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The One-Language Folk

Bike without lights, sometimes you need light...

Bike without lights, sometimes you need light…

When thinking of this topic a rant formed in my mind. You see, this has annoyed me since I was a kid discovering all kinds of media before the internet age and 56K modems. Maybe I was lucky in growing up to be a bilingual person because most of what I read, watched and listened to was largely English then. Nowadays most of my media consumption is English media.

In 2009 I had my first serious hospitality job and there I started noticing something. That something was and is these people I call the “one-language folk.” When dealing with these people, either as colleagues or guests they always require that you simplify all the jargon and other language phenomena they cannot deal with. When you have to simplify because the other person is too lazy or too proud of his or her language you at one point lose patience.

Maybe in the Netherlands many people are used to dealing with other cultures and traditions so we quickly adapt to others. Not because we are tolerant but because it makes life easier. Pragmatic selfishness is not a bad thing in that regard. In regions of trade this pragmatic approach to adapting to other cultures is historically quite frequent.

Thing is I work in hospitality again and almost every day I have to help tourists. In most cases they come to Amsterdam because hey legal soft-drugs, prostitution, parties, culture and museums everywhere. Before continuing helping them further I always hope they are not part of the “one-language folk.” At worst you have a guest with whom you cannot communicate and has the attitude of “customer is king.”

Imagine dealing with a person who is completely new to the place, cannot communicate and has an attitude. One time I had to deal with two old ladies who did not speak fluent English and one of them commented that my English was not very good. Needless to say I let them bask in their ignorance and hoped they would not rent bicycles at the risk of being run over. (Yes tourists on bicycles in Amsterdam are terrible, avoid them when possible!)

When applying for an English teaching course I also had the pleasure of dealing with a Dutch fellow candidate who thought accents did not matter. I personally set that cheese head straight. Sometimes Dutchies also underestimate the importance of properly learning a different language. Every language has a general accent or tone that is generally accepted as being the correct one for most people. Once you become aware of that you appreciate your good language teachers.

I still remember working at a restaurant where the core staff spoke Chinese. The second language was a mixture of English and Chinese and the kitchen was Chinese. I had to learn the menu in Japanese, English and Dutch to at least be able to check whether dishes were coming for my table. Even when I got used to this situation I was still often annoyed. Sometimes absurd situations were unavoidable but so be it. Think Fawlty Towers with Manuel, just much worse.

More importantly I genuinely detest the “one-language folk.” When working with such people or helping them as customers you are often stuck with a language barrier. Sometimes you are dealing with French or Italian people who always insist on speaking their own language. Sometimes you have to deal with people who live in the same country for at least a year yet choose to exempt themselves from learning the basic language. It does not make sense.

As someone who loves learning new languages I understand that learning a new language can be difficult. Getting used to Spanish phonetically took at least a few months. I am a phonetic learner because I first remember the speech and accent. Some languages sound the way you write them, think of German and Dutch. But when learning French and Spanish you really have to pay attention to the accent and why changes occur when they occur.

Part of my spare time goes to learning other languages, namely French, German and Spanish. My reasons to learn more languages are simple. I love learning languages. Add that learning another languages enables you to understand other cultures more and makes it easier to communicate with people who speak different languages. The bonus is that literature and cinema become treasures as you dig into other cultures.

I am convinced we live in an age where there is no excuse to limit yourself to only language. Old or young, access to internet or not the moment you want to travel or trade you often have to adapt to situations where people speak different languages. In a sense we are lucky that English and Spanish are so widespread. For example a lot of content on the internet is English. In our globalising world you have to be able to adapt.

The “one-language folk” are like a bicycle without light. When night falls you are lucky to get noticed…