Previous Next
Sorry, I don’t speak Dutch…or Sranan Tongo, or Saramaccan, or Aukan.

I AM INSECURE ABOUT SOUNDING LIKE A JERK, except when I mean to. It’s probably one of the reasons Chileans always comment on my Spanish. I deflect the compliments with an “I’ve been here a long time” or an “I’m just fascinated by languages,” because the truth — “I hate sounding like a colonialist English-first wanker” — takes too long.

I’ve made it a point to get to a level in Spanish that helps me in much of South America, where I live.

But not in Suriname.

I have never apologized for my lack of language so many times as on a recent trip there. The assumption, if you’re vaguely European-looking, is that you’re Dutch. Suriname was a Dutch colony until 36 years ago, and a large number of recent college grads from Holland come to do internships.

I’m too old to be a recent college grad, but I could also easily be a Dutch tourist, coming to escape winter, enjoy one of the few other countries on Earth where my native language is spoken, and glimpse the scarlet ibis in Bigi Pan.

Except I’m not. I flew straight (well, as straight as you can) from Chile, where it was also summer, and though I did go to Nickerie to catch sight of some ibises in the swampland, I had to do it in English.

Wherever I went, restaurants, bike rental places, convenience stores (where they had ice cold Vitasoy soy milk in a glass bottle, which I gladly downed), a jumble of unknown words would come towards me, and I would hold my right hand up, as if to halt the words, a physical apology, a shield, and then I would say, “Sorry, I don’t speak Dutch.”

Sorry, I don’t speak Dutch.

Sorry, I don’t speak Dutch.

I realized, though, that my embarrassment at not being able to speak Dutch was more related to disappointing people, or about seeming incompetent, than not being able to communicate. In the end, most of the people I told that I didn’t speak Dutch spoke to me in English.

Across the river from Paramaribo in Commewijne, the kid at the Chinese-owned convenience store (lots of these in Suriname, as elsewhere in South America) — and later Derrick, who rented me a bike in Nickerie near the library where I came upon a herd of goats — both spoke to me in English.

The woman at the pharmacy where I failed to buy ear drops also spoke to me in English, as did a man whom I met under an awning at a Chinese supermarket during a particularly heavy rainstorm. He told me about how his wife (of African descent) could cook all the cuisines of Suriname, pom, a baked chicken casserole, saoto, a Javanese fried potato soup, and different Indian and Chinese dishes too, which was why he’d been at the Chinese supermarket, to pick up supplies.

In addition to not speaking Dutch, I also don’t speak Sranan Tongo, another language of Suriname, a creole knitted out of several languages, including some West African ones, English, and Portuguese. It’s a lingua franca among various ethnic groups, though I heard it used mainly by people of African and Javanese descent.

The president, Dési Bouterse, gave part of his independence day speech in Sranan Tongo last year, under a heavy rainstorm I thought would short out the music system as mud pooled up to my ankles. Everyone speaks Sranan Tongo, while probably only 60% of Surinamese speak Dutch as a first language.

When listening to Sranan Tongo, I can occasionally make out a word here and there, or even a sentence, like “Me no sabi” (“I don’t know,” which uses the word for “to know” from Portuguese). I learned fa waka? (“how are you”), because it seemed the right thing to do, but I never got much farther.

When I set off for the interior, a few hours up the Suriname River from Atjoni, itself a few hours’ drive from Paramaribo, I cheek-by-jowled it in a minivan with seven other people, none of whom preferred Dutch, nor spoke to me in English. We fa waka-ed, and then they started in Saramaccan, and I sat silently.

I’d like to tell you we were the best of friends after the trip, and that we enjoyed a wordless exchange in which we came to great understandings about each other’s cultures. But mainly I wondered what the protocol was on returning the bony-bottomed child sitting on my lap to her caretaker, and how stuck her glossy red lollipop was going to get to my pale thigh.

One night after sunset in the interior, when river-splashes sound like they could be crocodiles rather than children, a group of people gathered on some hand-carved wooden benches and stools outside the place I was staying in Pikin Slee. Pikin, from the Portuguese pequenho, means “small,” though Pikin Slee, with about 4,000 people, is no longer particularly small.

Toya — one of the men in charge of the town’s Saamaka Museum, with displays on the Maroon (escaped slave) culture — is a master carver, and he had come for an after-dinner chat and smoke. I had seen him several times while walking through town, including right outside his house, where I took a picture of some white-painted graffiti on a bench that proclaimed “Love Pikin Slee.”

At one point that night, the conversation slowed, and he turned to me and spoke to me in Dutch. I responded with my hand-deflection, and an apology. He didn’t ask if I spoke Saramaccan, the language spoken in the area, and in which I could only say good morning and good afternoon, and that only with prompting. He asked if I spoke taki-taki, a way of referring to Sranan Tongo. And I had to shake my head no.

Eventually he got up to go, and said, “amanha,” to which I responded, “amanha,” from the Portuguese “tomorrow,” as in, see you then. Which I did, but I still couldn’t say anything to him, or more importantly, understand anything he said to me.

