First off, be thankful that almost everyone speaks virtually fluent English in the Netherlands. The Dutch are enviable linguists who switch from one language to another with the greatest of ease. In the beginning, the Dutch think it’s perfectly fine... Read more...
First off, be thankful that almost everyone speaks virtually fluent English in the Netherlands. The Dutch are enviable linguists who switch from one language to another with the greatest of ease. In the beginning, the Dutch think it’s perfectly fine if you speak English, and they will respond in English. But don’t be fooled into thinking that their own language is not so important to them. If, after a year, your Dutch is still non-existent or barely so, they will become considerably less tolerant. Thinking that you are not doing your best to accept their culture, they may hold this against you – either explicitly or implicitly.
Like it or not, you must realize that you are a guest in their country, not the other way around, and that, by right, you should learn your host’s language if you’re going to live here for any length of time.
WHY SHOULD YOU LEARN DUTCH?
Maybe you think: ‘I’m only going to be in Holland for a few years, and everyone understands me at work – why should I make the effort of learning a language I am not going to need for the rest of my life?’ Experience shows that you will not only feel more acclimated if you learn the language of your host culture, but that you will generally be more accepted and appreciated for having made the effort, especially with such an obscure and sufficiently difficult language.
Moreover, if you are the partner or spouse of an employee who has been placed in the Netherlands, your life is probably quite different. If you do not have a job, you run more of a risk of becoming isolated, particularly if you can’t speak the local language. If you remain an outsider, you will miss out on the finer subtleties of the language and, therefore, the culture itself. In short, you will simply feel more comfortable with your life in Holland if you can understand what’s going on around you. You’ll quickly realize that having a command of the Dutch language will go a long way towards being able to decipher all those packages in the supermarket, for example, not to mention being able to read the local newspaper. Learning Dutch may, consequently, be of unexpected significance to both you and your children, though they will most likely pick up the language more easily through immersion in daily life, or what seems to adults as pure osmosis. Survival of the fittest is key to any expatriate experience, and language adaptation is no exception.
HOW DIFFICULT IS DUTCH?
Dutch is not an easy language for English speakers – we simply do not have the capacity for those throaty, guttural sounds on which Netherlandish children are weaned. Sentence structure is awkwardly reversed, and the Dutch seem to have imposed no limit on word length. (Levensverzekeringsmaatschappijen, translated as ‘life insurance companies’, and projectontwikkelingsmaatschappijen, meaning ‘property development companies’, at 32 and 34 letters each, are the two longest official words in the Dutch language, although there are even much longer unofficial, makeshift conglomerations of words used in everyday language.) If your native language is similar to Dutch, or you’ve studied a parallel language, you’ll be one step ahead of the game.
THE FIRST STEPS
Decide whether you would prefer to follow an established course or take private lessons. The Netherlands has a national network of language institutes that offer courses in Dutch to foreigners (usually, these courses are referred to as NT2, Nederlands als tweede taal – Dutch as a second language). The local city or town hall will advise you as to where the nearest institute is, so that you can make an appointment. During an interview, they will probably ask you what type of school you went to at home, what diplomas you have, whether you interact with a lot of Dutch people, whether you have time to go to a school and to do homework, etc. They may also ask you to take a placement exam to determine what level you should pursue. Depending on your specific needs, the institute may suggest an intensive course for quicker immersion.
Caution: don’t be tempted to buy a Dutch phrasebook, as these are generally geared to tourists and often don’t accurately reflect common usage. Invest instead in a good Dutch dictionary and a basic ‘Dutch for beginners’ book to get you started.
Of primary importance is learning the numbers in Dutch, as you’ll quickly discover that such everyday tasks as shopping and making appointments rely on this basic knowledge. Dutch numbers require some mental gymnastics – ‘21’ is expressed as ‘one and twenty’, for example – so be prepared.
SOME PRELIMINARY WORDS OF ADVICE
Let everyone know that you don’t (or hardly) speak any Dutch Do this before the other overestimates your capacity to understand him or her, and starts off too quickly and with too complicated a vocabulary. Don’t, however, insist on only English conversation as you’ll never learn Dutch that way. Simply employ the following sentence if need be: Ik wil Nederlands leren (I want to learn Dutch). The reactions will vary. Some will turn up the volume, others will revert to a type of pidgin Dutch, as if talking to a child. Don’t be offended; it’s a natural reaction.
Do not be afraid to make mistakes Many expatriates want to master Dutch as well as they do their native language – and it annoys them if they can’t converse quickly. Though this is understandable, patience is of the essence. Fluency takes much time, and all that matters at first is basic communication.
Don’t make it unnecessarily hard Try to avoid difficult subjects at first. Keep your initial conversations simple.
Don’t pretend to understand If the other person has already explained something twice and you still don’t understand, the temptation is great to nod enthusiastically as if you get it. You do not want to appear stupid or impolite. However, it is best to admit defeat; have them repeat it again. Who knows what you will learn?
Absorb all day As you hear Dutch in your daily activities, pay attention to what others are saying and how they say it. If you don’t know the words, look them up for future reference and try to use them yourself. Attempt to read local or national newspapers and to decipher Dutch television. It’s a great way to practice.
Not all Dutch people speak the same Dutch language. There is a standard language: Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands (ABN), which translates into the somewhat pompous-sounding ‘General Civilized Dutch’. Well-educated Dutch people who live in the Randstad (the area comprising Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht and everything in between) speak this, as it is the old dialect of the District of Holland, which was once the most powerful province. Hollands thus became the most widespread dialect and the basis for the standard language that is spoken by the Royal Family, the members of Parliament, teachers and preachers, and on radio and television.
The other regions in the Netherlands speak the same language, but the pronunciation can be quite different and hard to understand at first: there is Zeeuws (spoken in Zeeland), Twents (spoken in Twente – in the east), Gronings (spoken in Groningen), Drents (spoken in Drenthe), Brabants (spoken in Noord-Brabant) and Limburgs (spoken in Limburg) – and even within these dialects, there can be considerable variation. And then the people from the four cities all have their very distinct way of pronouncing the language as well. The Dutch can tell within a sentence whether someone is from The Hague, or Amsterdam, or Limburg or Groningen.
In Friesland, a province in the northwest of Holland, there is a wholly different language called ‘Fries’, or Frisian, which is spoken in addition to Dutch. Though perhaps many of the words used are the same – but pronounced differently – they also have a whole unique vocabulary. An interesting factoid to note is that Frisian is considered, historically, to be closer to the English language than Dutch is. Unless you’re a die-hard linguist, however, it would be highly unlikely for you to need or want to learn this unique language unless, of course, you intend to live in that region for a lengthy period of time. Even then, Dutch would suffice, as everything is signposted in both languages there.
In the end, how far you progress with Dutch will depend on the amount of time you put into it, your ambition and your talents. You might attain the highest level: speaking with ease, making virtually no mistakes, understanding complicated speeches and articles and writing a nearly faultless proposal. Or maybe you will never get any further than a sort of tourist Dutch enabling you to at least carry on a semblance of a conversation. In a country where English is second nature, it will require some determination on your part to plunge hook, line and sinker into learning Dutch. Chances are you won’t regret it.