The following language-learning story is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of my upcoming book of memoirs, The Adventures Begin. This event happened in October 1950, three months after our family arrived in Canada.
As a twelve-year-old, who had been an avid reader since age five, I was fluent in Dutch and had learned to understand Frisian, which my parents spoke to each other when they were talking about things I wasn’t supposed to know. English was my second language.
We were about to drive into town for our Saturday shopping trip when Papa discovered our old car wouldn’t start. He needed to siphon some gas from the tank into a container so that he could pour it directly into the carburetor. He looked everywhere for a piece of hose.
Finally, he called me and said, “Run out to the Osten place and ask for a piece of hose.” Papa told me this in Dutch and used the Dutch word for hose, slang.
“Yes, Papa,” I said, “I already know the English word for slang.”
Many languages have words that could be the name of two different things. In English, for instance, a pipe can mean a small hand-held device to fill with tobacco and smoke from, or it can mean a ten-inch wide conduit to drain sewage. A bat is both a night-flying animal and an implement to hit a ball. The Dutch language has the same types of words. The Dutch word slang means both “hose” and “snake.” But I didn’t know that.
Twenty minutes later, I told Mr. Osten, “My father needs a snake.” When he looked confused and surprised, I explained, “He is fixing the car.” That didn’t seem to help.
So, I walked over to his pickup truck and pretended to shove a hose down the gas tank and suck on it to drain out some gas; I even made a horrible face and spat on the ground as if I had tasted some gas.
Mr. Osten laughed so long and hard that I laughed with him. He went into his garage and got me a piece of rubber tubing that was exactly right. “This is a hose,” he explained, “not a snake.” I thanked him, and he clapped me on the back and said, “Thanks for the good laugh.”
As I walked back home, I was happy to have learned another English word. Mr. Osten had laughed at my mistake, and that was fine since I now had a new word to teach Papa and Mama. Supper time was when Papa always asked me, in his best English, “What new word did you learn today? Teach us. Or do I need to spank you?” That last part was just in fun, at least I hoped so. But I always made sure I learned at least one new word, just to be safe.
I didn’t know it then, but long after I had mastered English, I would learn and become fluent in two more languages, each more difficult than the previous one. Learning to speak these languages required the ability to laugh with those who laughed at my mistakes. Oh, and it also helps to have healthy self-esteem—not a problem for most Dutchmen.