Sunday, 20 October 2013

At the International Crossroads: Why I Enjoyed Speaking English in Amsterdam

One of the things that amuses me when I travel to non-Anglophone countries with Understanding Frenchman is our different attitudes towards speaking English. In what seems like an illogical reversal of roles, he will quite happily approach strangers with a few phrases in his unmistakably French accent, while I am almost prepared to remain dumb rather than feel the inwardly-cringing embarrassment of being unable to address the people of the host country with at least a few phrases of their native language. While UFM is occasionally surprised when he is met with a blank look of incomprehension from someone who really does speak no English, I still have not learned to expect that in most of the countries we visit, most people will have at least a basic level. And even when it becomes clear that somebody is fluent, I still feel the burden of shame at my failure (and probably also that of the whole British nation) to learn their language.

In Amsterdam, though, it was different. Partly, I'm sure, because everybody really was very good at speaking English, to the extent that it seemed to come as naturally as their mother tongue. Secondly, I  was very aware that Amsterdam has been global trade hub for centuries, so by enjoying people's ability to speak English, I actually felt that we were experiencing their culture rather than missing out on an aspect of it.

But the most significant reason, I'm sure, was to do with the nature of politeness in the Netherlands and in many countries in the Anglophone world.One of the reasons that British people struggle to feel at ease in France (and I'm pretty sure it's about ten times worse for Americans), is that French politeness often equates to formality. It's calling people vous and addressing them as Monsieur or Madame.  Speak English and you remove the possibility of doing that. In Italy, meanwhile, I always felt that my English-speaking persona was too timid to fit in with the theatricality of everyday life. But in Amsterdam, where being polite seemed to equate with being friendly as it does in a lot of Anglophone countries, I didn't feel that I risked giving the wrong impression - some smiling and a few English turns of phrase seemed to do the trick perfectly. And very relaxing it was too!

1 comment:

  1. Many Dutch speak English really well. That's what French schools seem to think anyway, considering we had Dutch pen-pals in English class...!