Do I wear a protective suit?
“Your Dutch is really good, where did you learn it?” a young woman from Rotterdam asked me the other day. When I told her that I was born and raised in the Netherlands she looked a bit surprised and mumbled something about hearing a faint foreign accent.
I was taken aback, convinced as I am that the Dutch people I encounter cannot notice that I’ve lived abroad for forty-seven years. I looked for excuses to invalidate her observation; we had only exchanged a couple of words, the music at the gym was loud, and she probably didn’t pay much attention to what I said anyway. I even considered the rather arrogant explanation that my “correct” way of speaking is alien to younger generations who’ve grown up hearing common accents on television and social media.
But I stayed quiet, and ever since I’ve been thinking about why her brief observation upset me so much.
Speaking a foreign language involves mimicking the native speakers; it contains an element of acting, albeit unconsciously. I take on a slightly different persona with each language, but in Dutch I’m truly myself. Not speaking my native language would erode that sense of self.
But then why did I decide to write in English a year ago?
The reason I give myself is that some Dutch words may bring about painful associations of unpleasant experiences or loved ones who are no longer here.
The emotional distance that foreign words provide serves as a buffer, not unlike the protective suits worn by the medical personnel that care for Covid patients.
But several years ago, when I was asked why I still wrote in Dutch, I said that I did so because my mother tongue felt closer than a learned language.
What happened in that time? Did the intimacy I cherished in the language I was brought up with really become so painful that I have to cushion it with foreign words? Have I become overly sensitive with age? Or is it that English words and expressions simply pop up in my mind before Dutch ones do?
It’s difficult to face that I may have started to feel more at ease expressing myself in English. But perhaps the young woman I met by chance was right, all those years away from Holland have colored my Dutch a bit.
Just a tiny bit, of course. Een heel klein beetje.