Confessions of a Language Imposter

I used to live next door to a very sweet, old couple in Amsterdam. On several occasions they signed for my package deliveries. I’d receive the package notice with their house number on it, take a deep breath at my front door, and practice reciting the few Dutch words I would need to get through a polite and productive exchange.

I’d arrive with a confident “goedenavond! [good evening!]” Mumble a decent “heeft u… [do you have…],” while motioning to the little piece of paper with mailman scribblings on it. Either the husband or wife would knowingly interrupt, disappear for a few moments, and return with my package. Ending with a strong, “dank u wel!”, I was always pleased we understood each other. There we were – just a few Dutch-speaking neighbors, exchanging favors and kind words.

But on maybe the third visit, our routine unraveled. “Goedenavond, Ik ben terug [I’m back]!” Smile. Hold up paper. Point.

Ja, ja!” the old man responded. He returned with whatever it was. And just as I was about to return with the well-rehearsed closer, this guy went off script. Suddenly unfamiliar words were coming at me, quickly and numerously. He thought we were having a conversation. But we weren’t.

I was, instead, having a conversation with myself: “Well, what an honor. This guy has been so fooled by my basic Dutch he thinks I understand what he’s saying right now. But, oh no! I don’t understand what he’s saying. Nod… Smile… Raise eyebrows anxiously. Please stop talking… Please stop talking… He’s said too much; I’ve nodded for too long… Too late to confess… He’s waiting for a response… “

Jaaaaaa.”

Obviously my hesitant and exaggerated “yessssss” didn’t satisfy the matter because he kept going, continuing to provide room for an appropriate response. But as I continued with the charade of comprehension, I saw something click for him –  not that I couldn’t understand Dutch. But that something was wrong with me. Something he couldn’t put his finger on. But something was definitely wrong.

How. Embarrassing.

If you’re like me, you’d say, “Never again! Never again will I try to speak Dutch!” And then you’d run away in a zigzag line with your arms flailing.

Because in the moment, I would have been more embarrassed to admit I had been faking all along. A one-note, English-speaking impostor.

Years have passed, yet not much has changed. That’s right. I moved to the Netherlands five years ago (rounding down for sympathy), and I’m still only speaking English. Yes, that means I’m surrounded by people who speak at least two languages. And I’m still fumbling about, occasionally googling the grammar rules of the only language I speak fluently.

This wasn’t the plan. When I imagined myself living in another country, I had a local bank account, a local boyfriend, a spacious apartment, and I spoke the language like a carefree local. So when I first arrived, I had the best intentions. I took an Absolute Beginner class at the University and diligently practiced with Rosetta Stone. Dismissing the warnings that the Dutch language is a discouraging combination of too difficult to learn and pointlessly obscure, I was determined to speak Dutch faster than the naysayers who had been around for years without learning a word. I’m pretty sure Bart Simpson learned to speak French in a few months. Surely I could learn Dutch in a year… Or two.

So what’s gone wrong? We can go throw blame in a couple directions.

It’s Their Fault

I like this logic. Let’s give it a chance.

Dutch people have an extraordinarily high percentage of (nearly) fluent English-speakers. From school to television, movies and music, they’re learning to speak English from a young age. So by the time I enter a Dutch person’s life, they’re able to quickly shift between the two languages, navigating conversations like gymnasts. I rarely have an opportunity to speak anything but English.

Even when I start a conversation using basic, but accurate Dutch, I often receive a response in English. My American accent is enough to rule out the possibility I speak sufficient Dutch. Without giving me an opportunity to demonstrate my ignorance, they assume it. Most will say they’re being nice and accommodating. But in plenty of cases, I take this English-washing as a passive aggressive insult.

Even worse, with a limited, but growing Dutch vocabulary, I am able to understand more than some people realize. As a result, I’ve caught people intentionally giving me incorrect translations, making jokes at other people’s expense, and even testing me by saying something absurd to see how I’ll respond.

To that I respond (in English), “forget you and your stupid language.”

It’s My Fault

Every time the conversation switches back to English, I’m quietly relieved. Whether it’s because of a passive aggressive person trying to prove I can’t speak Dutch, or because I’ve asked the person to please stop speaking Dutch, I love it when people aren’t speaking Dutch.

That feeling of being unable to communicate is terribly uncomfortable. In those moments when I hope to learn by listening or think I can fumble through a complex sentence, I quickly drown in discomfort. Plenty of friends and colleagues have offered to speak to me exclusively in Dutch (always an offer made in Dutch). I enthusiastically nod at the great suggestion. But that doesn’t stop me from giving up a few sentences later. One might think I don’t appreciate a challenge.

No matter how I spin the problem, I can’t keep running from my neighbors. Since I’m no longer a visitor and I claim to be a resident, missing out on everything that happens in the local language isn’t an option. Social events, business opportunities, hilarious jokes, and conversations with preschoolers – it’s all going over my head.

While I’m fortunate so many people in all parts of the world speak my only language, it’s my responsibility to finally meet them halfway. Comfort zones and personal insecurities be damned.

I’m giving it two more years.

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