Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Language as a component of one's personality

During the many years that I grew up and lived in the Netherlands I was always surrounded by texts written and sentences spoken in Dutch. As a teenager I quickly became fluent in English and even got exposed some to German and French, but if I went outside I'd hear Dutch. Everything inside stores was listed in Dutch. I'd talk with people around me in Dutch, aside from the occasional tourist or foreign student with whom I'd converse in English. For me English was more the language of the internet, and for when I left the Netherlands on a few occasions. One could say that Dutch formed a significant part of my life. Until I left the Netherlands for good, that is.

Crossing the border during that move in the realization that I had just decided to truly leave behind the Netherlands, I felt a lot of trepidation. Mostly about how things would go once there, but I also felt a lot of anxiety about having to learn German. Despite having had a few years of German at school (and not being particularly good at it), I was moving to a country where they spoke this language, leaving me isolated in important ways. My English skills helped me bridge the gap while I desperately tried to learn German - assisted especially by one of my amazing chefs at work - but it was the point where I realized that I could actually converse casually with German speakers in their own language without issues that things began to click for me.

Dutch had become largely irrelevant to me when I left the Netherlands, and now German had taken its place. Or so it felt. Earlier today I held a number of conversations with colleagues regarding an upcoming 'girl's day' event in which I offered to participate. At no point did I feel lost or confused about anything, nor did I feel like I had to put in a lot of effort to make my thoughts clear in German. When I enter the office in the morning I simply speak German. When necessary I can speak English, too, but it feels somewhat jarring now to switch. German is the new normal language for my surroundings. The new expectation.

With it I feel also that by swapping languages like this it has changed me in some ways. Naturally I have changed the most as a person over the past year simply by (largely) finding my way again and finding some bloody self-respect. Yet switching languages is more than just a minor change. It changes the way one thinks and expresses oneself. It affects the way one communicates with one another. Here I must say that I find German to be a very... soft and expressive language. Very formal as well, with brutal grammar rules, but after a year-long crash course in the language while surrounded by people mostly speaking said language, I have really become used to it. When I now hear or read Dutch I'm afraid to hurt myself on the sharp edges, so to say.

Similarly I find that when I switch to English it also changes the way I express myself, and for Japanese as well. The thing I like about Japanese is that it's so very versatile, in that it can adapt from course street language to formal (keigo) to a beautifully poetic language suitable for the most amazing of plays and performances. English is somewhat similar, but like most languages suffers from a large grammar baggage and strict pronunciation rules. Still, I think that these two are my favourite languages, in that they reflect qualities I can see within my own soul as well.

Recently I have begun to focus on brushing up my Japanese skills, as these have become much neglected over the past decade. To this end I have bought a number of Japanese books to peruse, study and (hopefully) comprehend sufficiently. People have often asked me whether I have lived in or would like to visit or live in Japan, to which I reply negatively. While I wouldn't say 'no' to visiting Japan itself, to me the true beauty and truth of a culture lies within its language and its literary works. Each of these Japanese books I'm reading now is a classical work, mandatory reading in Japanese schools and an intrinsic part of what it means to be Japanese.

In a similar manner I have read a number of German books, all of them considered classics. My most recent book there was Hermann Hesse's 'Siddhartha', a pre-WWII classic, yet which still reads as if it was written recently. I feel that through reading these works I have gained a new-found appreciation for and understanding of the German language. Maybe this is truly what is meant with the phrase 'a living language'. By having so many works, so many contexts and gathered experiences accessible, a language truly is the key to understanding a culture's unique world.

But what about Dutch, you might ask. While I have left the Netherlands behind me forever, I try to see the language separate from the Dutch culture. To me Dutch now is the language using which I speak with my mother and using which I can understand parts of my past as I work through them for my autobiography. There is no Netherlands any more. No Dutch culture. No Dutch language associated with it. There's just a language which forms this last link with my past.

In that sense it's very symbolic of my own personal changes.


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