there

Yet you remember it

 

Or do you?

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Day 8: Silence in the Library

(First of all, you should google that. It is a brilliant Doctor Who episode.)

We all know that person. That one person that can’t help but discuss the TV show they watched last night and their dinner and their previous night’s dinner and their dinner next week and their trouble getting into the bus in the library. Now admittedly I wasn’t on a silent floor. Talking is allowed. However, my table-neighbour’s friend interpreted that as it being socially acceptable to hover over my chair while loudly discussing something I couldn’t understand.

Yes, you may do group work. Yes, you may talk at a reasonable level. No, you may not proclaim your love for a soap series in great dramatic acts.

Dear Neighbour

Please don’t have your

Conversation in my ear

This is a library

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Day 7: A Pantoum about the Moon

More revision! Who said poetry challenges weren’t useful?

So here’s a pantoum, which according to my notes is a “dance with words” that originated in Malaysia. 

 

I thought I saw the Moon

 

I thought I saw the moon outside

But it was just the lamps reflection

A mirage of a wire honeycomb

Wrapped in something between paper and fabric

 

It was just the lamp’s reflection

But for a moment it looked like a mystery

Wrapped in something between paper and fabric

Floating in an ink black sea

 

That for a moment carried the mystery

Like a pearl on a cushion of clouds

And floating in the ink black sea

Were whispers around it in jealousy seething

 

Of the pearl on a cushion of midnight clouds

And how well it looked between the stars

They whispered around it in jealous seething

Over this IKEA usurper of their night

 

How well it looked between the stars

This mirage of a wire honeycomb

An IKEA usurper in the night

 

I thought I saw the moon outside.

 

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Day 6: Yay revision!

I take a module called Practice of Poetry, for which I have an exam sometime in early June. So see this as my way of revising. I present to you: the Villanelle.

Not a particularly good one, but it’s the form that counts in this case.

As for the subject: the boiler is making weird tapping noises. 

 

There’s a Ghost that Roams the Hall

 

There’s a ghost that roams the hall

Dancing when you’re not there.

Listen! You can hear the fall

 

Of footsteps on carpeted floors

To silently sung airs

As the ghost that roams the hall

 

Taps the tune on the boiler’s walls

As she descends the carpet stairs

As if she can hear the fall

 

Of voices as the trumpets call

Her name, and command the crowds to stare

And she’s not a ghost who roams a hall

 

But a queen of a fairytale-esque ball

In a realm where no one would ever dare

Not to listen. But a door falls

 

Shut. A light switches on as someone walks

And scatters the stories, unaware.

And the ghost that roams the halls

Listens. She can hear them fall.

 

 

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Day 5

Because it’s late, I’m tired and feeling nostalgic.

Long distance

If I’d see you

Just for ten minutes

Just long enough for a cup of tea

And a hug

A real one rather than a

bear in a computer screen looking like it

Smothered a pixel

Just long enough for a walk

In the dusk, to watch the

streetlamps light

and cast the day into a realm

of dream and stars that make reality

imaginary

Because the shadows no longer tell you

How long you’ve walked. Talked.

Discussed the politics of distance

And plans that teeter on the

Brink of sunlight and ones that are just

Stars beginning to form constellations

 

Just half an hour

To reminisce on that time you spoke English

Because you didn’t want to give me false hope of ice cream

And rapped in the streets like no one watched

And could still beat me down mountain slopes

 

Just long enough for a hug

Just one

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Day 4: The Room

During a tour of Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, Ireland

The room we’d been guided into couldn’t be more different from the corridor we’d just left. It was far more spacious than any of the cells we’d seen so far. The walls looked like they’d been recently painted, not like the scratched ones outside, the engraving of a man’s head with a name and a birth and death date almost blending into it. A window let the sunlight into the room, making it seem even brighter and bigger. There were about twenty of us, but we all fit inside quite easily.

The guide joined us, locking the door behind him. “Now you’ll notice the lock is on the outside,” he said. “Don’t panic, the next group will let us out. But in the meantime: what do you think of this room?” Some unintelligible mumbles as people look around. “It’s more spacious, isn’t it?” Some nods. “Do you like this room, compared to the other ones?” More nods. It did look better than the rooms we’d just left. He smiles a little. “Well. I did mention the lock on the outside. Do you see the spy hole up there, in that boarded up window?

This, ladies and gentlemen, was the room where condemned prisoners were held.”

The Room

It’s just a room

Four walls, newly painted

Slotted together like

Pieces of paper in a construction set

That forgot to add in furniture

Reaching up like the grand walls

Of state rooms

Just another room

 

There’s the window

Its frame betraying the

Room’s mask

Old eyes in a rejuvenated face

It’s seen many

In here

Out there

First out there, then in here

Passing like the flakes of paint

Leaving stains before fading

Or being painted over

Tried to paint over

 

There’s still the frame

The door locks

The spyhole in the wooden panel

Halfway up the walls

Like construction paper

Old eyes that

Remember

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