I can’t speak these languages, and even worse, I can’t really understand them, except for a few key phrases. There are so many conversations I could have with so many different people in the world, and won’t, because even if I become conversant in Dutch, and Sranan Tongo, and Saramaccan, and Aukan (another language spoken in Suriname), there will be hundreds more languages that I fail at. And even if I took three months to study each of them like Benny the Irish Polyglot, a) I would never get close to learning them all, and b) I wouldn’t be happy with my level in any of them.

So I’m back to missing out on conversations and otherwise feeling like a jerk, once I’m outside the range of English and Spanish. Which means I can live in fear of disappointing other people and myself and feeling ignorant, or I can just get over it. After 41 years on this planet, I’m pretty sure it will always be the former.

Language + Study Abroad


About The Author

Eileen Smith

Eileen Smith is the editor of Matador Abroad. She's an ex-Brooklynite who's made a life in Santiago, Chile. She's a fluent Spanish speaker who can be found biking, hiking, writing, photographing and/or seeking good coffee and nibbles at most hours of the day. She blogs here.

  • Rachel Engstrand

    I understand exactly how you feel. I am from the US and living in Europe. I speak Spanish fluently as well as Hebrew fairly well and a little Quechua. But unfortunately, I’m not living anywhere near a place where any of those would be useful. I feel embarrassed by my pitiful language skills (especially in France where my pathetic French skills are incredibly shaming) but I am starting to get over it. There is nothing I can do to change the fact that I am not a polyglot and frankly I don’t think it is reasonable to be expected to speak a ton of languages. I am doing my best trying to learn French as fast as I can. But the truth of the matter is, I didn’t know I would be living in France until about 6 months ago and there’s only so much French a person can learn in that time. I think making an effort is the best you can do and it is certainly more than what many people do

  • Sara Clarke

    I was recently in Turkey, and for whatever reason everyone just assumed I was Turkish. Which was cool, for the obvious reasons. But it was also really hard, because along with that came the assumption that I speak Turkish. 

    Turkish is a pretty difficult language (let’s not even get into the tongue twister that is “How are you?”), is totally unrelated to any language I have ever studied, and until I booked this trip I had few opportunities to even hear it spoken. No school I have ever attended has offered formal Turkish language courses.

    I want to be one of those cool people who just becomes fluent in the local language wherever they travel. But outside of Latin America and some parts of Europe, that can be a pretty tall order. No matter how well meaning and liberal and anti-ugly-American you are. I think it’s important to try. But I don’t think it’s jerkish to find yourself saying, “I don’t speak Tok Pisin,” “I don’t speak Telugu,” and “I don’t speak Hungarian,” from time to time. Because unless you’re some kind of crazy savant, you probably don’t.

    • Nobby21

      When ever I travelled abroad I was always accompanied by a local language speaker and therefore when confronted by a tirade of jumbled up letters I pointed to my companion. Now that I am settled in life I look back on those moments and curse myself for being so lazy. As I have now a wife with no language skills whatsoever

  • Eleanore Adams

    you express a universal experience, be it english or other. a smile gos a long way, and in the right place, food and drink speak volumns!

  • Jessie Beck

    I totally relate on feeling bummed, and almost guilty at times, about not speaking the language of a place I’m visiting. And I know it’s rather pessimistic, but I think we’ll always miss out on stuff no matter where we go. But for vagabond-blooded people who hop around through dozens of languages, how can we really learn them all?

  • flyingknuckle

    After German class, I try out what I’ve learned on my local grocers. I know I sound like an “English-first wanker” asking for my Käse – that’s okay, I own it. The way I see it, it’s reciprocity: I get corrected when I’m wrong, and they get a laugh at the Ausländer. 

  • Rhysorwin

    Great read! I always feel the same wherever I go. Turkey was the hardest for me as it is so far removed from English that I had no idea and could only say thank you. Although they all spoke perfect English and were happy to do so, it was not a great experience!

  • Julia

    Well, you get ace points for effort.  I am never sure how to feel about speaking English abroad — I will always learn what I can of the native language, a few words and phrases because I want to be respectful to the local people.  But at the end of the day, you’re right — there are so many languages in the world, and we cannot learn them all.  And the US education system barely acknowledges the wealth of languages in the world, and begins teaching languages so late (I was 12 before I took my first French class) that we really don’t stand a chance.  But it sounds like you’re doing some great travel in interesting places, and I would be even more lost than you in Suriname!

  • sequoiaqueneaux

    It’s pretty obvious that the vast majority of ENGLISH SPEAKING PEOPLE are not bi- or multi-lingual. To pretend it’s an American thing is dishonest and bigoted.

  • Reannon Muth

    You’re such a good writer, Eileen!  I love all of your writings…You have a way of transporting the reader to another world and very quickly (with a limited amount of words).  I especially like the part about wanting to give the bony-bottomed child back to her caretakers…I’ve been there so many times!

  • Sarahateschile

    To this I say, who cares. People come to America and LIVE there and make lives for themselves and never bother to learn English, yet they get offended when we visit their countries  for short amounts of time and can’t speak their language. I also refuse to believe the Chileans don’t understand my Spanish because it’s not in their HORRIBLE dialect. I think it shows they’re laziness and ignorance as a culture. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with visiting a country and not learning their language. 

