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Notes from a (non) Native Speaker

As the food tour wound its way past a medieval tower in Bologna, an American (who lives in Lisbon, btw) said, “You don’t sound like English is your first language.”

Indeed. I was in the middle of an intensive, five-hour-per-day language course. And when I wasn’t speaking Italian, I spoke Dutch and then English to fellow classmates from Turkey, China, Guinea. Sometimes a simple answer came out, ja, yes or. And I couldn’t always control what it was. And, at times, still can’t.

Tower in Bologna

There are around 1.5 billion English speakers worldwide; 373 million are native. Only 25% of those who speak languages speak it as their first language, meaning that most English speakers are not-native.

I have a friend whose mother suffered a terrible accident many decades ago, and she recovered in a hospital in Turkey. She had to relearn everything - walking, talking, reading & writing. But she did it in Turkish. And thus, English became her second foreign language.

When I returned to the Netherlands, I kept up with Italian lessons, taking them at the local library. Everyone else in the class was Dutch by birth, except for the instructor and me. As I learned new words and phrases in Italian, so too did I learn more in Dutch, as did the instructor.

“Elke dag iets nieuws,” she said to me. Every day something new. And that’s what the experience has been living in The Netherlands. At first, learning the language was the priority. At a certain moment, I thought: klaar is Kees. I’m done.

But you’re never quite finished. Language is muscle that’s constantly being strengthened or, in contrast, atrophied. The same is true for my mother tongue.

Living away from the US for so long, I’ve started to lose parts of my language. Words like fidget elude me. Other times words like pernickety appear in the front of my mind for no apparent reason.

I mix Dutch and English. Dunglish? I need to afschrijven mijn manuscript. I have a meeting met een belangrijke cliënt.

And then there are the inevitable (embarrassing) mistakes. Once exiting a tram, I saw fight break out. A woman asked me what was going on, and I said, “Ze hebben een duif gevonden,” meaning, “they found a pigeon.” I meant dief, Dutch for “thief.”

In Dutch class, we were reviewing the daily habits of waking up, dressing, etc, and I said, “Ik moet mijn tanden plassen,” which translates roughly to "I need to pee on my teeth.” The teacher laughed so hard she cried. The word for “cleaning” and “urinating” are confusingly similar. Coincidentally, “plassen” can mean both “urinating” and “lakes.”

Coded in the “native speaker” label is immigration and, to a certain extent, class. The Dutch, like the Americans and the English and the Australians, and everyone else, still see their lands in terms of borders, defined by geography.

Yet, no language is “pure”. Not Dutch, with its use of flabbergasted and not amused, archaic English phrases that teenagers here throw around. Indeed, not English, the most mongrel language of all.

Nuyorican poet Tato Laviera captures it perfectly:

pues estoy creando

bi-cultural systems

scientific lexicographical

inter-textual integrations

two expressions

existentially wired

two dominant languages

continentally abrazándose

en colloquial combate

en las aceras del soil

imperio spanglish emerges

control pandillaje

sobre territorio bi-lingual

las novelas mexicanas

mixing with radiorocknroll

condimented cocina lore


nasal mispronouncements

baraja chismeteos social club

hip-hop prieto street salsa

corner soul enmixturando

spanish pop farándula

standard english classroom

with computer technicalities

spanglish is literally perfect

spanglish is ethnically snobbish

spanglish is cara-holy inteligencia

which u.s. slang do you speak?


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