Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Positive Thoughts About the Netherlands: Dutch Language

Living in the Netherlands means that my life is conducted in two languages - Dutch and English. Whilst some people may think this makes life complicated, I think it spices things up. Life is interesting in two languages - it is enriching.

Admittedly, Dutch is not the easiest language in the world to learn. There are sounds that are very unnatural to a native English speaker; it took me some years to master the correct pronunciation of Scheveningen and Voorschoten. The "g" is even harder - it is a sound made half in the throat and half in the mouth and is an abominable sound for unpracticed linguists. It sounds a bit like the tail end of a bad cold. But after years of strange looks and sympathy, I think I have cracked it.

On top of this, there is the problem for students of Dutch that many grammatical constructions exist "because they do" and not because they comply to any particular language rules or logic. The number of times I have asked my husband why something is said or spelt a certain way and I have been met with a blank stare or a smirk as he explains,
"That's Dutch. I don't know why. It just is."

At school I did French, German and dabbled a little with Italian. At university my degree comprised to a large extent French and meant I had to "study" (*smirk*) in Toulouse for a year. So when I knew I was moving to the Netherlands, I embraced the challenge of learning another language. Easy I thought, it's like German.

It's not like German. It's even harder to learn than German, and in actual fact knowing German put me at a disadvantage when it came to beginner's level Dutch - all I could think of was eins, zwei, drei ...... However, I was at least enthusiastic about learning and I started before I had even packed my bags with the help of Hugo "Learn Dutch in Three Months".

However, my enthusiasm was dampened a little after a telephone call with my then to-be future mother-in-law. She asked,

"Hoe is het?"

and unfortunately for me this is pronounced "Who is it?" Strange I thought, how many English sounding girls call her house.....?

"Er, it's me, Amanda," I explained.

Fits of laughter on the other end of the telephone, and a conversation I never really lived down. Self-confidence. Smashed. To smithereens. Of course, the standard question hoe is het? in Dutch means how are you. My first Dutch test and I failed miserably.

Thankfully, things got easier. Now I have a bilingual two year old, which of course would not be the case without the expat factor. Having a two year old that speaks Dutch and English has also provided us with some amusing moments. The latest was at the hospital last week where a doctor was entertaining my son with an Ernie knuffel (yes - he of Sesame Street fame).

Doctor: "Waar is Bert?"
My son: "Bert's at home."

Little did she know my son does indeed own a Bert knuffel, who was at that moment tucked up in my son's bedroom. She was undoubtedly expecting to hear a Dutch response, and looked questioningly at us. She burst into laughter when we explained that Bert is thuis. The doctor thought my son was casting aspersions on Bert's sexuality by telling her that "Bert is een homo."

Yes, a bilingual life is colourful and fun for sure!

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