My daughter has weekly ballet lessons at recreation centre that has three basketball courts.
Parents aren’t allowed to watch the ballet, so during lessons we repair to the downstairs cafe.
Last time I went, I could not help but notice the Dutch Wheelchair Basketball team practising on the courts. Their orange outfits make them conspicuous.
After practice, the team came into the cafe so I said hi to one of the players. Here’s what happened afterwards:
Me: Who are you playing here?
Basketballer: We’re here to play against Australia and South Africa.
Me: Aha! The old colony.
Basketballer: Two colonies.
Me: What do you mean?
Basketballer: You’ve heard of Arnhem Land?
Me: You can’t claim that as a colony: you named it and sailed away.
Basketballer: You’re right.
That dialog is from memory, but the Dutch guy’s English had no trouble keeping up with my questions. And his knowledge of history was top-rate.
It reminded me of a conversation I had with a Dutchman 19 years ago, when I visited the obscure Minoan Palace of Phaistos as a backpacker.
I visited in winter, so tourist buses weren’t running. The bus I and a Dutch visitor named Oscar had hoped would come by was running late, and Phaistos is out-of-the-way enough and the season cold enough that there was no-one on site to help.
So we flagged down the first bus that passed to ask for information.
Oscar spoke English, Russian and Dutch to the driver, before German did the trick.
Afterwards, this dialog ensued:
Me: That was impressive Oscar. You just went through four languages.
Oscar: It was not good.
Oscar: I only speak four languages. In Holland smart students learn eight or nine. And in English my vocabulary is poor and my syntax is full of mistakes.
My jaw hit the floor.
At the end of this all I felt very smug about sending my kids to a school where learning a language is compulsory.