5: Lengua Franca

Published on 24 September 2023 at 12:13

Communication is hard. Communication in a language other than one’s native language is extra hard. Even though Curacao considers Dutch, English, and Papiamento to be national languages (with Spanish also prevalent here), you will find that not everyone speaks all three or even 2 very well. I personally speak English fluently and Spanish at a basic, elementary-school level (despite studying it for 8 years in school). I have a decent grasp of Dutch in its written form (if the topic is not too technical or complex) and can also comprehend much of it when listening to others. The biggest difficulty comes in speaking. I lived in Utrecht, the Netherlands for 6 months when I studied abroad, and I got adept at reading signs and of course heard people all around me speaking in Dutch constantly, but I was rarely afforded the opportunity to practice it myself. Everyone could tell I spoke English and would instantly switch languages when speaking with me (because they wanted to practice their English with a native speaker!).


It is actually one of the nice things about the Dutch people– they are very polite when in conversation and even if I’m the only non-Dutch speaker in a group, they will speak English so I can understand. Unfortunately, this is not the best for my language growth! Moreover, in most international groups (I recently was sitting at a table with someone from the Netherlands, Venezuela, Germany, Curacao, and another American– from NY state) the shared language is typically English. Not only is this likely because it’s the shared language, but also, my fellow American and I didn’t speak enough of another language to participate fully otherwise. Since arriving in Curacao, I’ve been working on developing my Dutch skills using apps like Rosetta Stone and Duo Lingo. I also have been getting the basics of Papiamento– but I have yet to find classes or locate a textbook in English on how to speak it effectively. It doesn’t seem like that difficult of a language to learn, however, finding opportunities to do so has been a challenge.


So, not everyone speaks English on the island, but many people do have a second language. For most it is Dutch, but for many it is also Spanish. There are lots of expats from South America here– primarily from Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil in my experience. Even still, many of them will speak English, but not all. I have had to, on several occasions, bust out my Spanish language skills, to my chagrin. Stumbling over words and constantly making mistakes is not only frustrating, but also a bit embarrassing. Not only that, but I found it to be mentally exhausting. I had a doggie playdate with a guy from the Dominican Republic who spoke both Spanish and Papiamento and a few words of English. Our hour long conversation was primarily in Spanish and by the end of it I needed a nap! 


That experience really made me greatly appreciate the efforts and abilities of those around me who can communicate with me in my native language. It isn’t an easy language, and in many countries there may not be many available opportunities for people to learn it– or they may be costly. Now realizing how difficult it is to maintain a conversation, much less an interesting or complex one, in another language, I’m trying harder to pepper in words and phrases in the first languages of my friends here. Mostly I’m encouraged, but I think the majority of people here do not expect others to learn Dutch or Papiamento if they already speak English. Many Dutch people have told me outright not to waste my time learning Dutch (they did this even when I lived in their country as well!). Still, I persist. I enjoy learning new things and I think that communication is a two way street. The better you are at conveying your message in a way others can understand, the better the communication will be received. I can think of no better way than in the native language of your recipient. Tot ziens.

Add comment


There are no comments yet.