The language of secrets

English is a skill most of my family from my maternal side have on a (near) native level. There are reasons for that, but it is also a very carefully crafted family myth that motivates younger generations to fill those big shoes.

Let me start with the origin story. After World War II and the Indonesian Independence war my grandparents decided to live outside the Netherlands for a while, like many of their contemporaries disappointed with the Dutch government. I’ll talk war stories at some other point in time. For now it is enough to know that my grandfather, previously a radio media man, became an immigration civil servant in Rhodesia in the 50’s, taking his family with him. Rhodesia was an English colony at that time, and my mother and her siblings, most of them in their teenage years, attended an English boarding school that also took in day school students. Very, very English.

So, enter two things into my activist maternal family: an intimate knowledge of the injustices of racism in Africa, and a fluent, very fluent understanding of English and English culture. We can talk about those racial injustices at some other time, but for now, note that all siblings learned English to such a degree that once they returned to the Netherlands they were fluent. It also became the family language, the language in which secrets are spoken that you do not want the young ones to understand. Often it became an instinctive use of English on certain topics that, really, as a young person you want to know about. Plus a family love for all things English. London. Tea. Shakespeare and historical drama’s. Watching The Crown.

So subsequent younger generations have had a very high level of expectations on their level of English, but also an instant motivation: the language of secrets, who doesn’t want to know? Aided by a stay in Houston (Texas, USA) when I was a small child, my English got a further boost, but even my younger siblings and cousins were pretty good at it. No longer perfect, but still pretty remarkable. I’ve used it to my advantage during my career, as have they.

In turn our children ALSO excel in English, for, let’s be honest here, it is still the language of secrets. Plus the proud encouragement from several elder generations. For instance I took all 3 of my children to London once they could order an English breakfast. Honestly, with this positive reinforcement, who wouldn’t learn English?

Right now my eldest son is learning to be an English teacher, while the younger ones and their cousin are scoring pretty high on the scale too, even if that doesn’t match with the rest of their education level. They are very proud to perform too. My mother meanwhile, who is suffering from Dementia, speaks to us in Dutch and English as the mood strikes her. We indulge her. We all speak secrets.

2 Replies to “The language of secrets”

  1. This made ne smile so true. Although I found yourcreference to your “siblings’ ( as in plural) rather troubling . 😘

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