Learning Dutch from the Perspective of a Foreigner
What does learning Dutch look like from the perspective of a foreigner? Learning Dutch is not the easiest thing that one could experience in life. This may apply to all second languages. Of course, if you dedicate some time and energy to it, you can manage a couple of sentences that can open a short conversation with a neighbor or a colleague. Considering Dutch, one awkward situation that may arise from these small chats is that you expect sentences such as “Hallo. Hoe was je weekend? Lekker weertje, toch? Etc.” and you have some ready-made answers like “Heel lekker. Dat was gezellig met mijn vriend/vriendin”. But the worst part comes when you hear something you have not heard or have not readied yourself for.
For example, I remember when I was having a short chat with a colleague in the morning. For the record, I am an English teacher at the weekends and teach two online classes. After a sentence or two with this colleague of mine, she said “blah blah blah voorbereiding?” Wow what was that? That was the first time I heard the word ‘voorbereiding’. When you hear a word for the first time you just hear a couple of sounds. You don’t even hear all the sounds.
That is about hearing a word but when you read it, that’s when all your hopes get shattered. Dutch words tend to be very long. Sometimes longer than the longest common words in English. If we consider ‘misunderstanding’ or ‘incomprehensible’ as common long words in English, Dutch daily words are way longer and more difficult to read. Consider the word ‘arbeidsmarktbeleid’ (labor market policy). As you see in English, the words are separated by a space but in Dutch, that’s a whole word. So, as a new learner, you are going to have a hard time pronouncing it, let alone understanding it.
Anyway, what should I do with ‘voorbereiding in het weekend’? Should I just say “ja ja” or would I sound stupid again? In such situations, you sometimes tend to be brave and say “ja ja”. Or sometimes you look dumb so that the person who is talking to you realizes that you did not understand a single word of what you said. This normally happens when they look at your face and body language. (Click here to read more about unspoken communication) Dutch people are good at this. Perhaps because there are so many internationals in the Netherlands. Also, Dutchies know English to an extent thanks to their school system. Thankfully, my colleague is also a smart person and instantly remembered that it was early morning and she automatically had assumed that I knew Dutch. Then she explained the meaning and I learned it (at least I guess I did).
An Embarrassing Situation
The reason I said earlier that I would sound stupid “again” is funny. One day I got into an embarrassing situation by saying “ja ja” to a sentence I did not fully understand. That was a sunny Saturday morning when I had gone for a walk and I was entering the building where I live. A nice custom here in the Netherlands is that people tend to hold the door for you. They do it when they understand you want to enter a building or they assume you must be living there. Of course, I sometimes question this behavior but anyway.
I saw two old ladies who were getting out of the building with their friends or partners. They were having a small conversation between themselves when they saw me approaching the door. One of these ladies held the door open for me and again said something I did not understand fully. Smilingly, I replied “ja ja”. Only because I saw they were having fun together and were perhaps going on a nice walk. Then the old lady said something in response to my “ja ja” and they all burst into laughter. She then said, “Is dat je antwoord?”
I still don’t know what she said and what I conveyed but I know it was not nice to an old lady. Perhaps she said “Which apartment are you looking for?” or “Since when has the world changed and I should hold the door for you?” to which I said “ja ja”. This is a part of learning Dutch from the perspective of a foreigner.
When Does Dutch Become Even More Difficult for Internationals?
What I explained above in short was just a tiny part of learning Dutch. Another big problem for me is that there are many Dutch words that have totally terrible meanings in my mother language, Persian. Every time I hear them or should use them, I feel someone is cursing me or I am cursing them. This may not be perfectly tangible for many people but it is true. It is a natural instinct to not use bad words in a normal situation therefore it is sometimes difficult to utter Dutch words for a Persian speaker.
For example, ‘keer’ is ‘time’ or ‘een keer’ is ‘once’ in Dutch but in Persian ‘keer’ refers to the male genital organ which is basically used for cursing during a verbal or physical fight. Or the same goes for the romantic word of ‘kus’ which is ‘kiss’ but in Persian that is the female genital organ and it becomes super awkward, for example, if a sweet mom is asking her baby for ‘een kus’. Trust me, right now that I am writing about it, I feel uncomfortable.