As a baby, my parents moved me and my brothers to South Africa. By the time we left South Africa, four years later, I could converse in Africaans. I remember coming back to our “home” country with a very strong Africaans accent. Oh, the teasing I took! It wasn’t long till I had broken that accent and was speaking with a distinctly American accent. After less than a year in the United States, our family moved again. This time, it was to The Netherlands.
Within a few months of being in The Netherlands, I was speaking Dutch fluently (for a seven-year-old). I was out in the streets, playing with all the Dutch children. I never had to go far to find friends to play with. One of the side benefits of speaking Dutch, was the joy I got out of listening to my parents trying to learn the language. I made fun of their accent, relentlessly! I never thought much about being able to speak Dutch. All my Dutch friends could speak Dutch. It was natural.
Although I spoke Dutch, I never went to a Dutch speaking school. I did much of my schooling at an international school. I loved my school! I attended that school for eight years. I did all of high school there, and actually graduated from that school. The interesting thing about that international school was that I had friends that attended it all the way from kindergarten. They spent 12 years at that school… and didn’t speak a word of Dutch! I couldn’t believe it when I found out. How do you spend that much time there, but not learn the language? I discovered that it wasn’t necessary for them. Their entire world was in that school. They did all the extra-curricular activitivies with the school. Went to all the sporting events at the school. Everything was in the bubble of that school. Dutch wasn’t necessary.
It had never dawned on me that I wouldn’t need to learn Dutch. Most Dutch adults actually speak English. But, I spent so much time on the streets, playing with all my Dutch friends, that I had to learn the language. I discovered that I had an aptitude for languages. As a family, we traveled all over Europe. I thrived on trying to understand and speak the other languages. By the time I was in high school, I was well on my way to fluency in French and for fun, my senior year I studied Spanish.
My parents introduced me to many Dutch people. Much of our world was with our Dutch friends. Learning the language made it so easy for me to live in that culture. I grew to love the Dutch culture, people, and (importantly) their food. Although I never took a single class in Dutch, the ability to speak the language opened up a whole new world to me.
While I understand that learning the national language is not always necessary, I would say that it always beneficial. Learning a “foreign” language has so many residual benefits. To this day, I look for opportunities to speak Dutch with friends. I meet people all over the world, simply because I speak their native tongue. Of course, I always love those moments when people around me are speaking a language, not knowing that I fully understand every word they say! Then, when I greet them in their own language, they are either mortified that I know what they just said, or they are thrilled that someone speaks their language. Either way, it’s a delight!
I have come to value my love for languages, because it is a window into the culture. But, more importantly, as a child, it opened up so many opportunities for friendships. That is probably the key for me. I made so many friends, that I never would have made were it not for my learning the language.
So, whether it is Dutch, Swahili, or Farsi. I say, “Jump in! Stap in, Anzisha, or پرش در!”