As part of the Dutch Decade week I threw the floor open to you to ask me any question you liked about expat life or life in the Netherlands.....
Arwa* asked, "When did you feel learning the language (Dutch) was important, so as to enable you to integrate better into Dutch society? Was it during the initial months? Or do you feel you managed well initially without knowing the language since English is so widely spoken here? Did the realisation come about only after a couple of years when say you started a family or a business here in the Netherlands? Also what difficulties did you face while learning the language and how did you overcome them?"
My answer: I started to learn Dutch before I even set foot on Dutch soil with the intention of living here. At school I learnt French and German, and for my university degree I continued with my French and lived in Toulouse for a year so you don’t have to tell me twice how important it is to learn a local language. Once I knew I was moving to the Netherlands, I started trying to get the basics of Dutch. I used 'Hugo Dutch in Three Months' as a foundation, read news articles online and then tried to translate them with my Dutch partner sending back corrections by email. I practiced basic phrases on the telephone every time we talked (which was daily – British Telecom called me to notify me of ‘unusual high activity’ on my phone line and demanded an upfront payment to settle the ‘unusually high bill’).
When I arrived here, hit by culture shock and missing my family and friends, I found it hard to get out there and try and talk Dutch in shops and with my partner’s friends and family. Initially they all spoke English with me – it would have been a quiet household otherwise. After a few months, everyone switched to Dutch as they worked out that I understood a lot but suffered from stage fright when it came to talking. That shook me out of it! If I spoke English they looked at me blankly, forcing me to say it again in Dutch and with time, hard work, and patience on their part, it worked.
It was actually years later that I went for the first time to any kind of formal Dutch language tutor (I saw Gerrie Soede of Poldertaal in The Hague and highly recommend her by the way) as I realised that understanding and speaking was going well but writing the language was much harder. Gerrie helped me with grammar (I got to hear “that’s an exception to the rule’ a lot….) and gave me lots of writing exercises and useful resources.
Funnily enough, having a family actually decreased my use of Dutch at home as we are bringing both boys up bilingually. That means I speak English to them and their father speaks Dutch – otherwise they’ll end up speaking Dutch with an English accent and vice versa! By the time I set up The Writing Well, my Dutch was good enough to cope with the Chamber of Commerce and the tax office and any other administration body that demands money from me……
I had a colleague not long after I arrived in the Netherlands who had been here a few years but who could not speak much Dutch. I will never forget her telling me that her daughter brought home Dutch friends from school and she had to ask her daughter to translate for her – that was an extra motivator to get to grips with the language.
On a final note, I don’t believe you can truly understand or enjoy another country’s culture without learning the local language – without it you cannot understand the newspapers, films, TV programs, music text, radio programs. You can’t fully follow politics or happenings in society.
How have you learnt the local language?
*An Indian expat in The Netherlands, Arwa is a travel and expat writer. Her articles have been published in a host of travel and expat websites including the Lonely Planet. She has traveled extensively in India and Europe, and this has given her an excellent opportunity to understand different cultures. She also maintains her blog Orangesplaash wherein she shares her expat experiences, travel adventures and expat tips! You can catch her on twitter at @arwalokhandwala.