Thursday, May 11, 2006

Groping to speak

A week and a half ago, I spent a wonderful time with a beautiful couple from New Zealand in Gouda. Yes, Gouda the cheese brand is also a name of a town here in Holland, about 20 minutes from Utrecht. Their 5-week holiday in Europe was spent staying with Dutch relatives, meeting friends and visiting several pockets of the Netherlands, a few cities in Germany and Barcelona, Spain.

Well what can I say? Meneer B and Chef Doll are like ultimate gifts of spring to mankind. With the years tucked under their belts (both are way over 50), combined with the colorful varied life experiences they’ve earned and the wisdom too that they’ve gained, they charge at life with a very cheerful outlook. They frolic and enjoy life’s adventures to the fullest, eagerly waiting on what’s next on the list. So full of vibrant and contaminating zest; at my almost 36 age, I am ashamed, I have to keep up. Their friendliness too, is like staring through the bottom quilt of white sugary sand beneath the crystal blue waters of Boracay.

When I met them, it rained. Ah well, nothing surprising really, this is Holland.

Upon recommendation by someone, we took refuge in this small cozy café called Grand Café Central in the Gouda market square. The café was very inviting, its interior decorated in Art deco style. It was a busy day as it was packed with many patrons. We later learned that this café has been standing in its original location since 1916.

Since Meneer B was once Dutch in his past life (now he is a Kiwi), I asked him how he is getting along with his Dutch.

He explained to me that it took him a few days to simmer down with the Dutch language. Even though he speaks from time to time on the telephone with his Dutch sisters living here in the Netherlands in Dutch, it was still an effort for him to join in an instant all the conversations in Dutch. Switching his tongue to the native mode didn’t come out naturally. But after a day or two, he was surely back on track.

The switching part was the challenge. An example was, when the waiter came to our table to take our order in Dutch --- well I was not surprised, he responded in English! Ha-ha! I find it quite cute because we were just conversing in Dutch, but his reflex overtook him unconsciously. At a later part though, he switched to Dutch, that is, when he felt comfortable speaking to the Dutch waiter, who I think was partly amused.

He also told me that he can speak Indonesian because he lived in Indonesia for 3 years, but just like the Dutch-English situation, it takes him awhile to jump into the bandwagon and speak like the locals.

The skill to switch conversations with different people in different languages are helaas not always programmed in our meak human heads (as we would like to believe), unless we are that gifted or we are professional linguists or our work calls us to practice several languages, every single day.

To switch from one language to another is a state of mind and utterly requires focus and intellectual activity. All those behind the scenes; the translations, grammar check and groping for words that seemed so familiar but you just can’t grasp and put your finger at, are part of the complicated process.

If a metal is not (regularly) used and oiled properly, it will show signs of rust... but that doesn’t mean it is not anymore useful.

Dutchman’s uncle is Scottish and he humbly admits of struggling for a few days to speak again his native tongue, Scots (Gaelic?), and also English when he visits Scotland and England. His supposedly native language skills were put to the test with his co-native speakers. I guess that is how integrated he is with the Dutch language in the Netherlands.

Additionally, it is very easy to say we can speak the -this- and -that- language, but not until we are put at par in the same room with a real native person of that language, then we start to feel the following: awareness, the stiff competition, the lack of skills and insecurity.

Well, I can actually relate to Meneer B and to this uncle.

I grew up with Cebuano/Bisaya as my mother tongue and English as my second mother tongue.

We were fined heartlessly by the Catholic nuns if we spoke any other language or dialect besides English inside the school premises. I studied Tagalog, the country’s national language (very different from Cebuano/Bisaya which is a mix of indigenous dialects, Indo-Malay and Spanish) and even if I spent years in school learning Tagalog and watching Tagalog programs on TV, I never really learned to speak it until I moved to Manila.

Given that the country’s medium of instruction within the government and business sectors is English (I do not actually support this, i.e. government documents in English – hello?), it made it hard for me to learn Tagalog the right way. I always resort to speaking in English. I may speak a few sentences in Tagalog but eventually I digress into English, if not Cebuano/Bisaya.

And now, living in the Netherlands, I am faced with another language to adapt.

Since I am not the type to go out and socialize with people, even fellow Filipinos, then keeping fit with Tagalog and Cebuano/Bisaya languages is not easy. The Dutchman speaks 90% of the time in Dutch to me and only knows 3 Filipino words: salamat [thank you], ate [how an older sister is called] and putang ina [a curse word, which is also Spanish that means mother fucker – he wanted to use it as a joke when he found out that there was a Filipino in the company where he worked].

If not because of MadamE (and her deep Cebuano/Bisaya vocabulary), who is consistent in wielding the Cebuano/Bisaya language with me, I would have felt like a woman left in a Dutch-English island.

MadamE has the luxury of speaking Tagalog and Cebuano/Bisaya at home because her husband is a Filipino too, who speaks Tagalog, Waray-Waray and Cebuano/Bisaya. Their kids however are fluent in Dutch (without the accent, I am damn envious!) only after 1 year of living in Holland. The drawback to this is the kids cannot anymore speak Tagalog or Cebuano/Bisaya and are groping to even understand some words. So instead, the kids speak English to their parents while they speak Dutch with each other, at school and everywhere.

English was the best solution at home since MadamE and her husband are still struggling with their Dutch. They are knowledge migrants and are not part of the duty roll call of the Immigration Department to integrate and learn the Dutch language. They have a choice.

Thus considering my present scenario of communication, my train of thoughts has become quite fixed, either: straight English or straight Dutch.

I remember someone saying that we are creatures of habit. Upon reflection of Meneer B, the Scottish uncle, the kids of MadamE and myself, I quite agree.

FACT: There are 170 dialects/languages in the Philippines and most of these belong to the Astronesian language family. The Netherlands I think has 14 or 15 only.

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