I used to be a fabulous code-switcher.
Code switching, for those of you not in the know (and I hope, for your sake, that that’s most of you), basically comes down to altering your language use to suit the situation you find yourself in. That can be anything from switching to Estuary English in order to make sure you don’t get sent to language lab (which I do at uni), to switching to a whole different language (which I do when I travel from my parents to uni).
Before, I’d just switch from Dutch to English and back again, and not have any real trouble with it. The only time that it was less-than-perfect, was when I’d spent a long time speaking only English. One time, after coming back to the Netherlands after spending a few weeks with family, I had a really funky accent when I spoke Dutch. But that was gone in a matter of days.
Ever since I’ve been studying English, it’s been harder, though. I never feel the need to stick Dutch in my English, but English keeps sneaking into my Dutch.
It’s not that my Dutch is deteriorating–quite the contrary, I think my Dutch has improved now that I talk to people who speak proper ABN all the time, instead of being surrounded by people who speak with a Brabant accent (even though I’ve managed to hang on to my ‘zachte g’).
No, what it is, is that I’ve become very aware of my English. Before, it was just my mother tongue. I always felt more comfortable expressing myself in English, because it was my first language.
But now, I love English. It’s more than just my first language, it’s my favourite language. I feel a deep connection with it–not to get too structuralist on you, but I feel that speaking English has helped me both shape and express my personality.
Now, I’m not really into the structurist theories that we are both defined and confined by language. I do, however, think that different languages make speakers aware of different nuances.
One of the things I really love about English, is that it has such a huge lexicon. There are words for just about everything. In fact, there are multiple words for just about everything, and each word has a slightly different meaning.
This means that, if you know enough words, you can be ridiculously (and even infuriatingly) precise when you communicate. I love this–it means that you’re not only going to be able to eliminate miscommunication, but you’re also able to make an almost infinite number of puns.
I like being precise, and I love making jokes. I don’t think that these two things would be as important to me, if I grew up speaking a language that didn’t share certain characteristics with English.
I’ve been growing gradually more aware of this over the past few months, as I’ve been thinking more and more about the English language as an end, rather than just a means.
And I’ve come to a rather dreary conclusion: people who usually speak to me in Dutch, don’t really speak to me. Well, they speak to me, obviously, but they don’t speak to what I think of as the ‘proper’ Leah. When I speak Dutch, a lot of my own voice is lost.
This isn’t just because Dutch is my second language, and that I’m not quite as proficient in it as I am in English. Quite the contrary, my Dutch is excellent, even if the definite articles do continue to give me grief. Most people don’t realise that Dutch isn’t my first langauge, until I mention that I’m actually English.
But Dutch is so different to English, when you get down to it. Dutch limits me. Yes, there are things in Dutch that you can’t say in English, but I usually find a way of making a new English word that, although techincally nonsensical, nevertheless conveys my message with a minimum of confusion, so long as the person listening is used to my way with words.
So, if you want to talk to me, and I mean really talk to me, talk to me in English. I’ll probably seem less like a twat than I do in Dutch.