When at home, we speak English, but in public, as much as possible, I try to speak Dutch which just means that I’m damn good at ordering a cup of coffee and buying my train ticket at the kiosk – when I travel the use of Dutch explodes quite a bit between the hotel / commute / airport.
When we first moved to the Netherlands seven years ago I used to get headaches because my brain would try to serve up Japanese as my second language instead of going straight to Dutch. Every time I’d try to practice, my brain would translate Dutch to Japanese to English and back again.
For about six months.
One day I woke up and the Japanese was gone.
Like, GONE gone.
Whenever I’d try to think of some common phrase, my brain gave me Dutch.
But then we had kids and I really want them to be familiar with some Japanese, so I started re-learning via Duolingo. And also, because my partner and our three children are Swedish, I thought now would be a great time to fold in Swedish as well.
So every day I complete at least one module of all three languages within the app, never imagining there would be a situation when I used more than two languages within a short period of time.
In a surreal twist of something, there was a rather large tour from Japan on the ass o’clock in the morning flight from AMS to PRG and most of them spoke not a single word of English, but, somehow, one of them had been assigned to the emergency row right behind me, so when the steward came and asked if everyone could speak English, she shook her head no.
Quickly, I rose my hand with one finger up (very Dutch) and said, “I speak English. And Japanese.”
And then I turned and asked the Japanese woman, “英語がわからない?” to which she shook her head negative again. Turning to the steward, I confirmed, “No, she doesn’t understand English at all.”
I offered my seat with apologies for the smaller leg room:
And then explained that my grandmother is Japanese, “私の祖母は日本人です。”
Over the course of the rest of the flight, though, I spoke a bit more Dutch to order a sandwich and a cup of tea and say thank you and good bye to the flight crew and then I’m off, picking up my baggage, tracking down local currency, arranging a seat to the train station, and finding a coffee.
I ordered and paid and absolutely couldn’t think of how to say “thank you” despite several business trips to Brno.
“Děkuji”, the waitress reminded me.
“Ah, yes, děkuji. I should know that. Děkuji.”
So I’ve used four languages so far today and part of me really hopes a Swedish family comes along so that I’ll have the chance to haltingly say, “jag talar inte svenska”