One of the most frustrating things about living in a country where you don’t speak the language is that constant feeling that your words are essentially well, lost in translation. While most Dutch people speak English exceptionally well (actually, better than many Americans) there are still times where I see that confused look that says “I have no idea what you’re talking about so I’m just going to nod, smile and hope you don’t notice.”
I know that look all too well…
Last year my Dutch skills were pretty much obsolete so when Sebastiaan and I would go to family functions or hangout with his friends they would all make an effort to speak English. As is to be expected usually the conversation would switch back to Dutch and I would sit there trying to smile but really thinking about what color I was going to paint my nails later or more likely, what I would be doing if I was home with my friends at that very moment. Eventually Sebastiaan would look over at me and notice the lost and homesick look in my eyes and try to translate whatever joke was so hilarious that had everyone but me in roaring with laughter. By the time he was able to stop laughing long enough to tell me what was going on, it usually didn’t quite translate and just resulted in an awkward pause in the conversation.
Actually, many of the arguments Sebastiaan and I have had are due to the language barrier we are still learning to navigate. It’s not that he doesn’t understand what I’m saying (his English is pretty much perfect), it’s more a matter of interpretation. What a native speaker might simply brush off as a bit of sarcasm, is taken so literally and so personally that before I know it we are in the thralls of a full-out argument and I haven’t even had a chance to figure out why. Both of us have what you might call… hot tempers, so taking the time to really listen to what each other are really trying to say before going for the jugular is a bit of a struggle. It’s something that I’ve really had to force myself to be conscious of. I now try to take a second, let the residual burn from his comment fade and try to understand what he was actually trying to say. 9 times out of 10 an unnecessary fight is avoided.
It took us about a year to realize this.
Even though I can now carry on a basic conversation in Dutch and for the most part follow the conversations around me, sometimes I still long so badly to speak to another American, just so that I can talk as fast as humanly possible and throw around as much slang as I can. Yesterday at work I spoke to a customer from Texas. I was so excited to speak with someone who actually knew what I was talking about that I pretty much wouldn’t let the poor guy off the phone. We ended up talking about my home town, the weather, traveling, accents, pretty much anything I could think of, anything to keep him on the phone.
I think I even threw a few “y’alls” in there, just for kicks.