Blogger Dutched Pinay on the trials and tribulations of learning Dutch. You thought you’d heard them all eh!
When learning a new language at an ‘older’ age, I often hear linguists and those who have first-hand experience say – Be bold. Be determined. They say that the fastest and most efficient way to learn a new language is by speaking it regularly, even if it means making use of the wrong vocabulary, wrong grammar, and wrong accent.
The Polish girl I met in my Dutch class four years ago sticks in my mind. She had barely spent 6 months in the country and already spoke very good Dutch. Well, at least that was the impression she left on us newcomers. Without difficulty, she captured the Dutch gurgling accent in her stride, saying things like, “Joh, meen je dat nou?” and “Tjonge jonge jonge” when bantering around with our teacher during the break.
Learning Dutch quickly
I found myself wondering – how can she learn Dutch so fast – she’s already using colloquial phrases? When will I be able to say the words, “Tonge jonge jonge” with such nonchalance?
During a class party I discovered her secret. I was chatting with the Dutch partner of my Indonesian classmate when I overheard her chortling from the back.
“Isn’t she amazing she speaks such good Dutch?” I said in wonderment.
To my surprise he answered, “Well, yes and no. She has indeed the accent but her Nederlands is not correct. I had to listen carefully to understand what she was saying.”
Bless the Dutch for their straightforwardness.
Freedom to speak how you like
This short incident four years ago totally shifted my world. The message was clear: freedom. The Polish girl is free. She doesn’t care if her choice of words and tenses are right. She doesn’t care if people pick holes with her Dutch. She just does it. She speaks it!
Maybe I could use some of this attitude too, I thought.
Back at home I told the Dutchman, “Je krijgt een bekeuring als je Engels spreekt.” He thought my new rules were hilarious but he went along willingly, trying his best to help me with the learning process.
It was not easy though. Since he is so used to speaking English with me he finds it awkward when he switches to pure Dutch. The whole exercise turned out to be a complete struggle.
Adjusting to switching languages
While I talked to Dutchman in my funny and very much flawed Dutch, he was always quick to laugh and digress into English. It took us months, perhaps a year to adjust with the language switch at home until one day I noticed we spoke 100% Dutch with each other. I guess things like this just happen. One day you wake up in the morning and realized things have totally changed, and thankfully, for the better.
This weekend we went to Antwerp for dinner. Quite a long ride from Utrecht, but reliving this ancient historical city, relishing its vibrant yet subterranean character, and the mouth-watering mussels it offers, was definitely worth it.
As it is, the city is always teeming with people on a weekend. Locals, tourists, culture and art enthusiasts, history buffs, entertainers, and many more, they fill the cobble-stoned roads of the city centre. It was a great day with beautiful weather but we found ourselves complaining that the city is ‘run down’ by too many Dutch. They are in every corner. The gruff accent permeated the air and we were left yearning to hear, at least trickles of, the soft Flemish accent.
The Dutch accent
After finishing the last shell in my mussel pan, I excused myself to wash my hands in the toilet. The restaurant’s toilet has this typical Dutch staircase – steep and narrow. Perhaps this is one of the few things these Dutch-speaking countries have in common.
When I got out of the toilet and stood above the staircase landing, a man emerged into view below. He stood there waiting for me to come down. I shifted my gaze towards him as I went down, and he returned it with a warm, “Hello“. I smiled, nodding back and replied, albeit curt, “Hoi.”
“Een Hollandse!” he replied ecstatically.
I think the guy had had too much to drink. But the encounter left me wondering – how far have I gone with my Dutch accent.
I also had a similar experience last year when I toured the Mosel River Valley in Germany. It was in Cochem, a beautiful quaint town, home to the enchanting Reichsburg castle. When I arrived, dusk had slowly sneaked into place. I could see the tall lamps along the boulevard glittering as I drove slowly, and when I looked up, I saw the spectacularly lit castle looming above, evoking feelings of turbulent medieval times.
Stop soaking up the ambience and find the hotel! – I told myself, it will be dark very soon. After a couple of fruitless attempts, I resigned, parking the car and hitting the road on foot. Unlike men, we women are not afraid to ask for directions.
I saw a tall young blonde guy on the other side of the road about to cross to where I was standing. He was carrying a crate of beer in his arms. Another blonde guy followed him, twiddling car keys in his thumbs.
“Hi, do you know Park Hotel von Landenberg?” I asked the blonde guy with the crate of beer.
The face of the guy with the car keys lit up and he gave me a wide welcoming grin while nodding to his friend, “Ah, een Nederlands meisje!”
Since when do I look Dutch? And hey, I spoke English!
Sigh – perhaps it was the G that gave me away.
Insecurities about language
Only a week ago, I was taking a walk with a Dutch colleague at lunch time and she asked me how long I had been in the country. I said five years this month. “For five years, your Dutch is very good!” she said, her eyes lighting up – giving me the appreciative nod. Feeling flattered, I thanked her, but the feeling didn’t last long.
It’s ironic. Shouldn’t I be happy? And to even be mistaken as Dutch or Dutch-speaking, outside the country just because of my accent would be enough to celebrate – this would set my Dutch teacher off clapping her hands gleefully and grinning ear to ear. It’s a feat! But, alas, I am a doubting Thomas.
I harbour insecurities about my Dutch language skills. I just can’t tie in the justice of what has been said. I still worry about my grammar, and lately, my vocabulary – I haven’t been actively collecting new words. Because of this, I feel inadequate when I read the news and come across with intimidating words such as, betuttelend, steekproefsgewijs, debielen, geglipt, verzwegen, and mond te snoeren.
I guess my concern is quite normal for individuals who have learned the language, and used it everyday for at least three years. The challenge now is something else. It is to grow out of the basic state and bring this new-found language experience and asset up to a higher level; from good to great. Until now no ray of promised light is in sight. Perhaps, this is but a temporary lull? I am on a plateau; latent with the Dutch language.
It’s the same feeling I had as a little kid playing with those big brown cardboard boxes, hiding inside them, but this time I feel trapped. I have outgrown the box and I want to get out but it’s just not opening up for me.
There are times I wish I’d learned German or French instead.
There are times I ask why Dutch is so difficult to master.
There are other times that I dare to think “why bother?”
Maybe its just part of the phase; a continuous phase we all go through in learning a second language. Sometimes we are never short of complaints. Sometimes we want to push ourselves too hard. Sometimes enough is just enough. Sometimes we just have to settle on what we have.