As you have probably gathered by now, I am Dutch. As a child, I spent some time living in Australia, where I learned to speak English fluently. I was seven years old, the first time we went, and I arrived knowing only one phrase: “I’m sorry, I’m Dutch and I don’t understand.” My parents dunked me and my brother in the language pool, straight in at the deep end, and sent us to school. In class 2A they were just starting on Charlotte’s Web in story time. I had no clue what was going on in the book, or in class for that matter. I remember this time as one of pleasant bewilderment. It was always sunny, there was a lot of playing outside, my classmates were very friendly – happy memories. But wordless memories. I have always been very language-focused and I tend to remember conversations I have had verbatim, but those first few months in Brisbane I only remember as sights and sounds, almost as if someone had pressed the mute button.
Three months later, my brother and I were fluent. We spoke English to each other at home as well, and if my parents addressed us in Dutch, we answered in English. I had slowly started to enter into Charlotte’s Web and by the end of the book I was following the story like everyone else. I still don’t know how it starts, though. I never went back to read the beginning.
Back in The Netherlands I felt pretty special that I spoke another language fluently, and probably bored my school friends to tears with my cool new skill. In secondary school, I met the person who came to be my closest friend, a girl who had quite recently moved to The Netherlands from England. We started off speaking English to each other so I could show off, then later switched to Dutch so she could improve her skills, and eventually we settled on Dinglish.
Basically, we said whichever word occurred to us first in whatever language, resulting in bizarre Dutch-English mash-ups. A typical conversation in Dinglish might switch between the two languages three or four times per sentence, sometimes in the middle of a word.
Now my son speaks it like a native. Here some prime examples, English in blue and Dutch in red.
1. “Thank you well!” he says gratefully when given an apple. That’s a mash up of “thank you” and “dank je wel”.
2. On returning to our street from the playground he likes to spot familiar cars. “Oh!” he exclaims. “Where’s papa auto gone now?” [Where’s daddy’s car gone now?]
3. We are playing a simple card game. The Toddler provides the running commentary: “Mixing. Make a stapel? I can’t go. Pakken. Mama, your beurt. Mama gewonnen!” [Mixing. Make a pile. I can’t go. Pick up. Mummy, your turn. Mummy has won!]
4. We have pulled up outside Gran’s house. “Goed ge–drived, Mama,” he compliments me. [Good driving, Mummy.] This one is real top level Dinglish, as he is using Dutch grammar on an English verb.
5. I come into the Toddler’s bedroom in the morning, not wearing my glasses (‘bril’ in Dutch). “Oh no! Where’s bril? I find it bril!” he exclaims with great concern, and runs off to find my glasses.
When I wrote about his language soup before, I thought he might have sorted the two languages out by now. He is getting more and more fluent, making longer sentences and learning more phrases. I have also noticed that he increasingly distinguishes between who speaks which language: he will start a conversation with Daddy in English, but in Dutch with Opa and Oma on Skype. If he is not sure about someone he will try one of the two and switch if he gets an unsatisfactory response.
But perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised.
“We hebben gisteren met de advisor gepraat over onze mortgage,” I say to Opa and Oma on Skype. “All being well gaat hij vrijdag completen.” [We spoke to the advisor about our mortgage yesterday. All being well it should complete on Friday.]
I may have to face facts: his first language is Dinglish.