I have to admit, I am quite disappointed. I really thought that I would be able to speak fluent Dutch by now. After all, it has been two years since I moved to Holland and during this time, I have studied diligently in hope of achieving that very goal. I go to lessons, I do my homework, I practice, but alas, Nederlands refuses to take to me.
I attribute this to 3 factors:
1) Everybody speaks English
The well-meaning Dutch will helpfully respond in English to your lame attempts to communicate with them in their native tongue. I consider it a victory on the odd occasion when I do get a Dutch response (not counting alsjeblieft/dankjewel). If I had moved to France it would have been a completely different story; you wouldn’t expect the French to speak English on any account. Speaking French would have been a matter of survival. I’m not really complaining; it is nice to know I don’t have to try and speak Dutch when I don’t feel like it, or when dealing with important stuff like banking. When I first moved here, I told a Dutch lady that I was learning the language and she said that was very nice of me in a tone that implied why would you bother? It’s not necessary; we will speak English to all you foreigners. But, damn it, I want to bother. To be able to slip effortlessly into a foreign language is a wonderful thing.
2) Dutch is almost impossible to pronounce
(and sounds completely ridiculous)
Double Dutch is a fairly common British slang term for incomprehensible speech and writing i.e. gibberish. That should have been my first clue that I had not set myself the easiest of tasks. For one thing, it requires such an effort to pronounce; correct pronunciation of the letter ‘g’ resembles clearing one’s throat and carries a high risk of accidental spitting; the correct pronunciation of ‘uit’ is still unclear to me; and my attempts at the ‘sch’ sound are usually accompanied by gesticulating and face-pulling. Recently I attended a festival called Schollenpop, taking place in Scheveningen: two words as if deliberately combined to frustrate English speaking tongues… or flush out German spies.
I probably wouldn’t have picked Dutch as my second language, had I not moved here. The Dutch themselves admit it’s an ugly language, and yet, it’s not without charm; how can you not love a language that has a verb for eating sweets, ‘snoepen’ (I snoep, you snoep, we all snoep!), or, resist the cuteness of ‘rondsnuffelen’, my personal favourite, meaning to browse. And, no piece on Language would be complete without at least mentioning the famous, untranslatable ‘gezellig’, meaning well… you know, cosy or something.
3. I am British and therefore, foreign Language deficient
It’s not my fault, I didn’t grow up on mainland Europe, everyone speaks English anyway, my school was rubbish etc. Perhaps I am just not very good at languages because, surely, if it were down to sheer will and determination, I would have already achieved my dream? Oh, I’ve made progress alright; apparently I pronounce the sentence ‘I speak bad Dutch’ very convincingly. I can read and write to a fairly decent standard. It’s not too hard when I have time to think about it. When I listen to Dutch people speaking, I understand most of the words. But, speaking it myself, is a different story. It’s scary. Sometimes I start sentences, not knowing if I will be able to finish them. When I say things in Dutch, a lot of the time, I don’t understand the response; I panic and my brain freezes. So, I then have to ask for it to be repeated in English and feel like a total mafkees.
But, I’ll keep on trying. When I speak a simple sentence in Dutch, am understood and I do understand the response, I am elated. It’s… geweldig!
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