"Goede morgen, hoe gaat het met u?"
Instead of responding, the woman behind the counter gives me a blank stare. Am I really that bad?
"Oh, I'm sorry...Uh, how are you?"
"Ahh," she says, as she realizes what I am. "I'm good." Damnit. I encounter this situation a lot, these days.
On moving to a new country, I took a lax stance on learning the language, having been told that "everyone there speaks English." Well yes, this is true for the most part. But that doesn't mean that everyone there "speaks English" to me whenever I want them to. The official language is Dutch, so that's what they speak, officially.
The first day I was here I said "Hola" to someone in a store when they spoke to me. It was automatic. That's the "foreign" language I studied in school, so therefore, that is how I must respond to someone speaking to me in a "foreign" language.
After that I realized I should have prepared better.
In America, we speak English. The end. We've even got those offensive bumper stickers to prove it. We make the excuse that we live in a huge country where "everyone" speaks English, but that's just a lie. The truth is we have shitty schools, a nationalistic attitude, and the sense that "everyone" speaks English outside of English speaking countries.
I'm spoiled to have landed in a country like Holland, where the typical response to, "Do you speak English?" is usually, "Of course," or, to my amazement, "It doesn't matter." In other words, "It doesn't matter which language I speak right now." English, Dutch, German, French - The Dutch don't really have to think about it that hard because it doesn't matter. The same response I might give when asked if I want cream and sugar in my coffee.
God, Americans are so stupid.
Sometimes I feel like a child again living here. But then I remember there are children that speak this language by reason of being born into it. So what does that make me? Less than a child? A fetus? Will my understanding of this language be birthed into physical form? Will I someday hear Dutch (or any other language) as a means of communication instead of an unintelligible jumble of sounds? I don't know how it works to learn a language as an adult, because I do not remember learning one as a child.
My language, I realize, is what makes me human. I know this because as soon as I ask, "Do you speak English?" and the person behind the register, or counter, says, "Yes," they are suddenly human to me. Devoid of a language I recognize, a person is just an object that emits an ocean of sounds from its mouth. In Dutch, I can only understand a few drops.
I never realized how much I take language for granted until it was taken away from me. The beauty of being able to read a billboard on the side of the road. The thrill of perusing the grocery store without using pictures. These are just little things, but they seem big to me now. I used to see words as poems. Now I see them as shapes and colors.
I want to take lessons, so I can start to distinguish words again, but how will I ever be comfortable dispensing those automatic filler words I'm so comfortable with in my own language: just, um, okay, so, cool, great, fuck. Fuck is universal, right? I could walk into a restaurant in China right now and order a fuck sandwich and they'd know what I'm talking about. At least, that's what I'd like to think.
And how could I ever be comfortable in two languages, when my native language sometimes fails me? Like on days when I am tired at work and I say something that sounds rude to my boss. Or when I am surprised and can't form complete sentences. Or when I'm talking to a guy I like and I sound like a boastful idiot.
What is language, anyways? Who made the law that Spanish has a rolled "R" and Polish is practically devoid of vowels? How long does it take for a dialect to develop? And what is correct, when the same language in different locations has different names for things? Is it a fiver or is it a five-dollar-bill?
I should make my own language that's just one word but changes meaning based on intonation. Like Chinese except simpler. Or perhaps I should just become mute while I am here. Pretend I have no language at all. Would that level the playing field or make people think, like I used to think of people trying to learn English, that I'm a little bit "off?" Stupid, in other words. Learning disabled.
I have become more comfortable buying food from a coin-operated, food-dispensing wall than from an actual person. By doing this, I don't have to use any words, and no one can use any words to me. I can memorize the word for "receipt" and "bag" and "change," but as soon as someone decides to say, "Heb je vijftig cent?" instead of, "Heb je gepast?" I become the baffled, wordless, idiot again.
"I'm so sorry," I say. "I don't speak Dutch."
"It's okay," they reply. "Do you have fifty cents?"