The quirks and surprises of being the in-house English speaker

From translating health and safety advice to tongue-twisters, there’s always something new to do, says Kate Macdonald

July 2, 2015
An illustration of a lifebelt

Being the resident native speaker of English in a university that uses English as its second language made me an unofficial public servant. Belgian university employees are employed by the king (first Albert II, then Philippe) and have to swear an oath to not let him down. Finding this rather ridiculous (what is the king to me, or am I to the king?), I managed to avoid doing this for some seven years. The day I finally submitted to this procedure was the day my husband fell off his bike and smashed his elbow, so I don’t remember the oath bit at all, being rather anxious about catching a train to get to the hospital.

When the city council decided to upgrade their booklet of welcome and advice for incoming foreigners, they sent a polite email to the departmental website, asking for someone to proofread the text. The 2 million visitors to the incomparable Gentse Feesten, for example, will include a lot of summer tourists from all over the world who will need to know, for their 10-day music and alcohol endurance test, where to find the loos, do their washing, eat cheaply and find a doctor. If they have this information in English, there’s a fair chance that someone in the party will be able to read it, no matter where they come from. Each year I perfected the English of the festival’s life-saving advice with gusto, until the council ran out of budget and started sending me flowers and chocolates as payment.

Then, on one wet January morning, I had a phone call from an unknown voice, who asked me something at length in Dutch that didn’t include the vocabulary I knew (I have patches of vocabulary and fluency in Dutch, my best being in sandwich-filling negotiation situations). However, I did recognise a couple of words. “Sorry, did you want to talk to me about Scottish poetry?” The voice became apologetic. Her choir were having trouble understanding a Scottish song. The chorister caller, now my friend Caroline, had studied in my department some 30 years earlier.

For a few years after that introduction we had “conversatie lunches”, where we spoke for an hour in English for her and rather less than that in Dutch for me. I spent an intense hour going round her classroom where she taught English to adult learners, correcting the slogans and key phrases displayed on the wall. I objected to her poster giving the English equivalent for “Het smaakt”, because it doesn’t exist. Caroline, unable to believe that there wasn’t a phrase in English for “bon appétit”, had simply transliterated from the Dutch. Several generations of Gentenaars have since gone out into the world ready to declaim “It tastes!” when they encounter a nice plate of fish and chips.

Back in the department, I taught my colleagues the philosophy of the knock knock joke. I explained the lyrics of Muse and the Kaiser Chiefs to anxious enquirers. I once encountered a radio journalist wandering the corridors, looking for an anglophone to record. It was the birthday of the European Union, or something like that, and so I sat down and recorded “Happy birthday!” in several British accents for him, including Brummie. I taught my class of 300 first years how to say English tongue-twisters, but one year they had their revenge: “De koetsier poetst de postkoets met postkoetspoets.” Sometimes you have to forget the native speaker thing and just go local.

Kate Macdonald is former assistant professor in the department of literary studies, Ghent University.

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