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 story from Marleen Geertsma and expand the box below to read the full story by Jane Fenoulhet. New stories will be added in the months to come.

Jane Fenoulhet

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.

Jane Fenoulhet