Some time ago rootbeer277 asked us ESL noders to help him with a project, the result of which you can see above. He'd made a list of questions for us to answer and I guess most of the others just answered the questions... I thought it was a fascinating subject and something I'd like to write about at a bit more length. This is what came out. The piece is still mostly structured around the questions that were asked.
How I got to speak English
My mother tongue is Dutch. I started learning English when I was in the fourth grade of primary school (I was 9 years old). This was rather early, even for the Netherlands where everybody comes into contact with one or more foreign languages in school. English lessons in primary schools weren't standard then (perhaps they still aren't) and pupils would usually learn English in their two final years of primary school, i.e. in fifth and sixth grade. However, I was in a so-called combination class: half of the class was fourth grade, half was fifth grade. As the English lessons entailed watching a video series and also the actual speaking of English, it was almost impossible to give these lessons to only half of the class. So we fourth-graders got to join in. This meant that I had three years of English lessons in primary school. I don't recall how well I spoke English after that. I do know that in the summer holiday between primary and secondary school I went to England with my parents and received lots of compliments from sweet English ladies! But my guess is that they would have been ecstatic even if the only words I could say had been "thank you" or something similarly simple.
When I went to secondary school, English lessons started from point zero again, as not everybody had already had English. Even worse, I wasn't allowed to use any trick I'd learnt up till then. We had this stupid exercise book to fill in, page after page full of sentences like "What is this? It is a book. What are these? They are books." and it wasn't allowed to put "it's" or "they're" because that hadn't been taught yet. I was bored out of my mind in those classes. In secondary school I also learned French, German, Latin and Greek. I dropped German as soon as was possible (horrid language!), and Latin when we had to choose one classic language to take our exams in. I kept English, French and Greek and did "eindexamen" (final exams) in those. At university I took Spanish classes for three months. Except for English, my knowledge of these foreign languages is now mostly passive: I can read them okay, speaking and understanding spoken language are rather hard, and writing them is very hard. Latin and Greek have all but disappeared from my memory (although I can still quote the first sentence of the Odyssey! Woohoo).
Most Dutch people learn at least one foreign language in school, usually English, but not all for the same amount of time and of course not everybody is actually good at it. This means that in the Netherlands almost everybody understands a little bit of English, but not everybody is competent (or comfortable) enough to actually be able to keep a conversation going or participate in an English website like Everything2. All of my friends speak English, some better than others, but they are all university educated. My parents and housemates are much less fluent or even prefer not to speak English if they can avoid it.
I've been to England a few times for vacation and nodermeets and comments on my accent vary. I've been mistaken for a resident by an old lady in London (who thought I was living in her building and carrying the large backpack because I'd just been on holiday in Rotterdam) and I've also been told I have an accent (a cute one, apparently - although I personally never consider a recognizable Dutch accent cute. Hearing our prime ministers murder English makes me shudder). My dad once told me he couldn't understand my English because my accent was too British. So, I don't know. If you want to know, call me up and find out for yourself, I guess.
I find that I have conversations in English with my boyfriend often, even though we're both native Dutch speakers. Not only do we speak English to each other sometimes, we tend to do it in a silly French accent, for reasons that I haven't figured out yet. It seems that especially with difficult subjects, saying it in English is easier than saying it in Dutch, as Dutch feels more direct and in-your-face. Also, we're just intellectual snobs who like to show off.
English and the media in my country
Written media in the Netherlands (newspapers, books) are generally in Dutch, although many shops have a small selection of imported newspapers and magazines and English paperbacks. On television and in the cinemas we get many imported TV shows and movies - if we were to rely on the Dutch movie industry things would be dire indeed! Although, it must be admitted, Dutch movies are getting better. The majority of movies shown in Dutch cinemas are American though. Art house cinemas also feature foreign movies from other countries. Almost all TV shows and movies are shown in the original language and subtitled, with the exception of movies meant for children - those are often dubbed. There are some 10 national Dutch television channels now that you can receive over the cable (I remember there being only two), and apart from those the Dutch tend to receive Belgian, German and British television, as well some stuff like Discovery Channel, National Geographic and Animal Planet. The Dutch channels show a combination of Dutch shows (news, sitcoms, reality TV, game shows) and imported series and movies from England and America. Those are always subtitled. Speaking English well for me has the funny effect that I often find myself correcting the subtitles (especially the ones for Discovery Channel can contain really weird mistakes) or watching a movie and noticing halfway through that there are actually no subtitles.
One thing I do that is not all too common in the Netherlands, is that I read almost all of my books in English. There is a huge amount of translated literature available in the Netherlands, as well as Dutch literature of course, but I mostly prefer reading in English. There are several reasons for this. One is that at school I developed a distaste for Dutch literature. There are some famous Dutch writers that we were all but forced to read, and they tend to have a few themes in common: war, death, religion and sex. And most combinations thereof. I might be exaggerating a bit here, but that was the impression I was left with. To my great shame I have read very little of the famous Dutch writers. Most of my favourite writers are either British or American, and I prefer to read their words just as they wrote them, not translated. Terry Pratchett, for example, uses lots of puns and other language jokes that are almost impossible to translate properly. An added reason is that English translated into Dutch often results in Dutch that seems sort of stilted. It's hard to explain, but the language just feels wrong, unwieldy, when it's translated from English. The last reason to read in English is my reading speed! I read really fast, and reading in English used to be a good way to slow it down a bit so I don't have to get new books every week. Now that I've gotten used to it, the effect is less, but it is still there.
