Sarah Graham: A Potato is an Aardappel

Whilst other countries may have a population greater than 563,000 or a territory larger than 2,586 km2, I feel one of the main ways that Luxembourg is able to lord over these countries and nipple-twist them to the ground is in its multilingualism.

I don’t know many other countries where children grow up becoming fluent in at least three languages…but then again what do I know? At the European School, if you could sweet-talk your way into getting five other people to join forces with you and form a new class, you were able to take pretty much any language of the European Union you liked. A friend of mine chose Greek as a 4th Language at school, although if you take a look at her subsequent Mediterranean boyfriends there may have been more than one motive behind that.

On my recent travels I lost count of the times I would encounter this: “What do they speak in Luxembourg, LUXEMBOURGISH?” people would guffaw, nudging their friends and giving each other wedgies. “Yeah, actually,” I would smirk, strutting off to imagined cheers and triumphant music. I didn’t make many friends whilst travelling.

On a weird unemployment-addled whim I once decided that to get more clarity in my life I needed to start learning Dutch online. I am, for reasons unknown, somewhat of a Dutch enthusiast, so to me nothing could have been more logical. Alas others did not seem to feel the same way about my decision.

“That’s amaaaaaaziiiiing,” I expected my friends to purr. Instead I got unimpressed, puzzled frowns and frequent questions of “Why Dutch?”

“Because…because A POTATO IS AN AARDAPPEL!” I cried, eyes darting wildly from side to side in confusion as I nervously licked my lips. What more was there to be said?

I decided to ignore their concerned stares and embarked on the free online Youtube tutorials of the omnipresent but ever-invisible Jan de Vries. The voice of Jan de Vries and I shared many moments in the two short weeks I kept up with the course; we giggled conspiratorially when it was revealed the Dutch for ‘you are scaring me’ is ‘je maakt me bang’; I nodded in wonder when he told me water in the Netherlands was drinkable. It made sense. Sadly, however, things soon fizzled out. I knew there was no future for us when I realised I wasn’t able to pronounce any number past three.

In my experience, the trouble with free online language courses is that you tend to find yourself learning the most bizarre, and often improbable, phrases before you have even figured out how to properly pronounce your own name. This is not such an issue unless the sentences in question are so darn catchy that you find yourself repeating them out loud at inappropriate moments.

“Dutch meat sausage,” I would whisper into the window of an empty night bus; “Will I be prime minister tomorrow?” I wondered aloud in an Auchan food aisle, thoughtfully tucking Dutch meat sausage into my shopping basket.

To me, the beautiful thing about languages is their conniving ability to trip you up, push you to the ground and spit in your face. Please do not read too much into all the bullying metaphors in this article.

For example, employing the French word baiser as a noun or as a verb can mean the difference between saying 'kiss' or…errr...’copulate’ and has reduced a room to small, nervous coughs on more than one occasion, I am sure. I have been told that one of the most common mistakes Spanish learners make is to try convey their humiliation by describing themselves as embarazada, instead informing those around them that their rosy cheeks were the result of being ‘pregnant’. Let’s hope no baby showers were thrown in the making of this mistake.

As I unfortunately do not share the linguistic capabilities of 90% of Luxembourg’s population (at least not after 15 years of trying but I remain hopeful), I try instead to collect phrases in various languages that would almost certainly not be in any tourist guide. My polite small talk at a Danish dinner party would not consist of the standard questions of ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Where do you work?’, but rather ‘How often do you frequent this gay bar?’. If I found myself in Portugal I wouldn’t be able to ask for directions but I would be able to inform an individual that they were a monkey with a small appendage.

When the world feels like it is falling away from my feet and nothing seems like it makes sense anymore, I can always feel safe in the knowledge that there is one thing I know for sure. A potato is an aardappel.

 

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