Spreek ik Nederlands? – From necessity to an odd affection

by Yaska Sahara

Antwoord/TL;DR: Ja, een beetje. Maar ik versta meer dan ik het spreek. (Yes, a little. But I understand more than I speak.)

This is part of a series on the Netherlands and my relationship with it, the ups, the downs and the future. Read: Kindness in the Netherlands and parts one and two of the Netherlands and I. Next week, I’ll be discussing Dutch’s fun literal translations (will be linked when out). 

If you’re pressed for time and want to know more about the solution I came to rather than the story, then check out a blog I did for my university international student blog 6 Benefits of Online 1-to-1 Dutch Class.

If you’re curious about my journey and the nuances of learning Dutch as an Anglophone international student, read on!

I would say my three main problems were:

  • The Dutch speaking good English
  • Being in a very Anglophone Environment with university and social life
  • Lack of passion and motivation

The motivations I managed to utilise:

  • The dread of being one of those foreigners
  • Close friends and wanting to be more involved
  • Finding it a waste to not maintain the surprising amount I’d picked up

Necessity, Passion and Motivation

I am a language lover, the language learning I’ve done thus far has been out of choice, finding joy in the process and knowledge. It’s not that Dutch isn’t an interesting language that people can’t be passionate about, but for me, as I’ve discussed before (links above) I didn’t know too much about the Netherlands before coming and didn’t really have a passion for the nation. As time went on, I also found that it didn’t develop. 

I thought that over time, I would come to fall in love with my new home, only to realise living in new countries isn’t that simple. (I discuss this in ‘What is a ‘world citizen’?) I came more to enjoy the memories and relationships I developed. I also thought I’d pick Dutch up with ease. Which sometimes I did, but it wasn’t that simple. 

While I am fortunate enough to have a degree of natural aptitude for languages, meaning I picked things up without having to study as much, and when I did study, it came to me faster. It meant that I was able to draw many things from the Dutch I heard around me. Yet, picking things up is not the same as getting natural conversational fluency. 

The key in any language learning undertaking is always motivation. If you don’t have it, even with skill, you’re going to run into problems.

Motivation and Passion are not interchangeable in this story. Passion can be a motivation but it isn’t the only one. Motivation can also be more practical and still give you the drive to learn a language without passion. This brings me to my next point.

The Dutch Being good at English

In the Netherlands, as an English speaker, one often also lacks practical motivation. Most Dutch people speak English anyway; old and young, rural or urban, many many people speak very good English. It may not always be perfect, though it often is, but it’s more than sufficient. If I’d gone somewhere where this wasn’t the case, even without passion, I would have had the motivation to be more understood and make life easier for myself.

In my experience, the only people I find who don’t really speak English, are some first-generation immigrants from non-English speaking countries; they learn Dutch directly. I encountered these in my local Turkish and Chinese supermarkets. It made me think about what it must be like to learn a language as an immigrant, working as well as trying to assimilate (I’m planning to write a post on Privilege and Language learning so keep an eye out). Luckily, my basic Dutch was enough to get by with them.

So, a lot of Dutch people speak English. Sometimes I’d go into a shop and try to speak Dutch, but one second of hesitation, one slip-up and their foreigner radar goes off, addressing you in English. You feel disheartened and annoyed yet also relieved. “Why did I forget the word for ‘bag’?”, or “That’s what he said! Why didn’t I hear it clearly the first time, I knew it!” Sometimes, your motivation goes out the window and you’d rather not embarrass yourself. Sometimes, I pretend I don’t speak English to properly practice. But it’s quite hard not to respond reflexively when it’s one of your native languages or one you’re very proficient in.

Later, I would power through and I eventually got these basic interactions down. It took a good while because knowing the words is one thing, confidently hearing and using them is another. But occasionally, even if you spoke Dutch to them, the detection of an accent, or you speaking English to your friend or on the phone, and they speak English to you too. I don’t blame them for switching, I often do the same when I see someone struggling with English and I speak their language. I blame them however if they then criticise you for not speaking Dutch, that’s a bit odd. Heard it’s happened to friends but never to me. Regardless, it’s hard. 

