Taal tale

Taal tale

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‘Spreekt u Nederlands’? Three years ago, when someone posed this question to me, I answered softly ‘een beetje’. Today, three years later, I answer, with a little more volume, ‘ja wel, maar niet heel goed’.

When it comes to speaking a ‘non- native’ tongue, I’ll choose imperfection over shutting up. I’m opportunistic and love to talk. This sort of attitude makes some people in the Netherlands see me as an outsider. Unfortunately for them, I see myself as an Amsterdammer, despite my ‘sub standard’ Dutch, and I plan to live inside the Netherlands for the time being.

On that note, Kush Jain was the perfect find. A few years ago, I stood in a room the size of a large cupboard that stands in for a classroom in suburban Mumbai in India. Kush, an English language trainer of adults, encourages her students. "Come come," she says. A thin young woman comes forward and tidies her mangal sutra (marriage necklace) before a full-length mirror. Then she meets her eyes in her reflection and says, "I like myself. I like myself the way I am. I love myself. I love myself the way I am. I accept myself. I accept myself the way I am. I am in love with myself."

Others are encouraged and prompted by Ms. Jain to do the same. She gives the following advice to the aspiring English speakers looking up in adoration at her: "I always tell all my students, speak incorrect English, but speak it confidently." The manager, of VETA English training school, Nilima explains that students sometimes question her about the pedagogy of VETA, which tends to show a lack of consistency. Nilima’s view is that one should be comfortable when learning a foreign language. For example, because the simple present tense is not used in major Indian languages it is replaced by the present continuous tense in the streets of India. Most Indians, who are not native English speakers, say ‘Are you wanting it?’ in English instead of ‘Do you want it?' VETA’s motto is to be comfortable with what most Indians are comfortable with most of the time when speaking a non-native tongue.

This is the India I’ve been nurtured in. We have the annoying Hindu habit of taking everything in the world that threatens to overcome us, and making it ‘ours’. So one is not required to ‘convert’ to English speaking. Just to ‘Indianize’ it.

It is really being that simple. And frankly my dear, I am liking it.

The art of loving oneself and speaking incorrect English confidently is connecting thousands of Indians to a world beyond national borders and creating a new kind of belonging. And making them money. So there must be something in it. In the eight years that I have been trying to learn ‘good’ Dutch, ‘bad’ English seems to have become a phenomenon in India. Mumbai and other towns and cities in India are filled with hoardings and advertisements for schools like VETA. VETA claims to be one of the up-market schools and proudly displays a shiny board in their office that reads ‘Excellence in spoken English’. In these cramped cupboard-like spaces in crowded noisy buildings, history is being made as the most international of languages is going through a process of nationalization with flair.

Spreekt u Nederlands’? Three years ago, when someone posed this question to me ‘Do you speak Dutch’? I answered softly ‘een beetje’ (a little). Today, three years later, when they ask me, I answer, with a little more volume, ‘ja wel, maar niet heel goed’ (yes, but not that well).  So how many more years will it take for me to answer like some of the folks in Mumbai whom I have met recently and spoken with, when they are asked if they speak English?  Eye contact and a clear ‘yes’. And when the conversation continues, I understand yes, it is English but it’s their version of English. A Dutchman speaking to India via Skype on the computer to them understands them as well, and in return speaks his version of English. And the conversation continues. I have placed this on record.

Back in Amsterdam, my new ‘home- town’ (as we say in India), I wonder why I can’t apply what I have learned in Mumbai. Speak incorrect Dutch and speak it confidently. So I stand in front of my mirror every day, look myself in the eye and say, ‘Ik hou van mezelf, hoe ik ben…..’

I say it in Dutch. The Dutch of an allochtone – the politically correct name given to the ‘non Westernized immigrant’ in the Netherlands. It means something like, ‘the one who does not originate from….’. Ever since I moved here, the ability to speak or not speak Dutch well, has taken on significance in the life of people in Holland. No wonder then, that Amsterdam has several adult language learning schools for Dutch to cater to the allochtone. The opposite of allochtone is autochtone the ‘born and made in the Netherlands’ person. One measure of the difference between the allochtone and the autochtone is taal – language. A taal tale.

