Leiden International Studies Blog

A Multilingual Experience

A Multilingual Experience

Being part of a program bearing the name International Studies, that international students were going to be part and parcel of my experience came as no surprise. What did, to me at least, was the way this would impact not just my thinking, but even my speaking!

The experience of finding oneself amid a multiplicity of languages is an interesting one. Like almost all my fellow first-year students, I had the pleasure of completing an entire semester of a sociolinguistics class that definitely heightened my senses for the intricacies of language—it might sound trivial, but trust me, finding out what the Brits actually mean when they describe something as quite nice has left me questioning years of friendship.

On the topic of friendship, another central theme of my first-year experience: Upon arriving in an international context, it is almost inevitable to become part of a multilingual friend group. As a lingua franca, in most cases, English will be chosen. (Although it cannot go unsaid that certain linguistic groups do prefer to keep to themselves—strictly linguistically speaking that is, of course.) This multilingual friend group naturally brings about its own challenges. For example, my friends often remind me (in a mocking yet endearing tone) of instances where my working knowledge of English has failed me. Sentences like "I go inside pee?" may or may not have been uttered very late at night.

But the point I’m making is not about the challenges of multilingual friend groups, but rather how they enrich our lives. I would not want to do without knowing the concept of kalsarikännit, which I learned from one of my Finnish friends. Roughly translatable to “pantsdrunk,” this phenomenon describes the act of consuming alcoholic beverages in one’s underwear with no intention of leaving the house. Now, it is not my place to assert whether the Whorfian hypothesis actually holds true, and I don’t intend to delve too much into sophomoric clichés, but I can definitely say that having become familiar with this concept was somewhat of a transformative experience for us non-Finnish speakers.

Picture 1
The Tower of Babel, print, Anton Joseph von Prenner, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c1563/1728

As I’m discussing how languages enrich our lives, inevitably I have to touch on another experience shared by many fellow International Studies students: our initial confidence that coming to the Netherlands would also entail developing a working knowledge of the Dutch language. Sadly—and equally shared—there was the subsequent resignation upon realizing that living in a country and learning its language are quite another pair of shoes. Like many, I spent the weeks leading up to my arrival last summer having a green owl repeatedly stressing “Je bent een appel” at me, which, curiously, to this day might be my most used Dutch phrase. I also learned the words “boterham” and “alsjublieft” although with the latter, I am still not sure how to spell it. Maybe as a result, my attempts at Dutch have so far been in vain and, just a couple of weeks ago, I received the inevitable “it’s not you, it’s me, but this doesn’t seem to be working” message from Duolingo, terminating my Dutch lessons.

That’s why I want to express my admiration for anyone who has indomitably committed to their streak. I also want to reflect on a conversation I often have with a Dutch friend of mine: They are of the opinion that in attempting, not mastering, the Dutch language, one expresses appreciation for a country that takes us in, lets us improve our academic merit and has taught us to be appreciative of the sun in ways we could not have imagined prior to this experience. In short, what I am trying to say, perhaps, is that the best way to counter the narrative of the ungrateful international student constantly complaining about weather, workload and rent prices, is to do it as the Dutch do and complain about weather, workload and rent prices…but in Dutch.

Here's to reviving the Duolingo streak over the summer!