21 February was International Mother Language Day: a day dedicated to linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. A good moment to turn the spotlight on multilingual Spotters. Olessia Mikes, an accountant at Coty, tells us how she learnt to speak seven languages and Geesje de Vries, a secretary at G4S, shows that you don’t have to go abroad to learn a foreign language.
Olessia (46) was born in the former Soviet Union, in present-day Kazakhstan. So Russian is her mother tongue but she also speaks Afrikaans, English, French, Dutch, Spanish and Czech. She explains how she learnt to speak all those languages.
‘In 2000 I left Kazakhstan and went to France. I met my husband there. He’s a geologist and travels all over the world for his work. So we lived in many different places. Whenever we relocated to another country, I learnt to speak the local language.’
All over the world
Her husband is Czech but grew up in the Netherlands. Olessia: ‘In the beginning I could talk to him only in French, because I spoke no Czech and he spoke no Russian. Then we decided to learn each other’s mother tongue. Fortunately, the two languages have a lot of similarities, so it wasn’t too hard!’
After a while, the couple decided to move to the Netherlands, where Olessia took a civic integration course and learnt our language. After that, they relocated to Spain (Barcelona) and then to South Africa (Stellenbosch). Olessia: ‘In South Africa I studied psychology and general linguistics. So I was able to brush up my English and I learnt Afrikaans. Finally, in 2015, we came back to the Netherlands because we needed a permanent base.’
She speaks mainly Dutch and English at work. ‘I have many Dutch colleagues, so I speak Dutch with them. When I write, I prefer to use English. For certain tasks I switch automatically to another language. For example, I always look up recipes in French. And there are some things that I can explain more easily in English than in Russian, and vice versa.’
Have confidence in yourself
What is the secret of teaching yourself a new language? It’s just a question of doing it, says Olessia. ‘Went I came to France for the first time I didn’t speak a single word of French. The time came when I understood everything but I couldn’t speak the language; it was very frustrating. Ultimately you just have to knuckle down and simply do it. People are born with a natural affinity for languages. Don’t doubt yourself; have faith in your intelligence!’
On to Friesland
A little closer to home now. Geesje de Vries (50) grew up in Friesland and speaks Frisian as well as Dutch. ‘I’m Frisian born and bred but have lived outside the province for many years now. I do feel Frisian, however: that’s where my roots lie. I go back regularly to visit my parents. I love it there in the summer.’
Language in its own right
In fact, she speaks Frisian only with her parents. ‘And with one colleague who is really enthusiastic about the language and always emails me in Frisian via Google Translate,’ Geesje says, with a smile. ‘It’s genuinely a language in its own right, with specific expressions and its own grammar. There are even several Frisian dialects: I can always hear where somebody comes from.’
‘I got lessons in Frisian at primary school,’ says Geesje. ‘There are books in Frisian too, and the Leeuwarder Courant newspaper has a section with Frisian articles. I have tried occasionally to read something in Frisian but it really feels as if I was back in primary school. Generally I have to read it aloud, because I don’t immediately recognise the written words. So it takes a while before I finish reading a book.’
For that reason she doesn’t regard Frisian as her mother language. ‘It’s definitely Dutch. Because of my background I am who I am, but you don’t get very far with Frisian alone. On the other hand, it’s easier to greet someone in Frisian because there’s only one word for hello and goodbye: ‘heu’. You can use it in every situation, very handy!’