Going Dutch again: reclaiming my bilingual heritage

I have just finished reading my first ever book in Dutch.  More precisely, my first ever book of fiction for adults – as a child I read many children’s books in Dutch, some of which I still have.  The book in question is not exactly literary – it’s a yellowing, fragile paperback entitled De Cock en de wurger op zondag (De Cock and the Sunday strangler), by A C Baantjer, published in 1965, and it is a police procedural whodunit.  Nevertheless, this is a big thing for me.

Ironically, I learned to read and write Dutch a year or more before learning to read and write English.  I am half Dutch, half British.  When I was small, we lived with my Dutch grandparents (Oma and Opa) in the Netherlands, and my parents decided that the best way to bring me up bilingual was for them to speak English to each other and to me, while I would hear Dutch all around me and would converse in Dutch with the wider family.  This worked well – by the age of 5 I was completely bilingual verbally, and I learned to read and write Dutch easily – it’s phonetic, very regular, and pleasingly logical most of the time.

There is a myth that if you bring up a child bilingual, it will be confused, will mix up the languages and be held back in its language development.  This is, in my opinion, rubbish.  I knew full well which language was which, and which language was used with to communicate with which person.  For example, my (British) father’s Dutch was appalling – I remember being embarrassed by how bad it was, and wishing he would stick to English.  I only borrowed from the other language when the one I was using didn’t have the exact word I was looking for, e.g. there is no English word to translate ‘gezellig’ (it’s a bit like the Danish ‘hygge’ which is so trendy at the moment, but with more sociable connotations – see what I mean about there being no English word for it?!).  I could switch effortlessly between the two, and thought and dreamed in either language.

Moreover, I am convinced that a bilingual start makes it easier to learn subsequent languages.  There appears to be something about understanding from the very beginning that there’s more than one set of sounds and language that makes the acquisition of a new set of language skills less challenging than it seems to be for those raised monoglot.  I went on to learn French, Spanish, a bit of German, a bit of Welsh, some Hebrew, and beginners Latin, all with very little effort  – I am convinced that learning more than one language to begin with makes it easier to learn subsequent languages, and I consider that being brought up bilingual was a great gift.

When I was 5, two things happened.  Firstly, we left the Netherlands.  Secondly, I started my education through the medium of English (starting with learning to read and write English, which was way harder than Dutch as it’s so irregular – in fact, it’s so irregular there seem to be more bits of the language that break the ‘rules’ than follow them!).  I was home schooled, something I have very mixed feelings about, and until I was preparing for public examinations I was taught by my father.  My parents continued to speak English to each other, and to me, and because our lives were (for reasons I won’t go into here) nomadic and we were not well integrated into the countries we lived in, I was heavily influenced by the BBC World Service (and the radio was on for much of the day), so that what I was hearing every day was formal standard British English.

My mother was Dutch, and (in common with many of her compatriots of that generation) had been educated to school leaving standard in English, French and German as well as Dutch.  Her accent was near perfect in all three languages – no one ever guessed she was foreign, they simply assumed she was from a different part of their own country that they couldn’t quite identify!  She lived in Scandinavia for some years, and was fluent in Swedish and had a good command of the notoriously difficult Finnish.  She learned Malay in her colonial youth, a smattering of Spanish when we lived in Spain for a while, and Welsh in her old age.

My father’s family were Liverpool Welsh, and were of the generation who felt that it would disadvantage their children if they spoke Welsh, so although Welsh was spoken at home, he lost it as soon as he started going to school, and sadly was not able to pass it on to me.  He did not have a Welsh accent, though, and neither did he sound ‘Scouse’ – his accent was more the very precise, formal tones of the (probably fairly well educated ) first language Welsh speaker, from North Wales or metropolitan Cardiff, speaking English.  If you’re not familiar with it, it probably sounds like rather ‘posh’ English – something I am often accused of being!

Growing up, I really only spoke Dutch to my grandparents.  My main writing practice was regular letters to them, and no one seems to have thought to buy me Dutch books after the age of 7 or 8.  When I was in my late teens and at school in the UK, it seemed sensible to do an ‘O’ level in Dutch, as it was a painless way of getting another qualification.  I revised for that by reading a couple of old copies of Libelle and Margriet, women’s magazines, which were sent over for me by family in the Netherlands.  I found the exam ridiculously easy, and got an A grade.

Fast forward 30 plus years.  My Dutch-speaking family are long gone.  It’s been 30 years since I visited the Netherlands, as I only went to visit family.  Because I never spoke Dutch as an adult, and didn’t go to school there, my vocabulary was childish and old fashioned – not only because I haven’t been around to pick up contemporary idioms, but because I learned my Dutch from elderly, formal and middle-class grandparents who didn’t really do slang and idiom!  I had reached the stage when I was too nervous to engage in conversation with Dutch people I encountered here in the UK – knowing it would take too long to get my brain in gear, saddened that I was no longer fluent or bilingual.

