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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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!