It came as a surprise for me to learn that 10% of British adults learned a new language last year under lockdown. It occurred to me a short while ago when I made an urgent visit to our local Asda to purchase some essentials like wine, that many people were struggling to speak English with any great level of coherence but maybe that’s me being old and, increasingly, deaf. I suppose I could have put my 2020 furlough months to better use last year by learning a new language, or perhaps consolidating my fading grip of Dutch.
My long-suffering reader will know that my mum was from the Netherlands. She learned to speak far better than adequate English, although anyone who has ever been there will know that most Dutch people speak better English than we do. Anyway, as I was growing up, I learned to speak Dutch fluently.
I had little choice in the matter since we spent every summer in Rotterdam and whilst my mother spoke English, my grandmother was from what was probably the last generation of Dutch people to not speak English. So everything, from meeting up with neighbours, playing football on the nearby park area with the local boys, shopping, going on trams and so on were all conducted in Dutch. So it was no surprise that when we returned to Bristol, it was strange to resume talking in my native tongue. Worse than that, on several occasions coming back home I found Dutch had become my first language and I was speaking it at primary and later junior school. But there was something very strange about my use of Dutch: my mum never once taught me to speak her native language and she certainly never taught me to write it. I was in the very odd position of being able to converse in Dutch in any situation, but I couldn’t read or write it. I learned then how awful it must have been for people who were, for one reason or another illiterate.
One of the things I did, as a child in Rotterdam, was to visit bookshops. I have always loved books and even today I can’t pass a book shop without going in. (See also record shops.) The ones over there, naturally, sold mainly Dutch books. I was SO disappointed to leave each shop with nothing.
I have no idea why my mum didn’t teach me to read and write in Dutch. My guess is it never occurred to her. She had enough on her plate putting food on the table without having teach me Dutch. Besides, I was fluent enough when I was back in the Netherlands. Not so now, though.
I return periodically to Rotterdam and each time my use of the Dutch language has faded away. And I can’t fall back in anything, like being able to read signs or anything. It feels like a lifetime opportunity strangled at birth.
So, I’m stuck with the one language. As we’ve left Europe, I don’t suppose it matters quite so much.