Most websites I read are in English. In Dutch I read some news websites and www.hyves.nl, the Dutch version of Facebook. For work I use mostly Dutch websites, as the things I look for usually have to do with Dutch environmental laws.
In the United States, but also in other countries, the Netherlands have the reputation of being very broad-minded and very permissive and liberal with regards to things like drugs, abortion, euthanasia, sex education and so on. Whether this is seen as positive or negative mostly depends on the political views of the person talking about it. At festivals, where you find many young, liberal people, I find that people see the Netherlands as the shining example of how things should be everywhere. Recently I read a discussion about sex education on an American feminist blog, where the Dutch way of viewing things was held up as something to strive for. On the other hand, Dutch views on euthanasia are viewed with horror in many Catholic countries and our neighbouring countries generally aren't too happy about our drug policies. People I speak to generally have a positive view of Dutch ways, sometimes even too much so. It makes for repetitive conversation in any case, when everyone you meet wants to tell you how wonderful it is that in Holland you can buy marijuana everywhere.
How does English compare to my native language?
English seems to be a more efficient language, because when you translate it into Dutch the result tends to be much longer than the original text. Then again, that might be due to my non-professional translation skills. There are certainly some words in Dutch that have no direct English one-word equivalent. "Gezellig" comes to mind, also "lekker"... then again, the English-speaking world seems to manage quite well without them. English already has quite a few Dutch loanwords, like dike, spook, landscape and eigenvector. And apartheid. And I'm sure that English also has words that Dutch has no direct translation for, but the Dutch tend to mix quite a lot of English words into their language anyway. Anything computer-related is just copied as a term, for example.
In general though, expressing yourself in any language other than your mother tongue is comparatively hard. I find that although I speak English fairly well, I still express myself much better in Dutch. My knowledge of English is passive for a great part, which means that I have no trouble understanding what other people say or write, but coming up with the words myself is much harder to do. A great example is when someone asks me about my job. I really have to struggle to explain what it is that I do in English, simply because I need all kinds of words that I normally use only in Dutch. In a similar way, for me it is much harder to vary my writing style or make jokes in English than it is in Dutch, because my active vocabulary is smaller. Also, as a non-native speaker it is very easy to not know about or misunderstand the background behind certain expressions, and to get it really wrong when you try to use slang or wordplay.
English as a second language on Everything2
Everything2 requires more time and attention than most other sites (unless you just use the chatterbox). But after spending that time and effort, people tend to be more patient than elsewhere with pointing out typos and things that aren't as clear as they could be. This is very different from some discussion sites I go to, where the slightest mistake in writing exactly what you mean is immediately pounced upon. Holding a conversation with someone in English is always more difficult than holding it in Dutch, and it gets harder when the participants speak less English! I think the difference in language is not as important as differences in culture. People make assumptions about what you say, based on what they're used to. Not speaking your own language can worsen the confusion but doesn't necessarily cause it, I think. Unless all participants are really bad speakers of the common language, of course. I vividly remember trying to hold a conversation in French with a Moroccan guy... language was a problem there, but his world view being completely different from mine (and him knowing no place or culture but Morocco) was a much bigger one.
I draft my writeups in English. Dutch has a different sentence structure, so translating is more complicated than writing in English directly. Also, thinking in English makes writing easier, and thinking English while working with a Dutch draft is hopeless. I make notes in either Dutch or English, depending on the subject. But there also, translating is harder than just starting from the right language, so if I know the right words I tend to use English.
Why don't I write more about my own country? That question presupposes a few things. First, that I don't write enough about my country. Second, that I consider my country to be an interesting subject. I do, but not more so than many other subjects. Added to that is the fact that my country seems normal to me, so things that are interesting to an outsider might not be to me and I might not even consider them as writeup subjects (so if you're interested in any specific aspect of the Netherlands, let me know and I'll see what I can do!). Even more important is the fact that what seems normal to me, might require a lot of explanation for others, making the already long process of writing a good writeup even longer. An example: I've been meaning to write about a famous Dutch singer for a while now. For a Dutch audience, a description of his life might be enough. But for a non-Dutch audience I also need to explain the sort of music he made, what position and reputation that sort of music has in the Netherlands and why, and so on and so forth. Just saying people loved him because he was such a normal guy is useless if I don't explain that "staying normal" is one of the biggest compliments the Dutch can give a famous Dutch person, and that crowing about your achievements and "getting above your station" is a big no-no in Dutch society. Of course, this is not a reason not to write the writeup, but the longer the writeup needs to be, the slimmer the chances that I will actually take the time to write it. I still might get around to it.
Thanks to rootbeer277 for asking interesting questions that made me think more about this subject!