These last eight years I’ve been pre occupied with questions of language, belonging and cultural integration--inburgering. I think I’ve been properly ingeburgered. I transport myself, my children and other living and non-living things via bicycle for all the four seasons of the year. I welcome gays kissing on the streets of Amsterdam without blinking an eye. I went to Dutch school, passed my exams, and speak Dutch to everyone in public, except my children and my Indian friends who live here. But sometimes I come home and tell my autochtone – Dutch born husband about someone who didn’t quite treat me right in a grocery store, the doctor’s practice, the street or a restaurant. And to my surprise, his first reaction is, ‘They must have noticed your ‘bad’ Dutch’.

My artist friend Anja makes the kind of art that I like. Recently she developed an artwork called ‘Hysterical Bubble’. To carry forward my idea of speaking ‘bad’ Dutch confidently, I think I’ll ask her to design a taal art piece for me. I’ll wear a deflated cloth balloon on my shoulder and go to a place like my son’s up-market hockey club. In the course of a conversation, my Dutch will fall to confident but allochtone, not quite perfect levels, as I speak. This will cause the balloon on my shoulder to blow up. On it will be embroidered a map of the Netherlands in Dutch cross-stitch style. After a couple of minutes, the voice of a virtual Dutch politician will address the surprised group that will have gathered before me. He will speak (in perfect Dutch) of the ills of immigration; say the Netherlands is too crowded anyway, and that the time has come to do something about it. In other words, ‘convert to being ‘Dutch’ or get the hell out’. He will then sing the national anthem.

 A couple of months ago, Rebecca, daughter of good friends of mine had her Bat Mitswa.  Each guest was requested to say a few lines as a part of the ritual. In the minutes between this announcement and my turn, I gathered my thoughts and battled with whether I should speak in my imperfect Dutch or proper English. When my turn came, I spoke in Dutch. I learned soon enough that not only did everybody understand me; they greatly appreciated the one allochtone’s participation in the ritual. An imperfect belonging.

 Bat Mitswa

It has become a personal matter. I am here. I’ve come to stay. My language is more than the sum of my words. And even when imperfect, yes, it’s also about belonging’. There’s more to me than what you see, or should I say…what you hear.


Nandini Bedi
July 2010

Nandini BediNandini Bedi is a documentary filmmaker and writer.


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18 Comments To This Article

  • Dee posted:

    on 28th June 2011, 09:25:42 - Reply

    Very nicely written...could relate to most your post.
    I try to write some of my thoughts as well...and was just contemplating on writing about a similar topic from the perspective of a mother whose son is born here (6 yr old)..
    keep writing...

  • Shanaz Moudud posted:

    on 19th May 2011, 03:22:43 - Reply

    Hi Nandu,
    It was so great to read such an honest and thoughtful recounting of your experiences! Even way back in college your awareness and insights were always interesting and inspiring. Thanks for sharing taal tale.
  • Mukta posted:

    on 2nd May 2011, 22:02:51 - Reply

    Dear Nandini, Lovely article! I completely agree that if you dare you get it sure. At least that's how I did it here in the Netherlands. I speak relatively good dutch now in 4 years time. At work I MUST talk Dutch or else I am very soon "een buitenstander". Not that they do not talk to me in English but then I cannot enjoy the group talk and the humor and hence the fun! I love talking Dutch and mine is also not Perfect :).

  • Fiona posted:

    on 28th April 2011, 16:48:23 - Reply

    To round off where I abruptly ended, I wonder if speaking Dutch well and feeling integrated in Dutch society need to go hand in hand? What sort of changes in attitude could help?
  • Fiona posted:

    on 28th April 2011, 13:14:19 - Reply

    Hi Nandini,

    Great to read your thoughts on this subject. And also, the comments of your readers.

    I am Irish and living here for about 12 years. I have struggled to learn the Dutch language. In fact I still am struggling. However my Dutch is now 'not so bad'. I work 'in Dutch' most of the time and get by, sometimes thanks to my Dutch partner who corrects the imperfections in my written Dutch.

    I had to laugh when I read in "taal tale" how your husband so 'critically' pointed out "They must have noticed your ‘bad’ Dutch".
    I am certain my family find my partner at times 'rude' in his own (don't think before you speak, what the other person will feel) Dutch way. I find this way both very irritating and very refreshing, all depending......

    As you so nicely illustrated, this is a personal matter and more than a personal matter.

    My observation from working with the Dutch born allochtone children of 'allochtone parents’ (and I mean specifically both parents being 'non western') is that these children very often fall behind in the Dutch school system. They speak a different language at home and because of the language difference, their parents cannot help them with their schoolwork. The schools, where the children I work with go to, have very few autochtone pupils.

