Having spent the last 2 years as an international student living in the Netherlands, I can already recognise that it has changed many aspects of my life. Even though I am British, I prefer to drink liquorice tea instead of a milky brew, would rather ride my bike in the rain than get a lift, and have developed the habit of calling out “tot ziens!” as I leave a shop. Picking up different preferences and habits are perhaps an expected element of living abroad when you are exposed to new choices, surrounded by new people, and even start to use a new language.
However, when it comes to using a new language, one of the most often-used selling points of studying in the Netherlands is precisely the opposite. The charts show that Dutch people are some of the most proficient speakers of English in the world outside of the Anglo-sphere. Many study programmes and job opportunities are offered in English and you can hear people from all over the world speaking English on the streets of many Dutch cities.
Even though I do use Dutch from time to time, I spend the majority of my day speaking English with fellow classmates and my international housemates. Many of them have had international childhood experiences, like having parents from different countries, moving across the world, or attending international schools where they’ve often ended up speaking English from a young age. Even if not, in order to study our degrees in English, every student has to show a high language proficiency to be able to follow lectures and seminars. When we speak English together the level is almost no different from what you would expect in a country where English is the official language.
Seeing as my peers are all very fluent speakers, I didn’t really expect that I would have to adjust my English to a great extent. If anything, I have always imagined that if I did have to adjust my English, it would just involve not speaking too quickly and not using too much slang. Moreover, with English as my first language and having grown up in the UK, I assumed that I would have an advantage when it came to communicating in English with an international group. I soon discovered that this simply wasn’t the case! As a matter of fact, sometimes it felt like I was listening to an entirely different language. Because what I didn’t realise is that in these situations, it is international English that reigns. It turned out that I would be adjusting my English, both what I said and what I understood, just not in the way I ever expected it.
There are three main aspects of my English that have changed since using it in an international environment. Notably, I have started using words and phrases that have been directly translated into English from other languages. One of the first moments where I noticed this was when a teacher used the term “red thread” to describe a continuing theme in literature. Everyone else seemed to nod and carry on, but I was left wondering what precisely this phrase meant, as I had never heard it before. After the class, I couldn’t even find its meaning online, so I sheepishly asked a friend. She explained that it just meant when the same theme was carried on throughout, and then casually mentioned that the phrase happened to be the same in German.
Another friend said it was the same in Swedish and apparently in Dutch too. Finally it made sense - when “red thread” was being used, it simply meant the same as a “common thread”, but is a direct translation of the version used in many other languages. More than half of the class are Dutch or German speakers, so of course it was instantly understood. I hear these sorts of direct translations into English almost everyday, the difference is that I have since learnt the “vocabulary” of International English. I’ve not only begun to understand these phrases, but also to integrate them into my own speech. From my perspective, the point of language is to communicate, and if “red thread” is more quickly understood by who I am speaking to or the majority of the group, then so be it.