Lack of Passion and Motivation

So, being able to get by fairly well without Dutch combined with lack of passion, really made it hard to sit down and study Dutch. When I first arrived, I took a Dutch class at the campus in the Hague. But I found it very slow and boring. Then for a while, I got busy with university and felt a bit disconnected without motivation. Honestly, when I did try to study Dutch I ended up somehow watching videos on Hungarian or Cantonese. 

All languages are amazing and I’d learn all if I could. Nonetheless, for one reason or another, Germanic languages just don’t appeal to me all that much, never have. I’m not sure if this will change significantly in the future. But I have definitely learnt not to dismiss them too quickly after my Dutch journey, as you will read at the end. 

While I don’t think Germanic languages sound good, many do! You can check out this Instagram highlight where I discuss people’s different ideas of language/accents that sound good. People’s answers to what they thought sounded nice was very interesting. 

Anglophone environment

My degree is taught in English, and my degree was my life (still is for a few months more). My degree is very intensive and I spent most of my time in the library reading and studying with English/Sanskrit material. (I mention this in my NL and me Pt. 2, and this blog on the library.) Spending whole days in classes and at the Library sometimes meant I wouldn’t speak to a single Dutch person that day. Even if I did, my friend circle was international, Thai, Bulgarian, Australian, Turkish, Mexican, Belgian, Dutch and more. English was the lingua franca, which everyone spoke fluently.

Many of my Dutch-speaking friends were willing to aid me, and I did sometimes practice with some. But mostly, it felt too awkward, vulnerable and frustrating. This was not because they weren’t kind, patient and helpful. It’s more that with your friends you just want to talk, you don’t want to think about your words. So if they can speak your tongue with far more ease than you theirs, it’s hard to just switch even if you’re not nervous. Though hard and often horrible in the moment, those moments of desperation and awkwardness in communication really help you learn, and you’re hard-pressed to find those as an English speaker in the Netherlands. (An example is me trying to figure out how to say Soya milk in Spain and saying ‘milk that is not of a cow’)

The dread of being that Foreigner and my path to motivation

It was often a game of ‘which embarrassment would I rather?’, the one of being that foreigner and asking them to switch to English, or the one where you feel your potential messing up Dutch was too much to handle. It was really up and down for me. I think initially I chose the former. But the longer I was there, the more I felt ashamed about it. So I started forcing myself more, stubbornly continuing in broken Dutch even if they switched. To be fair, most people were understanding with this, but it also led to some irritation.

I don’t remember the timeline but after having close Dutch-speaking friends and being the only English speaker in the room for whom they all had to switch, I felt horrible, even though they were okay with it. Germanic language lover or not, the shame I felt as an overall passionate language nerd was undeniable.

Unfortunately, as we’ve gone over with my Anglophone environment, I kind of was one of those foreigners, in an English speaking degree with English speaking friends, not really assimilating with locals and speaking their language. But I like to think by the end of this post, you will see me less as one of those. One thing I did do my very best with, hopefully making me not one of those was to explore the local scenes and keep an open mind, to not expect things to evolve around my way of doing things. I expect human decency and not excusing rudeness as ‘culture’, but I couldn’t get upset at Dutch people because I didn’t like their food or because they don’t all take their shoes off indoors. Nowadays, I also try to speak Dutch, of course, and I will also try to ask if I can use English with them, rather than assuming straight off the bat. 

Living abroad has really taught me assimilating is very hard and that it is different for everyone. It’s so much easier said than done to make native friends and speak their tongue with them, it’s so much easier said than done when you often don’t find yourself blending in and enjoying the culture. My ideas on what it is to assimilate have really changed recently, maybe I will never fully be assimilated because for that I’d have to live somewhere for a very long time. Maybe I will always be somewhat on the outside, with occasional invites in. Maybe to an extent that’s okay, as long I make the effort to understand the locals as best I can and to give the place a chance.

Despite the realisation that full assimilation wasn’t that easy or even possible, I still wanted to make an effort. I will likely be visiting the Netherlands every few years and spending time around Dutch families and such. So I started Dutch conversation lessons online! 

My half-way solution and conversational fluency (?)

The conversation classes worked out well, I chose a teacher who had other mutual languages (Spanish and Japanese) and had similar interests to me (travel, culture etc). Here is a link to my awesome italki teacher, Johan Dietvorst! https://www.italki.com/teacher/3666358?hl=en Really kind and understanding, keeps the conversation flow going and goes at the pace and style you like.

