We are celebrating our 75th anniversary as British Council in the Netherlands in 2020-21 by sharing 75 personal stories from people who have a special connection to both the UK and the Netherlands. Read the 75 NL-UK stories and join us in celebrating our 75th anniversary. Watch the personal stories from Marleen Geertsma and Henriette Louwerse, and expand the boxes below to read the full stories by Jane Fenoulhet, Alexander Rinnooy Kan and Simon Smits. New stories will be added in the months to come.
75 UK-NL Stories - Language
When an English speaker learns Dutch like I did as an undergraduate in the 1970s, it is not unusual to be asked: why? Strangely, Dutch speakers posed the question as often as English speakers. Then one day at a reception given by the Dutch ambassador in London to mark Queen Beatrix’s birthday I met a man in uniform. I was drawn to the miniature trumpet that hung from a golden braid though I had no sense of whether he belonged to army or navy, or what his rank was. He asked me why I had learned Dutch and when I told him it was because I wanted to infiltrate one of the smaller European cultures, he seemed not to find this at all unusual and proceeded to ask me more. He was the first person to accept that I simply wanted to get inside another culture and that the language was the way to do that. I’ve often wondered whether he had had a role in espionage.
Since then, I have taught many students how to infiltrate Dutch life and culture by learning the language. Part of their preparation for exchanging UCL for a Dutch or Flemish university was to think about how to answer the predictable question, and what to do when Dutch people insist on speaking English. Assertive management of the intercultural interaction is what it takes!
Speaking Dutch is not the best way to infiltrate this other culture, in my experience. Listening and reading give access to a much wider experience of life in the Netherlands than speaking to the few people you happen to meet. So here’s the thing – the Dutch have a wonderful literature, especially poetry and fiction. It is rich and varied. And when students access the creative power of the Dutch language, it enriches all their languages.
Translation, which is a dynamic way to read a text, engages and inspires young linguists and teaches them that there is so much more to creative writing than words and grammar. They can of course eventually earn their living with translation, but that is separate from the experience of bringing a Dutch novel or poem to life in English. You can’t get much closer than this to the inside of another culture. My own lifelong experiment in infiltrating Dutch culture continues as I translate classics of Dutch literature to offer glimpses into this fascinating European lifeworld to readers of English.
Alexander Rinnooy Kan
It is no overstatement to say that I owe my very existence to the British Council. Had it not offered my mother an attractive position in The Netherlands in 1946 and subsequently paid her so poorly that she was forced to offer lessons in English conversation to survive, she would never have met my father. He was her first and only pupil, and benefited greatly from her coaching throughout his professional life. More importantly, they quickly got married and led a very happy life together in The Hague. I was their first child.
But that is not all. About fifteen years later, the British Council intervened again and, at my mother’s request, arranged for me to spend a semester at a Grammar School for Boys in Birmingham, hosted by an English family. It did wonders for my English, but more importantly equipped me with new selfconfidence and motivation. It is no overstatement to say that this experience transformed my life and put me on track to where I find myself today.
About forty-five years later, I was asked to chair the Anglo-Dutch bilateral Apeldoorn Conference. What little hesitation I might have felt disappeared instantly when I saw who would be responsible for the logistics of this meeting. It had to be the British Council, of course, which, somewhat less dramatically than on the first two occasions, again made a real difference in my life.
Long may it prosper and continue to share the best of Britain with the rest of the world!
Alexander Rinnooy Kan
Upon finishing grammar school in the mid-seventies my plan was to study English in Amsterdam. The plan failed: at that time there was a 'numerus fixus' for English and fate (i.e. a lottery) decided against me. What now? Enter British Council, advising me to take a Proficiency Course in English at Luton Polytechnic!
Off I went on the Hook-to-Harwich ferry on an early Sunday morning, arriving in Luton late in the evening. As the Poly Admin office handling the allocation of digs only opened on Monday morning, I had to find a place for the night. I stepped into a little pub called The Cooper’s Arms, which as it turned out had only one room, with six beds. The landlady assured me, however, that I would the only occupant that night.
Before retiring I had a drink at the bar and was soon engaged in a lively conversation (about football, what else) with some regular customers. When I told them the purpose of my stay, one of them pointed at his mate and said: “Blimey, your English is better than his” which, of course, boosted my self-confidence.
The next morning I woke up to find a second guest in my six-bed room. It turned out to be one of my interlocutors of the previous night, incapacitated by an over-enthusiastic intake of Lager.
I made my way to Luton Polytechnic, only to find a message at the Admin Office to call home; it turned out that I had been accepted at the Free University after all: “Come home a.s.a.p. please”.
So unfortunately, my Luton adventure was over before it had properly begun. Much to my regret, The Cooper’s Arms is now a disused Indian restaurant. Luckily, Luton was only the beginning, and not the end, of my adventures across the Channel. Thank you British Council.