Wednesday, March 28

On Acquiring Dutch

From the initial moment we began discussing plans to move across the ocean, I was eager and anxious to acquire the language of the Dutch. This would be a first experience for me in international living and I was excited about the opportunity to learn a new language and use it daily. Not long after we arrived, I found a Dutch language class and enrolled. The course title 'INTENSIVE DUTCH I ' was in no way a misnomer. It was a once per week, three-hour, evening class held at a local college and it was INTENSE. The moment I stepped into the classroom there was no language other than Dutch spoken. No translations, no explanations, no nonsense. All grammar, all vocabulary, all everything was explained in Dutch. And hoo-boy that makes it intense. At that point in time I understood a sum total of perhaps three Dutch words and these did not include any of the vocabulary for the idea 'to understand'. When my teacher would ask the class if we understood what she had spoken or explained I would just sit at my student desk with that doe-in-the-headlights stare in my eyes, and nod vigorously with a sloppy maniacal grin on my face, pretending I totally got that. Any of it.

Somewhere along the intensive line I did manage to get it. Some of it, anyway. I emerged from that 10 week course able to ask a few questions and follow simple directions when spoken in Dutch. Which frankly I was pretty darn proud of, this being my first go at new language and all.

I did not follow up that course with 'INTENSIVE DUTCH II' because of a schedule conflict but instead sort of threw myself into the 'learn it as you blow it' trial-and-error method of speaking a new language. The Dutch for their part are first and foremost excellent linguists and are willing to speak English to any expat, so it's not as if I have ever had a minute of trouble communicating in this country. (Well, other than the time I wanted to buy a Christmas tree; but even that ended up a success, and a funny story to tell.) In fact, even with my rudimentary attempts to speak the native tongue of this land, a Nederlander hears my accent and readily switches to speak to me in the language of my comfort. I usually allow that to happen and don't really insist on speaking Dutch, because well, it's just so much easier to speak my familiar English.

That's not to say I haven't kept at it and I have continued to make an effort to speak Dutch. I think that it's simple courtesy to speak the few words that I can. I am not fluent, but I am able to conduct business at the market and I can ask or answer simple questions. And I can follow slow and straightforward conversation. I get frustrated when the conversation moves at rapid fire pace, or Dutch-speed as I like to call it. I also get stuck when conversation moves to topics and ideas outside of my vocabulary. And stuck is the best way to describe how it feels to me when I get lost in the mish-mash of sounds; words losing their meaning as my brain processing slows down to a crawl.

I get stuck.

It's as if I am standing in swampland and I cannot move my feet to make headway in moving through the muck. I am trapped in the twilight world between understanding what I hear but being unable to answer or keep up my end of the conversation. I heard a fellow expat describe the feeling as "the dumb factor". When comprehension gets mislaid in the banter of a language that is not your own, you tend toward that simple stare as you plaster a grin on your kisser, not unlike the one I used in my language class, and you nod and smile, nod and smile. And you hope to God that you are not agreeing to some radical political stance or promising your first-born child to a whimsical elfin creature.

Last week as Andrew and I stepped off the city bus and began the short walk to our home we had to cross through an area that is currently torn up and under construction. There are myriad big machines, and lots of big lovely holes which the diggers have dug. Besides being a rather large obstacle to the desire of one particular preschooler to keep moving along, the equipment is also a large obstacle on the sidewalk. Machines, tools and construction supplies are strewn over the area where pedestrians travel and as a result all walkers are forced onto the bike path for a length of about 50 feet. As we were making our way along the path we were doing our best to stay far to the side so we wouldn't be in the way of any cyclists. Despite our noble effort to share space, a grumpy Dutchman swept up behind us on his bike and rang his bell. Repeatedly. Then he scolded the two of us for being on the bike path. Without hesitation I raised my head, narrowed my eyes and barked a retort to his diminishing backside as he cycled past. ALL OF IT IN DUTCH. I didn't even pause when I added the verbal insult at the end.

I actually didn't know I could do that. Not without measured planning and careful English to Dutch translation inside my head. That realization is satisfying in a way I can hardly explain.

I guess my language acquisition is going better than I thought.

No comments:

Post a Comment