Here Come the New Bilinguals

Today’s guest post is by Jeroen van Honk. His short story, “I Dance People” appears in Issue 10 of The Quotable.

It is confession time. Every time I put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, I start to feel slightly phony. The reason is I’m writing in English. I am not a native English speaker. Why do I not stick to my native Dutch tongue, and can I ever be a proper writer this way or will there always be a divide between me and my words because they are not inoculated with the wit of a mother tongue? These questions gnaw at me.

But mostly it’s the phoniness. See, in my country, English has taken off to the point where we are all pretty much bilingual, and the reason people attribute this flight to is that it’s simply ‘cool’ to speak it. It is the language of blockbuster cinema, clever taglines and computer lingo. Advertisers make conscious use of English to make their products more attractive. Do I then opt for English to make my writing more attractive?

I’d like to think not, and I have developed a – possibly ad hoc – theory to explain it.

In The Netherlands, we have most of our culture flown in from the States. Crucially, the sitcoms we watch on TV are not dubbed but subtitled, and the music we hear on the radio is not translated. From a very early age, then, we are bombarded with a jigsawed form of English. Too far apart to get an idea of the image we are putting together, it is like learning language from a torn apart dictionary whilst having no idea how to glue it all together.

This American media infiltration might have been going on for a few decades, but I think I might be part of the first generation that grew up with the computer. I was born in 1989, and the first PC entered our house in 1995. The menus were all in English, meaning I learned words such as cancel, submit, file and edit before mommy and daddy. Then the Internet came in, and the whole world lay at my feet, writ in English.

In another unusual aberration, I started my creative writing, not in a diary, but by reviewing music records online. This slowly expanded and bloomed into what it is now, whatever that is. The music I listened to was mostly in English, and so were the reviews. I also read more novels and saw more movies in English, than I did in Dutch. I reserved my native language for everyday matters.

This is how the dichotomy must have grown in my mind: Dutch is for practical communication, English for creative expression. And it is not just habit. I have developed qualitatively different vocabularies for the two languages. Talking in English, I sometimes struggle for the simplest phrases, while in Dutch I can often only think of the English word for some difficult concept.

In view of this, I’d like to think writing in English makes complete sense. And yet I still feel phony.