Enter my partner, who announced a couple of years ago that she wanted to learn Dutch – not least to encourage me to engage with it again, and stop me losing it altogether.  She is making good progress, although as we are not currently following any one course of study, it’s a bit erratic and her vocabulary is random and eccentric (she knows the Dutch for ‘volunteer’ (vrijwilliger) but not ‘plate’ (bord), for example!  For a British person, her pronunciation  is quite good – she’s inevitably struggling with ‘sch’ as in Scheveningen, but it’s coming on nicely.   She follows the exploits of the Dutch royal family on Twitter, which gives her not only a nice bit of translation and comprehension practice in fairly correct Dutch, but also glimpses of Dutch culture.   We are planning to visit the Netherlands soon.  I am very nervous about this, because somehow I feel I ought to know all about it, how the transport system works, how to book things, what the rules of the road are, etc because I’m half Dutch – but of course I don’t, because I didn’t grow up there and have never been there as an adult, having to engage with such things.  I am simultaneously native and a foreigner, which is very confusing.

However, what I am very excited about is my reclaiming of the Dutch language.  With my partner’s encouragement, I have been reading Dutch on the internet, subscribing to Dutch language magazines online (who knew that you could get National Geographic in Dutch?!), watching YouTube clips of Dutch comedians, and have joined a Facebook group for Dutch people living in the UK.  Half my Facebook feed is now in Dutch, and a couple of months ago I realised that I am now back to just reading Dutch, rather than translating it into English first.  I’m not yet thinking or dreaming in Dutch again, but I suspect that might happen if I was in the Netherlands, hearing it around me all the time.  I have to look up some words in the online dictionary, but generally I’m surprising myself how rarely that happens.  Bit by bit, I am becoming bilingual again.

And then, just before Christmas, I happened to glance at the second hand books table in my local supermarket – and amongst all the chic lit and gardening books I spy De Cock en de wurger op zondag – so of course I had to buy it!

Portraits of the past – my family history in photographs

Last year I came into possession of a large collection of family photographs.  I am the last person standing on that side of the family, so on the death of the last of the previous generation is all passed to me.  We’re not talking a few albums here – the collection completely filled the back of an SUV!  Most of the albums were in poor condition and had been stored in damp or dusty places, so a priority was to remove all the photographs (copying the annotations onto the back of the photos where appropriate) and throw away the wreckage of the albums.  There were also a lot of loose photographs, as well as some in frames (many with broken glass).

Eventually, I was able to group them into rough families, eras and locations.  There were a huge number of duplicates, so the first edit was to choose the best of the duplicates, again copying any annotations, and put aside duplicates for cousins in America if they were likely to be of any interest to them.  Then, I went through each group of photographs, weeding out any which were of no particular family history interest, or where the features were blurred, or choosing one from a series of almost identical shots (there were lots of these, especially 1950s landscapes.  It was apparently a thing in Scandinavia to take many photographs of the back of people standing in a field gazing at distant hills…).

After many evenings and weekends of going through photographs, peering through a magnifying glass at blurry faces, and getting very dusty, I have now whittled the collection down to a single crate, all divided into acid-free archival envelopes labelled with details of the contents (pre-war Holland, Helsinki Olympics 1952, holiday to Wales July 1961, etc).  I also started a notebook, with a page for each year, so that I could track the events and movements relating to the various strands of the family.  One wet Sunday afternoon this winter I plan to create a timeline from the notebook, which colour coding for each branch of the family, for the whole of the 20th century (and also scanning the most interesting ones of shared ancestors to send to my American cousins).

This side of my family is Dutch (via military service in the Dutch East Indies and internment in Japanese camps during WWII), with various members emigrating to America, Finland and Britain.  It has been a fascinating – and occasionally harrowing – exercise to follow individuals from newborns, through rites of passage, family memories, pets and holidays, to ageing, and in one case, death (it seems it was the fashion to take open casket photographs in 1940s America).

I have glimpsed the interiors of Dutch colonial houses of the 1930s, Scandinavian holiday shacks in the 1950s, and American ranches in the 1970s.  I have found that some of the stories I was told as a child were true, and others were not, while still others have got garbled in the telling.  I have been saddened by the toll that WWII took on my grandfather (he was in his 60s when I was born, so I never knew him as anything other than old).  I have been moved by how much my teenage grandparents were obviously in love, in photographs from their courting days which I had never seen.  I have seen my own features and expressions looking out at me from the faces of long-dead relatives.  And I now have a much clearer sense of who I am, and where I have come from.