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Blogmas Day 12: Different Languages

The bookshop where I used to work had a separate shop for the travel section. I manned that shop every Tuesday. I had great conversations with the costumers about their holiday (or business trip) destinations, the local culture and languages.

One day a man came in. The weather had been horrible and he wanted to escape the rain and cold for a bit. We started talking, about the city, its history and things he still needed to see. Eventually he asked me where I learned to speak English. I explained that, here in Belgium, there are three official languages; Dutch, French and German. Our country is tiny but if you’re born in Flanders (the North), your mother tongue will be Dutch, if you’re born in Wallonia (the South), it will most likely be French and if you grow up near the German border, chances are that it will be German.

So if you take me for example, my mother tongue is Dutch. When I was 11 years old, I started learning French in school. When I was 13, I learned English. After that I had lessons in German and even a year of Spanish.

Even after all those years of learning these languages, I’m only fluent in Dutch and English. I was never any good at French but English I loved. German, I can understand most of the time because it resembles Dutch and I know the really basic things in Spanish. I actually have a self-study course for Spanish, I might pick it back up and study some more.

The man, intrigued by my story, said it reminded him of a joke:

What do you call someone who speaks three languages?
Trilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
Bilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks only one language?
American.

The man was American himself and I asked him if that was actually true. He said that it was true for most people in the USA.
Of course I understand, English is an international language, it’s spoken all over the world so it’s not super necessary to speak an extra language. For us, on the other hand, it comes in handy to speak English or even French because only a small percentage of the world’s population speaks Dutch.

Which makes me think. There were times where I didn’t even speak Dutch. I was born and raised in West-Flanders (the province near the coast). That part of Flanders is known to have one of the most complicated dialects (and more pigs than people but I won’t elaborate on that..). when they interview a West-Flemish person on the news, they will, without fail, add subtitles. When I went to university in Ghent (East-Flanders), they couldn’t understand a word I said when I spoke in my dialect. That’s when I really learned to speak Dutch. I knew all the words!! So I didn’t have to learn a complete new language but it did take some time to adjust. I kept on slipping back into my dialect.

Now I have forgotten most of the West-Flemish words and I think it’s a shame because languages should be kept intact, even dialects. It’s part of who we are and our community. It’s a part of what makes my home, home. It might sound crazy but it makes me insanely happy to hear someone speak in my dialect. Yesterday, I watched a movie that was set in West-Flanders. They showed it on national tv and there were NO subtitles 🙂 and it made me happy because I could understand everything they were saying and I know that other people on the other side of this ridiculously small country, could not.

In the end it all comes down to trying to understand one-another. I will gladly speak English to have a conversation with someone. There is so much we can learn, just by talking to a random stranger.
That guy in the shop, that was at least three years ago and I still remember. Not only because he made me laugh but also because he was really friendly and because we talked about random things.
I had a really nice conversation with someone who lives in a different country with different ideas who speaks a different language. That made me happy.

Maybe that’s why I love this blog so much.
Me, this Belgian girl, who is writing in a language that’s not my own and who is trying to have a conversation with people from all over the world.

If you have some time,
if you took the time to read all this,
leave me a comment and tell me where you are from.

That would make me happy.

Love

Ellen

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