Over the summer I’ve been working in the Kabetogama Lake and Ash River visitor centers of Voyageurs National Park. Being a Dutch in northern Minnesota made me stand out a bit. Although my accent is almost gone by now, it’s still often noticed by the visitors. That’s when they start to ask the questions.
Where are you originally from?
What brings you all the way up to Minnesota?
How did you learn to speak English so well?
Answering these questions, and the last one in particular got me thinking. I’m not at all wowed by my own travels. The people who ask the questions however seem to be really amazed by it. This is the story on how I learned to speak English so well, and what things I’ve experienced during that process.
In The Netherlands everyone has a fair amount of language classes in school, English being the main one, but depending on the school you’ll learn also French and German. I’ve always been pretty good in the various science courses, but sucked at the courses that make me memorize plain facts or words. So even at age seventeen I wouldn’t have called myself an English speaker.
Somehow that didn’t stop me.
When I just turned eighteen I flew on my own to the other side of the world, Australia to be exact. My aunt (auntie for the Ozzies) moved there a few years before. She arranged an internship with the Maroochy Shire Council, and picked me up from the airport. I stayed with her during the evenings, but during the day I had to do everything on my own.
In the beginning my English was very poor, but then after just six weeks my family arrived, and they put me in charge for doing most of the communication for them. It was a touch learning process, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
I remember one day I was driving around with a colleague and we came across a roundabout. Since The Netherlands is covered in them and this was the only one I’d seen out there I was surprised. So I was trying to explain, but had no clue what the proper word is for that circular thing in the road. He was being very helpful telling me what the name for that thing in the road was, but it took me multiple attempts to understand him. I heard round about, which I thought I learned in the way of “round about 6 o’clock”. I got there in the end, and I won’t ever forget the word for a roundabout.
In Australia I got myself on a comfortable level of English speaking. A few years later, when I was twentyfour I found myself a job in Saudi Arabia. Because of visa issues I first had to go to Malaysia to work there with four other colleagues. Malaysia used to be an English colony, most people there speak English pretty well. The booklets that we were making as a landscape architecture firm were all written in English, so that’s when I practiced a lot on writing in English.
In Malaysia I lived on an island called Penang, close to the border with Thailand. The island is a big melting pot of people and cultures. This has to do with the rich history of the island. You can find buildings from the british colonial times. But at the same time you find buddhist temples and mosques. The main religion in Malaysia is muslim, but on penang you’re probably able to find any type of religion. Besides this, the island is a touristic destination.
I enjoyed my time there, I really liked how all cultures are living there side by side without any issues.
After 4 months the visa for Saudi Arabia was finally arranged and I moved out there. I arrived in the middle of summer, and it was really hot. It’s like walking around in an oven during the summer months. Life takes place indoors during the days and only comes out when the sun sets. My company was based out of Ar Riyadh, which is also the place where king resides. This results in very strict rules about clothing and behaviour in the city, more so than in the other cities of the county.
Before deciding if I would take the job I thought long and hard about the consequences it would have for me living in a country like that. Going outside means wearing an abaya, a long black baggy dress, that you put on over your regular clothing. During the weekend the only pastime for women is going to a shopping mall. Because I more or less knew what I was saying yes to, I had a pretty good time there. I’ve heard many stories of women from Europe and America having a horrible time there. They come with their husbands whom are at work all day, the women just have to hang around the compound all day or go shopping. Nothing else to do for them.
I think life in Saudi Arabia is one of the most different ones from what I’m used to. By seeing how people live their lives right there got me to understand it a lot better. Nowadays I often get into discussions with people who feel that what is going on there is terrible. I’m never saying that what they are doing there is good, but I understand where they are coming from.
As for my English experience, speaking in English every day for about 9 months did me a huge favor. Besides that, I read a lot of English books and watched tons of movies without subtitles. When I got back home I enjoyed it to read books in English once in awhile, and I hardly ever used subtitles in movies. So much beautiful things get lost in translation.
In August 2016 I started writing blogs in English, seven years after returning from Saudi Arabia. I think I did an okay job, but still had to have someone read through my drafts before I’d post anything. In March 2017 I flew to the States and thought that I was still fluent but once I arrived it was quite hard.It’s true what they say, practice makes perfect and by now, September 2017 everything I do is done in English, and I find myself struggling to speak Dutch when I talk to my family or to a Dutch visitor in the visitor center.
Learning and speaking a language is all about doing it. The more you do it, the easier it gets, and as soon as you stop using it you start to lose bits and pieces.