Learning Dutch

Opposite Ocean: Dutch, the mythical unicorn of languages

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With its different 'dialects' and evolving phrases, Leah Budke questions whether Dutch as a language really exists at all?

Let’s be clear, unicorns unfortunately do not exist and neither does Dutch, my friends. Perhaps you’re saying 'no way' and typing 'does Dutch really exist' into the Google search bar right now. If you click search, Wikipedia will try to inform you that it does indeed exist, but I’m going to tell you why it doesn’t.

The 'dialetcs' of Dutch 

Okay, let me be a bit more specific in my claim here. Dutch as a concept referring to one language does not exist. I’ve been corrected many times by Flemings (people from Flanders) when referring to the language as Dutch. They say that I should say Vlaams (Flemish) instead. Herein lies some of the confusion. I spent the better part of six months trying to get this Dutch language under control or onder de knie as they say. The courses I took taught me general Dutch or algemeen Nederlands. It was a mistake to assume then that after taking those courses I would have all the tools I needed to understand and function in the language. I’m still learning Dutch, I have to, but learning Vlaams (Flemish) (or rather even learning to understand Vlaams and all of its crazy dialects) is the real uphill battle now.

Can you ever entirely learn a foreign language?

I’m often asked by friends, family members, fellow students and acquaintances how my Dutch is coming along. This is a difficult question to answer. When I began learning the language I was motivated to the extreme to learn as quickly as possible and reach the goal I needed to reach to study at the university. I reached that goal and I was very happy and felt very accomplished. What I didn’t realise then was that even if I study this language for the rest of my life I will probably never be able to say, “Hey! It’s going splendidly.” That’s because Dutch doesn’t only mean one thing and the collection of language variations that this little word represents is fluidly changing as all languages do.

A truth about languages in general is that you will never learn it all; you cannot ever entirely learn a whole language. Languages change and ultimately the living speakers have the authority on what is correct and what is incorrect. Some day you will be the outdated person complaining about ‘that newfangled word those youngsters are using’ and although you think that word silly, it just may be on its way to being instated as a proper word in that particular language.

Changing languages

Back to my story, though. It just so happens that right now I’m the figurative old lady complaining about that ‘newfangled’ word those Dutch-Flemish-speakers are using and asking in my most annoying voice why we cannot just all agree to use words I know and understand (not to be difficult, but seriously, just to preserve my sanity).

Allow me to illustrate by way of anecdote. Sometimes we will be watching a show on Flemish TV and although I’m listening intently and am completely tuned into the context, I still have no idea what the person on television is saying. At that point I might turn to Christophe and say, “I didn’t understand any of that,” and he will respond with a slight smile and say, “neither did I.” In this case, the person on TV was probably speaking some Flemish dialect that even locals from another area of teeny tiny Flanders have a difficult time understanding. No big deal, right? So I can’t understand TV sometimes, life will go on. Right, but lovely readers, this doesn’t only happen in the world of television, it also happens to me daily in all kinds of places.

Occasionally it happens when I am attending a lecture in Dutch at the university. Usually I’m pretty oblivious to people around me during the lectures. I try to optimise my ability to pay attention so I’m often not very social during these lectures and I try to sit by people that are not very social either. It’s extremely difficult for me to listen to a lecture in Dutch, write notes in Dutch (okay sometimes Nengels – hybrid of English and Dutch), and then also try to really grasp what is being discussed all at the same time. Any extra attempt to socialise or have a little conversation during the lecture, or even anyone else’s attempt to have a conversation with their friends around me, completely ruins this delicate balance that needs to be in place for me to actually understand. Some days it goes really well and I have the feeling that I’ve done a very good job of understanding and note-taking. That is when it usually happens. The girl or boy next to me will ask me something during the short break period and I don’t understand anything they are saying. This is when that trusty old ‘Dutch’ grows a shiny horn right out of the middle of its head, its flaxen mane turns glittery, and its newly grown wings carry it off into fantasy world. Yes, friends, this is when that neat concept of ‘Dutch’ no longer exists in reality.

This metamorphosis into the fantastical doesn’t only happen on TV and in the university, though. It also happens on the street, in the tram, in the grocery store, in the coffee shop, anywhere really. So, this is just me, informing the world of the flighty nature of this little language called ‘Dutch’. I’m still trying to trap and tame that unicorn so I can try and figure out what it’s really made of. Because, who knows, maybe it’s not so mythical after all. Perhaps my unicorn wrangling skills will improve in the upcoming academic year and I’ll have the privilege of sharing what I learn about this interesting, albeit, mysterious beast.


Reprinted with permission from Opposite Ocean.

Opposite OceanOpposite Ocean: Leah Budke is a web blog created and maintained by Leah Budke. Leah is a twenty-something American living abroad in Europe with a passion for languages, art, literature, and one special Belgian. She is a university graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish but finds that the drive to learn endures. Follow her as she cycles awkwardly through the streets of Ghent, Belgium, attempts to learn Dutch, and reveals all the quirks that make up the curious yet charming country of Belgium.

Thumbnail credit: DaisyCupcake via Wikimedia Commons.

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3 Comments To This Article

  • daniel posted:

    on 3rd December 2014, 17:17:56 - Reply

    Funny thing, languages. This (not having a clue as to what was just said) happens to me in English. Listening to someone from Ireland, for instance can really throw me, despite my near complete mastery of English.

  • Arne posted:

    on 3rd December 2014, 17:23:14 - Reply

    I grew up in Belgium speaking Flemish and indeed, I would meet people I could barely understand, also speaking 'Flemish'. Then I moved to Canada and I can go anywhere on the continent and be confident I can communicate with others who speak 'English'.

    Flemish dialects seem to borrow heavily from other languages and the quantity of borrowed German, French, Dutch (as in what is spoken in the Netherlands) and English words entirely depends on the region. Then each Flemish dialect has its own very distinct pronunciation, so even after mastering the vocabulary, you might still not understand a fellow Flemish speaker.

  • Knippenberg posted:

    on 7th December 2014, 01:56:24 - Reply

    One thing that compounds the writer's problem, in my humble estimation, is the fact that she is confusing "Flemish" with "Dutch". The Belgians, and believe me I know them from having them as dear friends and neighbors here in the US, will ALWAYS insist that when they speak what we understand as "dutch", is not: it is"FLEMISH"! Now, as an expat, who has been away from Holland for over 64 years, I readily admit that the Dutch language, much more so than, do I dare to say it,the Flemish "dialect", has evolved much more rapidly, accepting many, especially anglo-saxon expressions/words. And maybe that's why het Vlaams is bound to preserve het Hollands as the true Dutch language. So, there is no unicorn after all!