    Friends of mine, a Russian couple, living in the Netherlands for about a long as I have, have a daughter who fell out of the school system at an early age. Because of this and the problems she had in school, her work opportunities for the future do not look good. Their younger daughter at the age of 14 was also having problems in school so they moved her for one year to a private English speaking school. They told me that within that one year her overall grades rocketed. This I find remarkable considering her command of the English language, prior to going to that school, was worse than her Dutch. Unfortunately they could not afford to continue sending her there.

    Another friend of mine who was working in Dublin, in disadvantaged schools, as a substitute primary school teacher, told me, that the positive attitude which the Polish children have towards learning, has had an extremely beneficial effect on the attitude which the Irish children have towards school and learning. And of course as a consequence this positively affected their school grades.
  • Yash Srivastava posted:

    on 26th April 2011, 11:09:16 - Reply

    Hi Nandini - enjoyed the taal tale immensely. Being accepted by locals in our new 'homes' is almost always an uphill task even when langauge is not necessarily a barrier. Even if one speaks the language flawlessly (or so one believes in any event), I think it is endemic to teh human condition to seek out difference. For instance, in Australia, despite my relative ease at speaking English, I cannot bring myself to say 'mate', and my accent will never be aussie. Even if it was, the colour of my skin would never be the same.
    That said, we do find other ways to relate to those who came to Australia before us through teh gastronomic route - sharing barbecue and beer if not breaking bread together. However, as you said, there's is no better way than simply being yourself and keeping an open mind. It seems to work for me as it seems to do for you.
  • gouri patwardhan posted:

    on 20th April 2011, 17:28:46 - Reply

    Hey Nandini, was delighted to read this piece. you write so well. discovered your blog and read some stuff there too and had wonderful time. I too often flirt with the idea of writing my outsider impressions of Karachi but haven't managed to write anything yet.
    I really like your style.
    with love Gouri
  • Saraju posted:

    on 19th April 2011, 14:12:39 - Reply

    Dear Nandini,
    Your article is interesting, thought-provoking, positive and inspiring specially for so-called "buitenlanders". It gives some tips that,
    i. how to get adapted to the new envirnment with a SMILE :)),
    ii. with the application of trial and error method (with full confidence) in order to bring more perfection in a foreign language (in this case)
    iii. keeping one's own identity intact.
    Very well done, my dear. Keep it up.
    With warm wishes,
  • nandini posted:

    on 2nd November 2010, 11:14:07 - Reply

    Hi Simona,
    Thanks for your idea of translating 'imperfect belonging' to other areas of ourselves, and others while growing into who we were meant to be. Will give it some reflection.
    I guess I contradict myself when I use words like 'homeland'. 'Home' would be the better word. Its home here for us now. This business of 'lands' is creating too many irrelevant and stupid issues.
    Its dangerous for HolLAND to think of itself in LAND terms. It would be be healthier for it to think of itself in 'Whole' terms. Whole-land.
    Maybe we should suggest this to Geert Verkeerd.

  • Simona posted:

    on 27th October 2010, 22:44:59 - Reply

    Thanks Nandini for this article, very very nice and indeed thought provoking, made me laugh with witty humor while talking about an important subject as integration and taking a stand in it. A stand which I'd like to take over: speaking imperfectly confidently, good one. And, haven't given it enough thought, but you can probably translate that approach to other areas of integration, in the spirit of mutual understanding, openness and of "becoming or growing into who you are and were meant to be", which also allows us to contribute the best to the society we live in.
  • Nandini Bedi posted:

    on 25th October 2010, 12:52:56 - Reply

    Dear Christopher,
    Thanks for sharing your experiences about living in Holland. No land is perfect. There are pros and cons of picking yourself up and going off to live in another part of the world. I, like you, am happy here and happy too to have a Dutch partner and a Dutch family.
    However, I do experience the present trends in Holland as a warning sign. Whats going to happen to real interaction between people from diverse backgrounds, to art and culture, to allochtones? So I decided to speak about it in the way that I am. I feel its what i can do for now.
    I feel committed to my adopted homeland. I feel i owe it something in return for what it has given me. I feel my own children and all other children must learn about connection and difference. And maybe agree to disagree.
    I don't understand what 'becoming Dutch' is really about. I think becoming or growing into who you are and were meant to be is more what its about.
    Like you, I'm working on improving my Dutch, but not because someone told me to, but because I live here.
    I will never be so good at it as most of the people born here, but that's also not my aim. I'll do my best.
    Thanks again,

