You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.
~ Abraham Lincoln

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Aug 27 2014

Many friends have asked me why I write in English. Believe it or not, I don’t know. That is to say, I don’t know how come. All I have is circumstantial evidence (hear the lawyer talking…).

First of all, and even though technically I should say I was raised as a native Dutch speaker, in practical reality my sister and I were raised trilingual: French, Dutch and English. French and Dutch were the “working languages”, but as my parents spoke English whenever they didn’t want us kids to understand, of course by the time we were five or six, we had a reasonably firm grasp of the language (and of course, our parents didn’t cotton on to the fact until a couple of years later). That was reinforced by the ubiquity of English on TV and in the movies: since American and British TV series or movies are not dubbed in Belgium, but sub-titled, by the time my sister and I could read, we were getting free English courses whenever we were watching TV.

And then there was the family angle. My aunt (my mother’s sister) married a GI towards the end of WWII (after they had liberated Antwerp) and moved to New York. So there was a strong American connection that reinforced our interest in things American. Whenever our family (my aunt, my uncle and the two cousins) would travel to Europe, we’d speak only English for three or four weeks.

I mean, we just soaked it up.

“That’s all very well,” you’ll say, “but that still doesn’t explain why you write that book in English.”

Well, please bear with me.

When I was twelve or so (if memory serves I was in high school, no longer in elementary school), my mother gave me a P.G. Wodehouse novel to read (it was one of the Blandings Castle series, with Lord Emsworth, and the Empress of Blandings, and the whole Blandings fauna), saying “this is good English, read it, you’ll like it.” I did read it, and I did like it, and so I started reading English books, novels, mysteries, I wasn’t particular. Over time, I worked my way through classic English and American literature, but also contemporary works.

By the time I got out of law school, I had read a lot of the better stuff, in Dutch, in French, but mostly in English.

And then of course, there was work. Belgium is a small country, with an economy very much dependent on the world at large. And Antwerp is a major port (it ranks somewhere around 15 in the world). So language skills are almost a survival skill for anyone with serious professional ambitions. Which is why it’s not unusual to find people here who are fluent in three or four, or even more languages, especially in trade or in the maritime industry. In fact, most of my friends and acquaintances are fluent in English, and often in a third or even a fourth language as well.

We had a lot of clients in the maritime industry and in international trade in the law firm I worked for, so we all spoke and wrote English all the time. And after I joined Hewlett-Packard, English almost became my first language. And when I was in Palo Alto, I’d only speak Dutch or French at work with the few expats working there too.

This is the rational part of the explanation. Over time, I learned to speak and write English easily.

What still puzzles me, is that the idea for the book came to me in English. I speak Dutch most of the time these days, occasionally French with my children or friends.

The writing of Legal Eagle really started with the Scientific Method chapter. The dialog popped up in my mind one day, in English, while I was driving. I wrote the first version down in about an hour. It didn’t even occur to me to do it in Dutch! And the rest came naturally, easily. Like this short note.

Go figure.

posted by Larry
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