On the importance of speaking the language of the country you live in

[By: Valentina Barone]

When we decided to become a part of the MOTION Project, it was clear to all of us we would move from our own country. We knew we were leaving there our families, our friends, our favourite food, our MOTHER TONGUE.

From my point of view, the first elements were the ones I was worried about: how much I would miss my mom, my grandma’s pasta, having “aperitivo” with my friends. The idea of living in a country of which I couldn’t understand the official language was almost completely ignored by the naive Valentina I was in the Autumn of 2018.

I thought it was something completely normal, something not that relevant, that could have been overcome without difficulties. Many people I know emigrate to countries where the language spoken doesn’t even share a word with their own mother tongue. How could that possibly have been tough for me, moving to the Netherlands, a country where the language has so many common elements with my beloved Italian? Well, it turned out I was mostly wrong about it.

The Netherlands have a great rate of excellent English speakers, way higher than the average of most of the other European countries. It is extremely easy to travel around, to ask for information, to be a tourist or an international student here. Things change when you start living here as an effective grown-up worker, though. It is true that in every academic environment of the Netherlands, English is the first spoken language, aided by the fact that the number of international students and academic staff is extremely high. But I am not located at university. Instead, I spend most of my days at TMSi, the company I work for, where the 24 colleagues I have are all Dutch speakers. Although they can perfectly speak English, they tend to speak Dutch in their working hours of course: it is easier, clearer for everybody – but me – and requires less effort, especially at lunch break, when you don’t really want to put too much effort into anything except from eating your meal. Obviously, whenever I have a problem or I want to ask something relevant they always talk to me in English. But most of my daily hours are filled with the sweet sound of the “Nederlandse taal”. Furthermore, Enschede, the city I live in, is not as full of expats as the west side of the country is. Therefore, people tend to speak Dutch way more here.

I admit I hated it the first months. The feeling of not getting anything that is going on around you is not nice, especially when you are in an environment you barely know. No, it wasn’t easy as I expected. I particularly disliked that feeling of belonging to an outgroup, being an outsider who can’t really fit into a different way of communication.

No worries: after all these complaints there is a nice ending to the story!

After a year and a half since I moved here, I can say without any doubt that this full-immersion into Dutch I had to face was absolutely the best approach I could have chosen to learn a new language. It took me some time, but I finally started to don’t care anymore about the linguistic mistakes I made and just talk to people, talk as much as I could. And when I started doing it, I magically realized that it was just me who considered myself an outsider. People here are very, very friendly, and they try to always help you out as they can. If they perceive an effort from the person they have in front, then it all gets easier, and even my bad Dutch can become a nice conversation. It was really satisfying when I first said some sentences in Dutch to the children included in my research project. It was like demolishing a barrier through the power of some common words and shared laughs.

I am far from being perfect with my Dutch, but thanks to my colleagues and the Dutch courses I followed I can understand most of the things: I can do the groceries, I can make jokes with my colleagues, order food, complain about the weather. I could even talk about neuroscience and my research with a person I met on the train once – actually I was really surprised he could understand me so well.

Learning a new language takes effort, a lot of energy, and you are never satisfied about the actual outcome because you think – at least I do most of the time – that you could have said it way better in your mother tongue, with the right shade of meaning. But communication and understanding are such a powerful act even in their simplest forms. I am really grateful to MOTION and my colleagues for the chance I have to learn a lot about this language and this culture in general. It is extremely enriching, it is for real.