Three languages… a Babylonian confusion?

A white globe with 'translate' written on it in several languages.

When MLSlavePuppet suggested this prompt, the first thing that sprang to mind is that I am fluent in three languages — Dutch, English and Afrikaans — but then again I’m not. It also reminded me an American man I knew…

During the last year of my second marriage, and after my divorce, I shared naked images of myself on the website, Redclouds. George commented on many of my images, and before long we started emailing each other. What I didn’t know (but found out in the most unpleasant way a year or two later) was that he was very much in love with me, and had claimed me as ‘his’. To me, he was just a friend, who I eventually started an online business with, selling pheromones. We only did this for about a year, as after the unpleasantness I wanted out. But this memory is not about that.

We exchanged two or three mails every week, talking about our families, friends, our work and eventually our business together. Now George is the one who taught me to answer emails between each other’s lines, in a different color. That way you knew exactly what the other responded too. What I then did, was to jump from paragraph to paragraph, only reading his responses, as I pretty much remembered what I had written only a day or two before.

One day I received an email from him, and he was totally upset with me. His harsh language literally chilled my blood and I went back to what I have written, and I seriously had to read his response and my words a couple of times before it dawned on me that he had totally misinterpreted what I have written. I wish I can remember the specific example, but what I do remember is that it was just something that got ‘lost in translation’. You see, even though I was taught English from a very young age, it’s not my first language. I had written something in a specific way, and he had read it in a totally different one, causing a total misunderstanding. I explained to him how I meant it, and he came back with apologies because he had indeed read a different meaning into my words.

Had I been standing across from him and said the same words, he wouldn’t have reacted angrily, because my body language and tone of voice would evidently have shown him that what I said was actually quite innocent.

This is one thing I always reminded my kids of when they were younger and they read text sent to them by others, and got angry: you can’t hear there the tone they are using. I also always told them to think twice before they sent a text off, to think about how it can be received on the other side. It is so easy to misunderstood people through written texts, and too little people keep that in mind.


This is the language I primarily grew up with. We spoke mainly Afrikaans at home, and occasionally English when my mom wanted my brother and I to practice it. My schooling was also done in Afrikaans, but from quite a young age, English was a compulsory subject and I had to pass both Afrikaans and English exams or fail the entire year.

I am not fluent in speaking Afrikaans anymore. It’s been 25 years since I spoke it daily, and even though it is the language I grew up with, I don’t feel comfortable in speaking it. Reading, writing and listening are not a problem, only speaking. However, I know if I ever go back to South Africa and am there for longer than two weeks, I will easily pick up and be able to speak the language fluently again, except maybe for some new words that have been adopted into the language in the past 25 years.


As said, English was part of my education from quite a young age, and by the time I started working, it was also a language I had to use with customers, as there are as many primarily English-speaking people in South Africa as Afrikaans-speaking. I never had a problem with speaking English, even though I knew I wasn’t perfect at it, and I still am not. When in London, and speaking English, I hear my own mistakes. Sometimes I just let them go, other times I start stumbling over my own words trying to correct my mistakes. Part of the mistakes I make is because my mind is still in ‘Dutch mode’ while my mouth tries to form English words. Mostly when I change my thinking to English, my speaking seems to improve too.

When I write, I prefer to write in English, as this definitely is the language I feel the most comfortable in, and this was one of the considerations when I started this website. That, and the fact that Dutch and Afrikaans are spoken by a very small amount of people on the globe.


I come from a Dutch born mom, and South African born father, which means I heard Dutch as a child (when we visited my grandparents and some of my aunts/uncles), but we never learned to speak it. When I came to the Netherlands 25 years ago, it took me quite some time to learn how to speak Dutch. The main reason for this is because Afrikaans is very close to Dutch, but Afrikaans grammar is much simpler than Dutch grammar. In Dutch you have verb conjugations with the different tenses, while in Afrikaans all verbs are treated exactly the same in the present tense, no matter the number of people involved, and it also have exactly the same conjugation for all verbs in the past tense, or even the past perfect tense.

Now, having lived here for 25 years, I have almost lost my Afrikaans accent, and many people don’t even realize I am not Dutch when they hear me speak. Conversations are easy enough, except that, just like with English, I hear my own mistakes. Not only with those verb conjugations, but also with the article (‘the’ and ‘a’ in English) of which Dutch has three.

Our family language

One day I went to Amsterdam with a cousin of mine. She was primarily raised speaking English, and went to an English school, but also spoke some Dutch and English. We were constantly talking and entered a shop, talking. We looked around, picking up items and putting them down, sometimes talking, sometimes not. A shop attendant approached us and asked, in English, if he could help us. We answered him in Dutch. He remarked ‘oh, you can speak Dutch’ to which my cousin and I looked at each other and back at him. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you spoke English when you entered.’ My cousin and I looked at each other and said ‘did we?’

That’s the way it is in our family, when we are together, because all of us had similar youths. None of us really notice which language we speak. Our parents were born in the Netherlands, moved to South Africa and all of them moved back here. When we are together, we tend to speak three languages in one sentence! We understand each other, but to those listening around us, it can be a Babylonian confusion!

© Rebel’s Notes
Image from Pixabay

Wicked Wednesday

9 thoughts on “Three languages… a Babylonian confusion?

  1. “When we are together, we tend to speak three languages in one sentence! We understand each other, but to those listening around us, it can be a Babylonian confusion!”
    Wow Marie – how clever you are. I am hopeless with languages – except programming languages
    May xx

    1. And programming languages is something I am not good with, although I can make do with some html coding, but nothing more than that xox

  2. language can be a tricky thing. Even being raised speaking English there are times I have issues with it. I used to read the classics and used to speak like that till the teasing became unbearable on top of it often causing miscommunication. I gave up my King James English for the guttural southern dialect.

  3. Haha the thing at the end where you entered speaking English and didn’t realise. I have this too, maybe it’s a thing when you are so good at two languages that you just seamlessly move between them and don’t realise when you speak one or the other.
    The first example happens to everyone and yet, I forget it every time a misunderstanding happens over text. As long as we clear misunderstandings up afterwards I guess? haha

    1. I totally agree, as long as the misunderstanding is cleared up, all is fine. I think many people don’t take into account that things might be ‘lost in translation’ when you speak or write in a language which is not your first.

  4. I think it is a gift to be able to speak more than one language. My two oldest daughters are fluent in more than English. But alas I am not. Perhaps one day I’ll learn Spanish or something similar!

    1. I am privileged that I grew up in a country where it was compulsory to speak two languages 🙂

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