While waiting for the elevator in a university building in Amsterdam I noticed something odd on the sign next to the elevator button. Next to the information about what department was on which floor the numbers of the floors were written as numbers twice. There was an 8 and next to that it said ‘8RD’. Sometimes It said ‘RD’ and sometimes ‘ND’ but never ‘TH’ and never in the way you would expect it: 8th (like this). I couldn’t believe it. Was this the English version of the floor numbering? Mistakes like that on a sign for everyone to see? It must be my mistake. I felt embarrassed to even be confused. I looked again to see if the letters might mean something else like the names of rooms or wings on each floor but that would have been even more odd and mysterious.
I wanted to laugh, ask someone whether they knew about this massive cock up, but I was a first time guest here, it felt rude to do that. So I kept looking at the sign in disbelieve and I started wondering why it stirred so much in me. It was a mind gobbling experience. The surprise at discovering such a basic mistake was mixed with embarrassment and shame of being Dutch. It was a feeling that took me longer than the elevator ride to shake off.
I guess the key to my state of shock is the element of authority. This building was a place for higher education. It was a place of knowledge and it was hard to believe that at some point someone who works there must at least have seen this sign, even if they didn’t write it, and apparently didn’t have this basic knowledge of English to see the mistakes. It felt like nothing was certain anymore.
When I taught 13 year olds at a secondary school, at the beginning of the year, I could measure my level of authority as a teacher by their reaction when they discovered I had made a mistake. They were really shocked. I would pretend to be really embarrassed and I deliberately didn’t do what I wanted to do, ignore that shockwave going through the classroom. That level of authority never lasts long at a school. Sooner or later pupils find out you are human. But I believe you need to take these moments seriously. These pupils need to find out that I know what I’m talking about even when I sometimes doubt something I’ve just said. Not everything that seems a mistake is one. Language is fluent and words have more than one meaning or even spelling. They should always be open minded and be ready to be as mind gobbled as I was when staring at that elevator sign.
I know there are books about funny mistakes Dutch people make when speaking or writing English. I promis this blog will be a little different and I won't steal any stories from others. I would, however, like contributions from others and hope to have a bit of fun discussing what we have 'leathered'.