It was a safe space where I could speak and mess up, where it was just a stranger on the internet who I didn’t really know (at first at least), so what did it matter if I messed up? The classes also went at my pace and according to my desires and knowledge. I didn’t really care to learn grammar and such, I just wanted to have more effective communication and comprehension. 

After only a few lessons, I definitely found this to be the case. I noticed increased understanding. Thus, I found my friends and their families could use Dutch in a group setting and I could follow and reply in English, so there was less need for people to make extra effort for me, except for when I occasionally turned to someone for a little translation help. But when people see you’re trying, they’re eager to help. 

This was my condition when I left the Netherlands in Early October in 2020. I was pretty satisfied with this, not fluent but still more able to assimilate respectfully and as much as possible.

Perceptions of the Dutch around me – Pleasantly surprised

For the most part, Dutch people are very pleased when you try, if slightly tempted to switch to English for ease. They like to see people make the effort, especially when many don’t. 

Another interesting thing is how Dutch people receive your Dutch-speaking efforts. Because  foreigners don’t often speak Dutch confidently, numerous Dutch people forget many foreigners understand more than they can speak. Which is our fault to an extent for being too timid. We also understand more than we let on because we don’t want people to then assume we understand everything and awkwardly have to say ‘oh actually, I understood that but not this’. So, my Dutch friends were pleasantly surprised and often shocked at my understanding of even basic things. It occasionally led to people discussing things in my presence they thought I didn’t understand, then I’d ask them and they’d get flustered. (Never, underestimate people around you, I’ve had people talk about NSFW topics around me thinking I didn’t understand and it doesn’t go well, maybe I’ll write a blog post on that (haha)) Note that Dutch is one of the closest languages to English, other than Frisian, which also makes it fairly easy for English speakers, technically speaking. 

To my Bittersweet love?

My current drive is to learn/improve my knowledge of East Asian tongues, as well as better my romance languages. To a lesser extent, I’m eager to give Hungarian a go, as well improve my Hindi and Gujarati to academic levels. It’s hard to prioritise as a nerdy polyglot. I do not see myself living in any Germanic speaking countries anytime soon either. 

Having said all of this, I now understand a fair amount of Dutch and can speak more than I expected. When I visited Germany and once when I observed a German lesson, I was surprised that I could understand bits of German as well. Thus, I do have a certain connection to the language group I never planned to have or particularly desired. But it is nonetheless very interesting and useful. I have a connection in that I understand it but also in that I have memories attached to it, like the struggle of trying to speak in shops, like being surprised I understood something, like successfully getting a Dutch joke, like the fun conversations I had with my tutor, the joy I felt in also understanding the Flanders dialect, and more. (Also fun Dutch Literal translations, read here, out soon)

It feels like it would be such a waste to let this understanding fade away. Just as I see merit in living in the Netherlands even though I didn’t fully feel it, I see much merit in learning a language that I’m not per se passionate about. It’s good for me to learn to navigate a language I don’t instantly gel with and conquer it. Even though I’ve mentioned I’m not crazy about Germanic languages, it doesn’t mean I don’t see their uniqueness and the value in being able to understand them. To break into a new language group is not an opportunity to be thrown away. My goal is and always has been to communicate with as many people as possible and become a jack of all trades master of none sort of polyglot.

I did my last Dutch conversation class just before leaving and thought, ‘Well, that’s that done.’ But then my friend started sharing funny Zondag met Lubach clips with me (Sunday with Lubach, a sort of comedy news show, great Dutch resource on YouTube, earlier seasons also have English subtitles). I loved how much I understood and I really started to feel like maybe I should keep this flame alive. I also missed the fun yet useful conversations with Johan. So perhaps soon, I’ll get back on italki.

My idea now is to one day learn Dutch/German (or both) properly, sit down and intensively study it to get to a higher communication level. I may study Dutch in Belgium for a change of scene and because I prefer their accent (sorry Dutchies). I hear great things about Berlin and Vienna, so maybe I’ll do German course there. Or who knows maybe I’ll end up going more Nordic! Let’s see!

So that is my story! A nuanced  and complex one!

Stay tuned for updates on my Dutch understanding when I visit again and a possible Dutch/German course reflection in the future! And check out the post on Literal Dutch Translations next week!

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