It sounds like a bad joke, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, this was my thought as I followed my supervisor and two PhD students into the microscope room where we would be visualizing immunofluorescently-stained equine intestine. This is one of the most obvious differences that struck me since I’ve arrived in the Netherlands. There are so many countries represented in the clinic where I will be doing my research, countries that all speak different languages, but this situation is hardly given a second thought. Of course, my supervisor pointed out that this situation is the equivalent in the US of having representation of different states, which no one would give a second thought either.
Fortunately for me, English is the unifying language that everyone learns regardless of their other language. Perhaps this is because Great Britain has had such a historically significant influence in this part of the world? I’m not sure. More likely it’s at least partially because everyone in the Netherlands learns English in school nowadays. Unfortunately for me, my blonde hair and blue eyes don’t give people any reason to suspect that I’m not Dutch, so I get very confused looks when I respond to their greetings haltingly in Dutch, “Sorry, I don’t understand. Do you speak English?”
At any rate, I’ve been giving a lot of thought since I arrived to the disadvantage Americans face by being unilingual. Just think of all the people with whom you’re missing out on connecting and the information you’ll never understand. Every additional language you know multiplies your opportunities, and I feel so behind the curve being here and only knowing one language. Granted, if you never leave the United States it hardly matters. But the fact that many (most?) Americans travel very little abroad has given the impression that we think we’re too good to associate with the rest of the world (or so I’ve been told by students from the International Veterinary Student Association), which is really a shame. I suppose it’s better to get out there and work to change the perception than to worry too much about what I don’t know!