This week I’m taking the liberty of writing something a bit more personal than usual. Unusual circumstances have brought me (an American scholar of English literature) to live in a country where English is not the native tongue. Since August I have made the Netherlands my home, and have been working since then to make the Dutch language my own as well. Learning a second language is not an easy task as most of the time in the United States it is studied half-heartedly, perhaps with vigor during high school or college, but unless one lives in a metropolitan area or if one seeks out the opportunity, the vague idea of someday traveling to distant lands will not inspire the unglamorous diligence of practice. It just doesn’t seem worth the effort.
Not so in Europe. From where I live in Leiden, a short train ride will take me to Belgium, (French and Flemish speaking), or Germany, and the Netherlands has not one official language but two, Dutch and Frisian, spoken mostly in rural parts of the North. Nearly all Dutch people speak English, and German, and most speak a “foreign” tongue, Italian or French maybe. There is tremendous reason to learn more than one language, because everywhere you go a new one is spoken.This week I’m visiting Vienna (Austria speaks German), and I’m finding the now familiar Dutch seemingly encoded in German–so many similar words, yet so very much not the same– and here in Vienna passing a bookstore what did I see in the front display window? Shakespeare. Just a regular bookstore, not an English language one, not Shakespeare & Co. Vienna, just a regular bookstore, selling Shakespeare to eager customers.
Back in Holland I recently lead a bookclub meeting on The Two Gentlemen of Verona, including several non-native English speakers. I was a little hesitant when the play was chosen, uncertainty about the complexity of the language, the awkwardness of reading rather than seeing a play, not wanting a bookclub blunder to turn anyone away from the Bard. I should not have worried. They came at it with a tremendously good attitude, “If you get an opportunity to do something worthwhile that you would never choose to do on your own, then you must do it,” said the voracious reader from Ruwanda. And everyone voiced genuine enthusiasm after reading the play. “It was hard at the beginning, I found a Dutch translation to help keep up, but soon I was caught up in the story, and could not stop.” said a Dutch native. He also remarked at the end of the meeting, that it is a shame that Dutch children do not read Shakespeare in school. In his time living in England he said noticed a style and an art to the way they treat the spoken word, and he thinks that Shakespeare is the one to credit with it.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I am learning by immersion in other languages is that rich and beautiful things are worth the effort. Would I have chosen to learn Dutch if the opportunity had not thrust itself at me? Probably not. It’s hard work. But it’s also beautiful, and eye-opening, and full of joyful surprises like the word “gezellig,” or that students of a teacher are called essentially “teach-lings.” I hope that people everywhere continue to have opportunities to connect with Shakespeare, because I believe his work is always worth the effort.