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Opinion

Lauren in the Netherlands: The influence of the United States on countries around the world

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April 6, 2016

Another week, another new country to explore with new sights, new sounds, and language. The new sights are usually the first things I notice. I look up and all I see are voluminous scarves in varying shades of plaid with perfectly windswept hair being blown in the breeze. The people of Utrecht, a city in the Netherlands that you have probably never heard of, are tall, perfectly fit, and can usually be found riding bicycles. It is also the first European city where I feel I do not stick out as much as I have in other European cities because I am within the same height zone as the people of Utrecht!

While I may have fit in physically with people in the Netherlands, that is where all commonalities ended. This is the first time during my International Traveling Classroom trip that I really experienced culture shock. When our Traveling Classroom group began our trip in English speaking countries, the language gap did not seem so immense, and having taken four years of French, I was able to navigate my way around France without too much thought. Stepping off the train in the Netherlands presented me with a whole new challenge, how do I effectively communicate with anyone in this country? The panic I was experiencing was not a pleasant feeling. This whole situation of anxiousness about communicating effectively, of being so exposed and unprepared for the language of the Netherlands, is a humbling one, and left me feeling kind of embarrassed and stupid.

Quick Google searches enabled me to learn several of the simple basics of speaking Dutch, and many of their words, when spoken correctly, often even sound very similar to English words. As our days in Utrecht passed, I began to realize that all of my anxiety over what I thought of was an immense language barrier, was really nothing over which to agonize. As with many other countries all over the world, knowing and speaking English is pretty ubiquitous, and it is even rarer to find someone who cannot understand any English at all. As it turned out, I ended up having no problems communicating with people from the Netherlands; which struck me as rather strange.

From an early age, at least from my experience, teachers would repeat over and over that learning foreign languages was an essential part of being a global citizen and of being prepared to travel, to do business, and for being polite in the United States and abroad. I was always told it was necessary to always know at least the courtesy words of foreign languages because people are not going to know how to communicate with you. But the problem that I found with these past teachers’ words is that everything they said simply is not true today. Everyone knows English, it is taught as part of core curriculum in European schools, and many foreign universities even conduct classes all in English. English is even becoming the lingua-franca (a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different) of the world and of international business. So far, almost all of my interactions with people I have encountered in many European countries, they have chosen to not even speak their native language when communicating with me. Everywhere I looked in Utrecht, English words were visible! One can find English words sprayed onto walls in colorful graffiti, printed on t-shirts, and prominently displayed on garbage trucks, signs, and logos.

All this overabundance of English began to make me wonder, is this overwhelming influx of English deteriorating Dutch culture? Personally, when I see so much English and Western influence on different countries in Europe I find it irritating. It is bothersome because maybe seeing so much English makes my experience less authentic, less original. Although I experienced some earlier anxiety about the language, I was somewhat disappointed in that communicating effectively was far too early, it was too similar to being home in the United States. Maybe I had these fantasies of running away to Europe and leaving all familiarities about home far behind. However, it seems that the more countries I visit and experience, no matter how far away from home you travel, you cannot escape the considerable influence the United States has on the rest of the world.

Lauren Simenson is a student at UW-River Falls.