In my day-to-day life, I don’t hear a great deal of English spoken. Yes, people will speak to me in English when they realize that I don’t speak Dutch, but they are not native speakers, and honestly, that makes a bigger difference than you’d think. If I’m not speaking directly to someone, if I’m just walking down the street or standing in line at the supermarket, I hear a language that I don’t understand. I’m able to pick up a few words here and there, but it’s largely unintelligible to me. As a result, it’s become white noise, like one of those bedside machines that make waterfall noises to help ease you into sleep. It’s just a gentle whirring that doesn’t register on conscious level for me anymore. It’s strange not to be able to eavesdrop on people’s conversations, but it’s also kind of nice to not have to contend with that particular class of verbal distraction.
Because I’m able to block out most of the Dutch I hear as white noise, I’m able to do it in other countries I visit too. There have been a couple different occasions where I’ve looked around me, completely blocking out all sound in my mind, and have seen familiarity in people and things that aren’t familiar, and I’ve thought to myself “I could be anywhere in the United States right now if I didn’t know any better,” and then sometimes I pretend like I don’t know any better.
The only thing that really jolts me back to the reality of the foreignness of the place I’m in is hearing children speak. I walked behind a group of kindergarten-age children going on a field trip in Barcelona, and I sat next to a a few German pre-tweens on the U-Bahn in Berlin, and on both occasions I found myself staring at them, listening to the enthusiasm in their little voices and trying to wrap my head around the fact that they were communicating something to each other that has a comparable meaning in English, but that they probably couldn’t communicate that same thing to me, nor I to them. It has no reason to surprise me, but I often find that a child’s (whose understanding of their own language is still situated on a pretty simplistic level) mastery of a language that is completely strange and unknown to me is something that sort of surprises me, with regularity.
It feels like a horribly ethnocentric feeling on one hand, but on the other hand, I like that it surprises me. It makes me feel like I’m seeing things as a child would, with a sense of wonder and delight at commonplace and explainable occurrences that so often gets stamped out by adulthood. Isn’t something spectacular that the same sentiment can be expressed in so many different ways? Isn’t it something spectacular that, even being aware of that fact, the variations can still be a mystery to you? Language is something truly magical, and I’m grateful to be learning that in an uncommon way.