I originally wrote this in 2017 as part of a 60 days of gratitude exercise, forgot that I had, and wrote a completely new version in 2022. Whoops. This is now an amalgamation of the two, updated during a recent trip to The Netherlands, of course.
English is not my first language.
I love to tell people that for two reasons: it’s absolutely true, and most would never guess.
Naturally, there’s a story.
My parents immigrated from The Netherlands to Canada in 1952, before I was born. When I showed up in 1957 they’d been in the country for only five years. While they had presumably learned enough English to get by, the fact was they still spoke Dutch in the home.
As a result, for the first three years of my life, so did I.
Dutch is, in fact, my first language.
At the time we were in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. We rented a cottage from, and lived next door to, a lady who’d come from England. “Auntie Betty”, as I knew her, would become a lifelong friend of my parents.
She observed my situation and decided that my situation would not do. She taught me English. Being from England, of course, what she taught me was the Queen’s English, or “proper” English as those from England might refer to it.
In 1960 (on my third birthday, no less) we immigrated to the United States. Around 1962, I entered the American school system, at which point a minor problem arose.
I spoke British English instead of American English. The differences are relatively minor. We are two nations separated by a common language, as they say. But those differences, both in grammar and pronunciation, aren’t minor at all when you’re a five-year-old trying to fit in with your new collection of peers.
It didn’t take long for the “British” to be shamed out of me, and I quickly learned what I guess I’d call my third language: American English.
Back at home, my parents continued to speak a mixture of English and Dutch. “Mixture” is also literal: sentences could start in one language, end in the other, with several trips back and forth along the way. It didn’t matter to us; we understood each other just fine.
While I didn’t speak Dutch as often, I still could, and I could understand it. That turned out to surprise more than one of my Dutch relatives during my first visit there when I was 9. They occasionally spoke about things — including me — assuming I couldn’t understand them. They soon found out I could.
Aside from understanding a couple of Dutch curse words taught to her by her Dutch grandmother, my wife doesn’t speak Dutch. That meant when with my parents she or I had to occasionally remind them to speak English, not a mix, when she was present.
Today I speak English like a native. Mostly because I am. When I took my American Citizenship test in 2001, I aced the exam, having gone through a decidedly American school system. English was a piece of cake.
Unfortunately, since my parents both passed 15 or more years ago, my call to use Dutch has dwindled to nothing. My more recent trips to The Netherlands have shown me that my Dutch — my first language — is beyond rusty. The Dutch have a reputation as the best ESL speakers in the world. Their English is much better than my Dutch.
Yet, the fact remains, English is literally my second language.
I’ve also come to understand just how difficult English is for those coming to it later in life.
It wasn’t part of any grand plan, but I’m quite grateful that I’m technically bi-lingual. They say that learning two languages early makes learning additional languages, and perhaps other things, easier later in life.
Perhaps it’s one reason computer programming languages have become such an important part of my life. Yes, spoken or inter-personal language differs from a computer programming language, but I’m convinced that there remain concepts, and a flexibility of thinking, that apply to both.
Either way, I’m grateful that English is my second language, and I’m quite grateful for an English neighbor woman who helped make it so.