There have been a number of events this week, which have inspired me to write a blog about the subtlety of language. I have been on a trip down memory lane.

As many of you know I was born in the UK so English is my so-called ‘mother tongue’. However in 1977 I was transferred by the company I was working for to the Head Office in Delft, The Netherlands. Thinking at the time and at the age of only 22 that this would be quite an adventure and something to do for a couple of years. Travelling and visiting other countries has been a passion since I was little. I used to collect travel magazines when I was young and cut out the pictures, then paste them into scrapbooks, thinking at the time: one day I will visit these places.

So in the summer I arrived here, quite young and innocent (that did not last for long!) and was suddenly confronted with a language, which I really knew nothing about whatsoever. The Netherlands is a very small country in Europe so as you can imagine there are not a huge amount of people worldwide who actually speak Dutch, but for some or other reason, not only are the Dutch excellent at other languages, which they have to learn for the reason just mentioned, but they get everywhere across the globe, so there are people speaking Dutch in more countries than you can imagine.

I hadn’t been here very long before I used to go every Monday afternoon (as stipulated by my employers) to learn Dutch, as I just had to be able to communicate with people, as one of the things I actually had to do in my job was answer the phone every now and again!! I remember that first afternoon so well, a small group of 10 people none of which has the same nationality, all there for one purpose, to learn Dutch. Our teacher the lovely Mrs. Mulder only spoke Dutch as she told us that was the only language we were going to not only learn, but also communicate with one another over the next few months, when attending classes.

My goodness what fun it was and what a group. Personally I could chat to one or two of them, I was fluent in French (having been to Paris so many times as a teenager because my father lived there) and a smattering of Italian and Spanish. But we were a close group, not only during the lessons, but would often meet socially as well.

My boss, Hans Raven was the Director of the Pharmaceutical Division of Gist-brocades and passionate about languages and I owe him so much for the help he gave me. He would patiently explain the different vowel sounds and write ‘tricky words’ on post it notes which I taped to the lid of my IBM Golf Ball (remember those?) typewriter. This was long before Word Perfect, Word Processing and computers and I would also type out things in double spaced drafts for him to correct before actually doing the real correspondence.

And bit-by-bit I learnt more and more. Our little group got better and better on those Monday afternoons and after lessons we would cross the road to the local café and continue on a more social score.

I recall it was around Christmas time that year that I began to actually feel confident about attempting to speak. Of course I had my English accent, still have that. I sat in a room with other girls, most of whom were jealous of me and quite bitchy, but there was one, Anneke Flikkema, a really shy girl from Friesland (which is one of the counties here in the north of the country) who helped me the most. Her dialect had several similarities with English or I should say Scottish and bit-by-bit she gave me confidence to be more daring. Eventually I moved into my own office as I became more proficient, the idea being to put me in a room with other Dutch girls to learn the language faster. Well she was the only one who made any effort on that score!

When our mixed group did our first lot of exams in the summer of 1978 we all passed with top grades and this stimulated us all to carry on to the next level. Eventually nearly three years later, there were no more ‘Dutch for Foreigners’ classes to attend, we had done the lot and all passed with flying colors. We all said farewell to Mrs. Mulder who retired and decided to go on with yet another level; Dutch Basic Knowledge and found ourselves that autumn in a class of only Dutch people. I recall the teacher a man was absolutely horrid, we disliked him intensely, and he laughed at us from the first moment for being so stupid to even attempt such a class. But this stimulated us all to go to heights we never thought we could reach. He set the bar really high and actually inspired us all. I am grateful for that, and luckily he was able to admit his amazement that we all passed with top 10’ s (yes all 10 of us, and this would be the equivalent of English Grade A’s).

At Gist-brocades where I worked until my daughter was born in 1988, my boss had such a ‘wicked’ sense of humor and he would teach me things in Dutch which I in all innocence would repeat making people laugh until they cried about what I had said. Luckily I have a sense of humor too and I could laugh about it and I virtually had my own front-page article in every edition of the company newspaper headed with expressions I had said to someone each week. I was well known in the company or more than 3000 people in Delft alone, not to mention the entire companies across the world (the same as the one I originally started my working career in England all those years ago) who contributed to the same group.

Words were already my passion having written, as you all know, since school days, and now I had another language to not only add to my belt but also to explore and I got better and better. Now, almost 40 years later and doing something entirely different now, apart from the everlasting passion for words, hence this blog, I look back with fondness on all those who helped me become fluent in Dutch.

So here we are in January 2016 and this week I have been reminded again about the subtleties in languages. Your mother tongue is always there and always will be but you have added more to your collection.

I spend the majority of my days working with words, either writing books blogs or actually translating words from Dutch to English. Over the years it has also become second nature to flip from one language to the next, but I admit openly and truthfully that I can always express myself the best in my own language, even though I have others in my portfolio.

