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Notes from a (non)native speaker
Revisiting the archive
This week, I’m sharing “Notes from a (non)native speaker”, a newsletter from my archive about languages. There have been a few hundred more of you since I first published it, so I thought I’d share it again.
Have a great week ahead!
Autumn Writing Retreat in Puglia, Italy
There are still places in the autumn writing retreat in Puglia starting on 30 October! I’m excited to meet and work with everyone attending.
This is for you if you:
Struggle writing full dramatic scenes with realistic & engaging dialogue
Have difficulty creating complex characters - do the characters all seem the same in the story?
Have been working on a piece of writing but are feeling a bit stuck lately and don't know what to do
Want to experience an authentic side of Italy
What you’ll come away with:
Confidence to write great characters, scenes & dialogue using techniques from film, theatre and established authors
Being part of a community of writers who support each other
One-of-a-kind experience staying in a 900-year-old monastery converted into a luxury hotel in an easily accessible part of Italy, though still off the radar for most tourists
The retreat is heavy on interactivity (no didactic lectures!), exercises and fun. There’s plenty of free time to rest, recharge, explore, and, of course, eat!
If you have any questions or if you want to have a session to discuss anything, email me at email@example.com or click the button below for more info:
Notes from a (non)native speaker
As the food tour wound its way past a medieval tower in Bologna, an American said to me, “You don’t sound like English is your first language.”
The tour guide had just taken us to a small first-floor pasta factory, and we were now headed to a 500-year-old bar. I was in my second week of an intensive, five-hour-per-day Italian language course. My classmates were from Germany, Turkey, China, and Guinea. Though the teachers spoke no English to force us to think in Italian, we students reverted to our native languages during breaks and after class.
Sometimes, a simple answer came out: ja, yes or sí. And I couldn’t always control what it was.
When I returned to the Netherlands, I kept up with Italian lessons, taking them at the local library and online. Everyone else in the class was Dutch by birth, except for the Italian instructor and me. As I learned new words and phrases in Italian, I also learned more in Dutch, as did the instructor.
“Elke dag iets nieuws,” she said to me. Every day, something new. Even after decades of living here, she was still learning the language. And that’s what the experience has been like living in The Netherlands. You’re never quite finished learning. Language is a muscle that’s constantly being strengthened or, in contrast, atrophied. The same is true for my mother tongue.
Living away from the US for so long, I’ve started to lose parts of my language. Words like fidget elude me. Other times, words like pernickety appear in my mind for no apparent reason. Of the 1.5 billion English speakers worldwide, only around 25% (or 373 million are native). And among those, there are differences. For example, an American “sidewalk” is “pavement” in UK English, though “pavement” in American English is the road (or, more accurately, the surface coating).
When I lived in Australia, I worked in advertising. My managing director was an old-school ad man from Manchester. He quickly struck the “z” and other Americanisms from my writing. The habit remains to this day.
Dividing my time between Italy and the Netherlands means I live between 3 languages. I mix them: I need to afschrijven my manuscript. I have a meeting met een belangrijke cliënt. I fear I’ll never master Italian prepositions.
Of course, there are the inevitable (embarrassing) mistakes. Once, as I exited a tram, I saw a fight break out. A woman asked me what was happening, and I said, “Ze hebben een duif gevonden,” meaning, “they found a pigeon.” I meant dief, Dutch for “thief.” She looked at me, confused for a beat, and then nodded, understanding what I meant. We both laughed.
Dutch has articles “de” and “het”, but the general rules are so opaque as to be impossible to decipher. Dutch once had gendered grammar like German, but gender has disappeared from the language, though the articles remain. There are rules, but essentially, you have to memorise every word, making mistakes nigh impossible to avoid.
Another story: In Dutch class, we reviewed the daily habits of waking up, dressing, etc., and I said, “Ik moet mijn tanden plassen,” which translates roughly to "I need to pee on my teeth.” The teacher laughed so hard she cried. The words for “cleaning” and “urinating” are confusingly similar. Coincidentally, “plassen” can mean both “urinating” and “lakes.”
And so, like many people who live in multiple languages, I’m making up my own dialect. Though no language is “pure”. Certainly not Dutch, with its linguistic diversity, ranging from Flemish in Belgium to the Yiddish-influenced dialect of Amsterdam to the old-fashioned English phrases like flabbergasted and not amused that are now part of the rich lexicon, reflecting not just the language’s history but also its present and future.
Nuyorican poet Tato Laviera captures it perfectly in his poem Spanglish:
pues estoy creando spanglish bi-cultural systems scientific lexicographical inter-textual integrations two expressions existentially wired two dominant languages continentally abrazándose en colloquial combate en las aceras del soil imperio spanglish emerges control pandillaje sobre territorio bi-lingual las novelas mexicanas mixing with radiorocknroll condimented cocina lore immigrant/migrant nasal mispronouncements baraja chismeteos social club hip-hop prieto street salsa corner soul enmixturando spanish pop farándula standard english classroom with computer technicalities spanglish is literally perfect spanglish is ethnically snobbish spanglish is cara-holy inteligencia which u.s. slang do you speak?
What about you? How do regionalisms or other languages affect how you speak and think? Let me know in the comments.