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Heart for language

Heart for language

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

In 1992, we moved to Spain. To Madrid, to be precise. I had taken a two-week crash course in Spanish at the Language Centre and felt reasonably equipped for a talk with the Spanish landlord and the grocer. They would appreciate my well-intended efforts in Spanish, help me when I stumbled or was lost for words. With hands (and even feet) we would make ourselves understood.  That worked out differently.

Nobody, seriously nobody, spoke anything but Spanish or – especially in the suburb where we lived – ever came into contact with foreign language speakers. Before I went out to buy groceries, I made a list –dictionary at hand – with the exact Spanish names of the products. But heaven forbid if I forgot to bring the list or imagined to be able doing it by heart! If I needed ‘mantequilla’, butter, but accidently said ‘manzanilla’, meaning camomile tea, I would get irritated looks from the grocer. Nobody would even try to think: ’what could she possibly mean?’, ‘are there words that sound similar?’ Nothing of the kind: if you did not master your Spanish, what were you doing here?

Although I would have appreciated a bit more friendliness and empathy, they were of course right. I lived in a country with the second most spoken language in the world as its national language, so LEARN this language and become a full member of society!

In the four years that I lived in Madrid, I learned to speak and write Spanish fluently, and thanks to that I made friends for life with whom I could share everything in their mother tongue. Out of respect for my host country.

From Madrid we moved to Norway in 1996. The Norwegians used to welcome each foreigner planning to settle in Norway for a longer period of time with a one-year free (!) Norwegian course. Child-care included. A country where 90 percent of the population spoke sufficient to excellent English.

So every morning I got on a train, one kid by each hand, on my way to the Norwegian course. Again it was very satisfactory to speak the national language, to ‘crack’ the code of language and culture. A year later I worked at the R&D department of a large and international company, where the Norwegians were in the minority. Nevertheless everybody spoke Norwegian in the office. So did I.

Nelson Mandela said: ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.’ 

Foreign colleagues: get to our hearts and learn Dutch!

Ellen Krijnen, Senior Advisor Marketing and Recruitment, the Netherlands

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