At the moment I am learning more Italian, a lilting language that I just adore, love to speak because it sounds like singing and this is my other little on-going project at the moment. I did some very basic stuff in 2014 and surprised myself that once you step over that boundary of actually daring to speak how rewarding this is not only because you respect those you actually talk too, and often your hands, face and eyes help you along the way when you can’t find the actual word you are looking for, but it is just fun and I love it.

I also have great conversations some days over an afternoon cup of tea with one of my neighbors, a retired policeman about the Dutch language. Recently I have taken up doing the Dutch crosswords in the national newspaper and as I pass the newspaper onto him after I have read it he usually finishes the clues that either my husband or I have left unfinished. We talk a lot about the nuances between the languages and as he is an avid football fan, we inevitably talk about the famous Louis van Gaal the Dutch football trainer for Manchester United Football Club who actually lives in the UK and the absolutely hilarious and the sometimes rude mistakes he makes in the English language, when he tries to literally translate word for work instead of listening and thinking, about what pours out of his mouth. He has taken English to a new level and both of us sympathize with the British that they have him in their country and what a disgrace he actually is and how we can imagine that the fans will be glad when they get rid of him because he is actually no good as a trainer either!!

I have two hilarious books in my cupboard which are written by a man called Maarten Rijkers, a former Director at the Dutch beer company Heineken of phrases collected during his working life (he has retired now) of things he colleagues said in English. It is so funny and titled “I ALWAYS GET MY SIN” which is such a dreadful mistake in English when trying to say the Dutch words “ik krijg altijd mijn zin”. It may look the same and even sounds similar but we all know that ‘sin’ in English means something entirely different from actually saying ‘I always get my way’. I really recommend them if you feel confident and fluent enough to read them and they make me laugh out loud every time. I actually bought and send them to my former boss, Hans Raven for his birthday one year, because knowing him so well after all those years and his incredible sense of humor that he would enjoy them too. He did!

So language is such a huge and inspiring subject, I see it a lot in the work I do translating as well. Often sometime the hardest things to translate once you have obtained the realization that you cannot literally translate (and no Google translator and auto correct you really CANNOT) are phrases we often call proverbs in English. Sometimes they come up in texts I am looking at and working on and each and every time I have to rack deep down into my brains with the thought, how do we actually say that in English?

The one that comes to mind most of all over the years is a Dutch phrase about the so-called “doofpot” literally translated as ‘deaf pot’. I have to admit that many years ago I did actually just leave these words in inverted comma’s in a text just because I did not know how we said this in English. Eventually the penny drops when you suddenly hear the phrase at the least expected moment. In English we say that often subject that we all know about but don’t talk about is ‘swept under the carpet’ and this is what they Dutch mean when they talk about things they all know but don’t talk about. They shove it all in the so-called Deaf Pot.

That is how a passion for words begins simple phrases and playing around with these words in languages and how huge the differences can actually be and how in all innocence you can either write or say in another language. You mean well, but often you can get it totally wrong or actually be offensive (like our friend Louis).

I think I am very privileged that my ‘work’ is my passion. I am happy to play and work with words, I started when I could first write and when we moved house three years ago, I found some of my very first school books when I would write stories on Monday mornings at primary school that would have my teacher laughing and telling my parents when they came to the meetings at school about the things I wrote that had happened in our lives. Some would be true, others would be fantasy, and I loved to write about goodies and baddies, witches and fairies and such like. I remember too that my mother was really embarrassed one time when I wrote about the rats behind the coalbunkers in our garden, and how the man from the council had to come and put out poison. About how we had had ‘sosigis’ (sausages) for tea at my gran’s house!


But coming back to the way in which I started this blog about the subtlety of languages it always remains such a huge learning curve, ongoing and ever increasing. The best language you know, speak and write is your mother tongue. I admit that I can write the same in Dutch, and a little bit in other languages but each and every one of my sentences will not be absolutely perfect in another language even though I may have lived here longer than I actually did in the UK. I will always ‘anglesize’ my words and get sometimes the order of the words wrong every now and again. In English we always put the verb in a sentence in the middle, in Dutch is usually at the end.

And don’t get me going about numbers! I still have problems to this day. In English we say for example twenty-one but in Dutch ‘one and twenty’. We say half past three in English referring to the proper time (sorry readers we did not ask them to make GMT – Greenwich Mean Time in London of all places) but here in Dutch we say half four or in other words it is half an hour before 4. Imagine how confusing that is and how many times I have either been too late or too early for appointments. Hilarious if you think about it and how many phone numbers I write down backwards if people don’t say the numbers one by one. I still count in my own language even now.

I hope that this blog has made you smile and think about how subtle the difference in how words can actually be between one language and the next and I am going to finish with one of dear Louis’s best ever-English total rubbish phrases.

“If you not listen to what I said, death to the gladiols, my words are different cook”.

Work on what the hell he is talking about here!!!!!


Jill Kramer 2016

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Jill Kramer

Hi! I'm Jill and I'm a passionate author of books, short stories, columns and blogs.


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