I have never been much of a listener. So when I moved to the Netherlands, as a child it didn’t bother me that I couldn’t understand the adults I passed by on the street. At the age of four, the concept of language hadn’t really sunk in yet. As we flitted around the market before my first days at school, the sounds of another language filled my ears, but no meaning was carried with them. In the voracious and radiant world of a four-year-old, words were an irrelevant factor.
Instead of listening, I watched people’s movements as they talked. I saw a woman gesture angrily to a box full of apricots as the stall owner shrank back, slightly alarmed, desperately searching the market for someone rescue him. I wondered whether he was getting in trouble for doing something wrong, and wished I could tell him usually, when you say sorry, things become okay again. But in my little bubble of English, it felt like I wasn’t really a part of this world, like I was just watching a movie, and that soon everything would go back to normal; people would make sense again.
My first day of school was about as exciting as I had always imagined Disney World to be. There were so many new sites and sounds to take in. Not only was it my first year of “real” school, which meant I would be in the same building as both of my older siblings, but there was also a whole sea of new faces for me to look and (more importantly) smile at. As the youngest in my family, I was tired of always playing with my siblings’ friends, and desperately desired to have my own. When the doors of the classroom opened, and my parents began a much too in-depth conversation for me to follow with my soon-to-be-teacher, I pried my hand loose from my mom’s and ran over to the other kids. Immediately, I began chattering away in English to them, as they giggled and responded in a foreign language. It was an interaction distinct to the childhood experience; all of us constantly confused, but not caring in the slightest.
Upon my return from school that afternoon, as I preoccupied myself with my brother’s new toy, my parents anxiously asked me how my first day of school had been. Without glancing up from the little plastic car my brother received from a classmate, I chatted happily about the new friends I had made and the games we played together. Pausing slightly before looking up, the little grey car still in my hands, I told them, “I had fun playing. But all the other kids keep speaking Spanish to me!” With a glance at each other and slight smiles on their faces, my parents gently corrected me, explaining that in this country they used another language, Dutch.
But to four-year-old me, only two languages existed. There was English and there was everything I couldn’t understand — Spanish. Since my mom attempted teaching us Spanish by having us repeat uno, dos, tres over and over again, Spanish was the only other language I had been exposed to.
I never really realized a moment when the ‘Spanish’ became Dutch, and the Dutch became understandable, and the world of foreign languages opened up for me. Gradually, the English that I rattled off to the other kids in school was riddled with Dutch words that they could understand, and my English at home was dotted with eccentricities and Dutch vocabulary. The first word I learned from school, poppen, or dolls, soon became a staple word in my life. I would repeatedly tell my parents that I needed to tuck my poppen into bed at night, or bring my poppen with me to school.
The line that had been so clear to me before, the one that kept me safe in a bubble of English while the rest of the world tumbled around me in Dutch, slowly faded away. I started to realize that my English, which I thought I knew so well, was sometimes intelligible, and my Dutch was slowly passing as native.
Three months into living in the Netherlands, my parents approached me again, and inquired if I had learned Dutch yet- fully aware of the good reports from my teachers who said that I was quickly becoming fluent. Furrowing my eyebrows together slightly, unaware that I had been learning Dutch the whole time, I looked at them and responded, “No,” before declaring, “but all the other kids have learned English.”