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Double Dutch

Settling into The Netherlands has been full of unexpected encounters and insights: waiting in interminable lines, adjusting to hordes of bikes and learning new social cues. On these and many other issues of integration, I can’t provide more valuable (or hilarious) insights than the writers of The Undutchables (Colin White and Laurie Brouke), the Holland Handbook (XPat Media) and many others who have written on this topic. However, I do feel qualified to report on one aspect of integration: the language.

The knee-jerk reaction to our difficulties with the language has been the same from both Dutch and non-Dutch alike:  “Everyone speaks English in The Netherlands–you don’t need to learn Dutch.” Yes, it’s true that most people speak at least a little English and many are quite fluent. I would say that most of the ex-pats I know have landed in jobs with very international staff, and English is indeed the lingua franca. However, that has not been our experience. At my job, people don’t seem to enjoy speaking in their second (or third or fourth) language for the entire day. While most of my co-workers speak quite good English, they regularly converse in Dutch at lunch or any other time when they are speaking to a native of their own country. The University of Amsterdam offers almost half of its degrees in English, but lectures, newsletters and events are often in Dutch. My husband has been looking for work as a gardener, and all the job postings are in Dutch–even the Netherlands branch of the International Association of Arboriculture (of which he is a member) advised him to learn Dutch. One woman who called him this week about a job sadly informed him that although his resume was nice, they really needed someone who could speak Dutch fluently.

Important paperwork, such as immigration papers, bank statements, and health insurance are also in Dutch. And good luck calling your gas company or cell phone provider–their automated services are all in Dutch, so you can’t even choose which option you need. If you take the tram or train, all the stops are announced in Dutch. And you will run into lots of people in shops, particularly those who immigrated here from a non-English-speaking country, who have naturally put their energies into learning Dutch over English. In many Amsterdam neighbourhoods with Turkish bakeries, Indonesian restaurants and Chinese groceries, you will encounter shopkeepers who don’t speak a word of English. And to be honest, I’ve always felt (as a second-generation immigrant in Canada) that learning the native language is necessary for integration.

So it was that, about a month after our arrival here, we decided that we needed to learn Dutch. This provoked the predicted response: it’s not necessary, surely you aren’t having that much trouble without it, etc. It also spurred commentary, from practical to laughable, on the best course to learn the language. The national government in The Netherlands  requires a certain level of Dutch as a condition of permanent residence and citizenship, and courses are provided for this purpose. There are also courses at the University of Amsterdam, the Volksuniversiteit, and of course at schools for travellers like Berlitz. Without fail, my co-workers who had taken a Dutch course–any Dutch course–told me how useless it was. The teacher didn’t know what they were doing, the homework was excessive, they didn’t learn anything, or the course “totally messed up what little Dutch I already knew.” The twice-a-week classes were deemed too difficult; the once-a-week classes wouldn’t teach enough. It was too hard to learn Dutch because everyone just switched to English. Their cumulative advice was not to take a course at all, but to “just find a Dutch person to talk to every week for an hour.” With memories of Elizabeth Gilbert’s gorgeous Italian Tandem Exchange Partner (Eat, Pray, Love), I wondered how I would find someone who would be willing to talk Dutch to me, in a monologue, without me understanding or contributing a response, week after week. After all, one can’t begin from nothing.

We enrolled at the Volksuniversiteit. In the first week of our course we learned the useful phrases, I am Steve Smith, I come from England, and I speak English–that is, the entire class learned how to say these things about themselves. The next day my Dutch co-workers were duly impressed that I could say, Ik ben Canadese. Ik spreek Engels en Frans. In the second week we learned pronouns, direct objects and a number of words for questions (how, who, which, etc.) This proved much more difficult because English has no deferential treatment: there’s no formal you like the vous in French and the u in Dutch. We have no genders: it’s the dog and also the house. So as our Dutch teacher commented, “The discussion on whether to use de versus het will go on forever.”

It was also difficult because–it pains me to admit this–I never learned English grammar at school. So when our teacher explained to us that we use the direct object rather than the indirect, I was transported back in time to my eighth-grade French class, when the teacher discovered that we didn’t understand this concept in English either! (Things got worse a couple of years later when we learned the conditional verbs in French, upon which our exasperated teacher exclaimed, “How can you not know what a dependent clause is?”) Sadly for you linguists out there, I am living proof that it is possible to finish school–even three degrees–without knowing this crucial information.

Tonight is week 3 and we have learned numbers and letters (useful when getting change and spelling your achternaam). But I’m pleased to say I can already ask for what I want at the kaashuis and understand the route numbers on the tram. The Dutch subtitles on TV and the ticket vending machines at the train station are almost legible to me at this point. This morning I spotted a billboard from the tram, and realized that I could read every single word of it. But I specialize in the detection of overall patterns–details like the meanings of conjunctions escape me. And it will likely take me at least a year to be able to hork up the Dutch g in gracht and morgen. So I’ll stick it out for a course or two, trying to memorize word lists and irregular verbs like zijn: as our teacher points out, the verb “to be” is irregular in every language. Like the others in the Volkuniversiteit Basis I course I’m learning Dutch because, despite all advice to the contrary, I need to. It makes my life easier.



One Response to “Double Dutch

  • I was wondering whether you would have to learn Dutch or not!

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