  • Christopher Tearno posted:

    on 22nd October 2010, 23:00:15 - Reply

    Nandini et al.
    Thank you for sharing your experiences. I feel much more comfortable about my present goals. I am an american who studied at UVA in the late 90s. I was a cultural athropology student. My fellow students and I felt that we noticed a lot of racism and sexism when studying and living in NL. We of course were met with much criticism from many dutch people when we shared this observation. "We're the most tolerant people in the world." We often heard in angry reply. I think being American and studiers of social science, we were more sensitive to such issues because they come up so often in the US. I do have to say though that your comment of Allochtonen being different from buitenlanders is very astute. When I am in holland, I usually do not feel so patronized or slighted with my vreeslijke dutch. I am very limited in my dutch speaking abilities which I'm now working on improving. Whenever I struggle with the language, dutch people just revert immediately to english and are quite pleasant about it. I hate to say this, but I think the fact that I am a white western male has something to do with it. While it may make things easier for me, it's upsetting to think about. It is unfortunate and the current political environment in Holland and most of Europe (America too) right now does not help this mindset.
    Anyway, enough of my soapbox rant. Everyone here has my admiration and you have all given me hope that I too can learn dutch and thrive in the country of which I so long to be a part. Imperfect as it may be, I still find the country and the people to be quite wonderful and diverse. Falling in love with one doesn't hurt either.
    All the best,
    Chris Tearno
  • Nandini Bedi posted:

    on 15th October 2010, 09:28:28 - Reply

    Hello Carlos,
    Thank you for your post. You have thought things through and given us enough to reflect on. I agree ideally one should use the opportunity to improve one's Dutch. I do feel however that some people have an aptitude for learning languages, others are not really gifted at it. Its discouraging if one is doing one's best and getting patronized or criticized for it. And if the present day political winds continue to blow, we may even be discriminated for our 'buitelander" ( and esp. if we are allochtone) Dutch. Communication and connection is about a lot more than perfection in language. And diversity is lovely. Even if it demands more from each one of us. The Netherlands would be a boring place without it.
  • Carlos posted:

    on 9th October 2010, 09:23:50 - Reply

    I guess all us foreigners (beware; it is not the same as allochtone) get those patronizing remarks on our Dutch, and sometimes even on our English.On the positive side, you could use those remarks to improve your Dutch. I agree, It is indeed annoying, but I've learned to understand that this patronizing tendency of the Dutch is part of what they are. When you start to understand the language you realize they do patronize a lot among themselves. I think it is a part of their different conception of respect and hierarchy.
    On my very first day in NL, several years ago, an American friend told me "beware, they have a very personal conception of personal space". Coming from an American I though it was part of her culture to say that, but I have come to the realization that it is absolutely true, they conceive personal space in a different way and therefore I guess they don't see this personal remarks as offensive. As they don't see offensive to come face-to-face and don't even say hello. It is who they are and you have to learn to "translate" them. Just as a token, my Scottish friend went to a job interview, he was asked to introduce himself and after that his future boss tells him "now we are going to interrogate you".
  • Kristina posted:

    on 6th October 2010, 11:58:31 - Reply

    Hi! I think your story is lovely and encouraging! I think it also takes a lot of courage to try and speak another language, period. I hope that I will have as much courage as you to try my 'bad Dutch' when I finally am able to move to Breda. Thanks for your article! : )
  • Niko Besnier posted:

    on 4th October 2010, 16:37:06 - Reply

    I am actually a linguistic anthropologist and am planning, when I have a moment, to gather ethnographic materials of these issues and write a paper. I get patronizing responses from EVERYONE, including my students in lectures! I would love to talk to you -- look me up on the UvA website, last name is Besnier, there in only one person with this last name in the NL.

  • Nandini Nedi posted:

    on 4th October 2010, 12:22:03 - Reply

    Hello Uttanu,
    Could you tell me a little more about your experience with speaking Dutch in Holland? From what kind of people do you receive patronizing remarks? Best wishes,
  • uttanu posted:

    on 2nd October 2010, 15:53:12 - Reply

    Bravo, Ms Bedi, for this superb commentary on the Dutch hysteria about belonging and its incarnation in the politics of language. Like you, I am multilingual and people in the four corners of the world (Japan, China, Russia, most of Western Europe, all of South America, many of the Pacific Islands) have no trouble understanding my confident, if not always perfect, renditions of their native language -- except the Dutch, which I have struggled to speak for 5 years, while being the object of patronizing remarks by people who speak 1.5 languages. I think we allochthonen should develop a standard set of equally patronizing repartees, and circulate them widely.