I was in Europe for 90 days. Before I left home, I knew that the mother language of my home base in Belgium was Dutch, specifically the Flemish dialect. I poured over books, websites and Rosetta Stone with great ambition, sure that I would know enough Flemish to get by for a summer in Belgium. This lasted a few weeks. Native Belgians and friends who had traveled the area told me that almost everyone could speak English. I stopped studying, comfortable in the fact that I would be just fine and learn as I went.
I’ll be honest. I kind of just expected it to come to me. That if I listened hard enough, I would just know the words I needed to know and Presto! Flemish! That’s what people talk about, right? I expected to be immersed into the language, forcing me to cope with the lack of English and be fluent in no time. But I wasn’t immersed. Any conversations in the house that included me were in English. My boyfriend and I spoke English. I could say “alstublieft” and “dank u wel” which were enough to get me through a cash register. When I had a question I either avoided things altogether or spoke to the employee in English. In practice I was learning nothing.
I could read some signs or pick up a couple words, but when given the opportunity to speak Flemish, I was mute. I was so worried about being wrong and embarrassing myself that I couldn’t open my mouth. There were nights I sat and cried. In English I could be brave, friendly and passionate, but in Flemish I felt so impressively stupid, weak and scared. I had so much to offer and to say, but no one knew me. No one was able to know me. I had never had to struggle to communicate before and it was burning me up from the inside.
I truly failed myself in group situations. When I was with a tiny group, we would almost always speak English, but that was nearly impossible with groups larger than four people. And why should it? Most of the crowd didn’t know me, had no reason to care about whether I understood or not. Mix in a couple drinks per person and everyone was rowdy and shooting rapid fire Flemish in all directions. Sometimes someone would turn to me and say something in Flemish. When they realized I couldn’t understand, I was given a look or pity or annoyance before they returned to the conversation. I was overwhelmed, feeling left out and wishing that I had just spent more time studying. I never knew that a person could feel so disconnected from the world while sitting with a dozen people. I didn’t want to busy myself somewhere else and miss out, but I also couldn’t figure out what I was missing out on. By the third month I was craving conversation the way junkies crave their next trip.
What I was too self involved to see was that many of the people in these groups were having the same problem as I was. They were too nervous to speak English. It was easier to leave out one strange girl than look like a fool. For many that I spoke to, English was something that they had to think about before they spoke. It didn’t flow off their tongue in quick succession the way their mother language did. It took almost three months to stop pitying myself and take notice. I wrongly assumed that it was just easier for them than it was for me.
I owe incredible amounts of gratitude to the people who went out of their way to speak to me, help me and include me. Without them I would have been figuratively and literally lost. If I had been intelligent instead of emotional, I would have taken advantage of the situation. I was surrounded by a language I wanted so desperately to understand, but didn’t ask any questions. There were several people that I spent time with who could have and would have taught me things, but I was too afraid to practice in front of anyone. I learned a lot about myself and the way the world operates while I was away. There was no way I should have left home with a vocabulary consisting of the words for fish and bike. I should have been able to see when I was overwhelmed and walked away from the situation instead of sitting there and letting it drill into my bones. I should have realized that I’ll never be the only nervous person in the group. I should have spoken up and made a bigger effort to make friends.
Above all else I should have spoken the language with confidence and conviction. The few times I made an attempt to write or speak Flemish, I was met with confused or irritated looks. It stopped me in my tracks and I shouldn’t have let it. I made it just another excuse to limit my learning and my interactions with others. I was the creator and keeper of my own loneliness and I won’t let it happen again.