An international TU Delft colleague recently admitted to me that he finds it difficult to communicate, and certainly with a group, because he feels that his English is not that good. He seemed to be perturbed about all the things that he felt were not correct in his language usage, while I still find communication with him particularly effective. We understand each other and can get on with our science together.
But it was a revelation for me. I have always felt very strong in language, even when my knowledge of a language is very limited. As a 22 year old Erasmus student in Prague, for example, I shouted at taxi drivers in halting Czech when they tried to cheat me. At the time tourists always had to pay more, but I did not. That was effective communication.
‘People could no longer trust their own language as words had taken on a double meaning’
Mira Feticu writes about her experiences with living with and learning a language that she does not yet master in her autobiography ‘Liefdesverklaring aan de Nederlandse Taal’ (a declaration of love for the Dutch language). When she moved here as a Romanian writer, she decided to leave her language behind her and to write in Dutch. This period was coupled with much loneliness. In her Delta column last week, Claudia Werker also touched on this when she said that it is difficult to express yourself accurately in a language that you are not proficient in (whether that be Dutch or English). The degree to which Fetuci avoided Romanian, and thus the Romanian community, meant that she was often unable to express herself clearly. Since then she has published seven books in Dutch.
Fetuci absorbed a new language to such an extent that she can even take a step back and look at her own mother tongue from a distance. She sees how the language was ‘abused’ when people used or avoided certain words and constructions to get around the things that may not be said. In the dictator Ceaușescu regime, you could have been snitched on. People could no longer trust their own language as words had taken on a double meaning. Safely manoeuvring among these language traps required a solid knowledge of the language, but it made the use of the language much less effective. This is the opposite of the communication with my colleague.
I sometimes worry that this type of ‘polluted’ language use is creeping into Dutch. I am no longer able to carelessly write the word ‘woman’. There will first be a moment in which I spontaneously consider whether this will have any consequences. Yet, I still do so. The premier medical journal The Lancet has taken a different direction. On 25 September it published a cover with the words: ‘Historically the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected’. The point is valid, but I would rather not be referred to by my genitals.
Monique van der Veen is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Applied Sciences, department of Chemical Engineering. You can read about the work of her research team here and follow her on Twitter at @MAvanderVeen