    • Jim Harrelson

      Get over yourself already!! Why do you feel the need to bash Chile? Other than the fact she lives there and they like HER Spanish. I’ve traveled pretty extensively and very rarely has anyone gotten upset cause I didn’t speak their language. Just another bigot, unfortunately from my home country. The Land of Self Entitlement. I love Chilean Spanish personally.

  • Candice Walsh

    Dude, at least you speak two languages! My inability to speak French in Canada has been an ongoing shame of mine, and has seriously limited my career options. I just never had the opportunity. Then again, I don’t have the ear for languages either. It’s a strange and fascinating world.

  • Angie

    I studied Russian in college and I’m now living in Japan. I’m doing my best to learn Japanese, but it’s pretty slow going so far. I’m still grunting words and pointing to things for the most part. People are nice about it, but I still feel ashamed. Someone doing that in certain parts of the US would get dirty looks for not speaking English! Then there’s the fact that I hate feeling like an ignorant American. I secretly wish I could tell people that I was bilingual, even if Japanese isn’t one of my two languages. I just hate feeling like people think I’m stupid or something… I promise, I’m quite eloquent in 2 languages! Just not yours…

  • Amarens Jonker

    I am Dutch and I think we are the exact opposite of Americans. When people come to Holland, we speak English. When we go abroad, we speak English, or German/French (which are all obligated in school). I don’t speak all those languages fluently ofcourse, but I am grateful to have had this oppurtunity (obligation..) and I find it such a pity that Americans often don’t have this kind of ‘worldknowlegde’. But maybe this is why a lot of Dutch people go to Suriname or the Netherlands Antilles, because those are the only places we can have a vacation without having to speak another language again.

  • Roberta_ss

    Very interesting text. But next time you try using words in portuguese please do a little bit of research. For example, the word for small is “pequeno”, not “pequenho”. It may seam similar, but portuguese and spanish are different languages. 

  • Dana Filek-Gibson

    Speaking the local language is a huge asset when traveling, no doubt. But, that being said, I find it a bit pointless to lament your inability to speak the language in a country where you are a tourist. Of course the experience changes when you can converse with the locals, but the beauty of travel is finding yourself in the situations you described, i.e. stuck in the back of a minivan with a strange child on your lap, unable to communicate with anyone beyond sign language and a little guesswork. It goes with the territory, and this is not a situation exclusive to the “colonialist English-first wanker,” as you put it – should French/Spanish/German tourists who visit Suriname and speak English as a second language feel ashamed that they cannot communicate in Dutch? Do they somehow get a break because they’re speaking their second language? It seems certain travelers are deemed ignornant simply for being native English speakers. As you said, it’s impossible to learn the language in every country you visit, but if you make the best of your experience without the local tongue, there are still valuable experiences and interactions to be had. Speaking the language in the country where you live is hugely important, I agree, but I think it’s a bit self-pitying to point out that you spent a holiday as a tourist in a foreign country and found it difficult to communicate.

  • TheTranslator

    I always try to learn a bit in a language wherever I come, at least to see the locals’ funny faces when I mispronounce something. But there is one language I simply cannot learn…French and how annoying it is not to speak a word in French in France, everybody will know who has been already there. They cannot or do not want to speak English or another language. I haven’t experienced such a behaviour in another courty yet…

  • NEEDSer

    Eileen, thanks for writing this great article. I loved it all the way through except for the end, the very last word to be precise. Would you puhleeze stop knocking yourself! Have you any idea how huge the range of Spanish and English is? I’m sure you don’t really need telling, but with your two languages under your belt, you speak both the world’s second-most common language (Spanish, used by 310 million people + 60 million as a second language) and the world’s third-most common language (English 405 million + 750 million who speak it as a second language). Anyway, this means you can communicate easily with more people in the world than most others, let alone just folk from the USA!

    As a speaker of English (from New Zealand) who learnt Dutch as an adult (on moving to the Netherlands) I know what it’s like to feel like a jerk and an idiot because I couldn’t understand or speak Dutch perfectly from day one onwards. But I couldn’t fly either (still can’t) and that doesn’t make me a jerk (either). I got over it, and so can you. Please, change the very last word of your otherwise great post to ‘latter’. Thanks!
    ~ ragini werner.

  • NEEDSer

    Oops got my totals in a twist: it’s 405 million native- Spanish speakers and 375 native-English speakers.

Every two weeks, a language is lost after its final living speaker dies.
Think of these expressions as ways to get inside of a particular worldview, and to show...
Over in Slate, in a piece titled Terrorists, Dissidents and Copy Editors, Christopher...
Surprising support for the Cherokee language, from Google.
I’ve always had a soft spot for making up the etymology and history behind certain...
Congress acts to improve study abroad opportunities for American students.
Are you really prepared, or have you just been watching Amelie on repeat?
Is the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act really about cultural exchange and...
We all talk a little differently depending on which part of the country we come from.