Dutch attitudes to Dutch learners

I’m in my final week of my Dutch B1 course, which I will blog about another time. Today I want to talk about what it’s like being a foreigner trying to learn (and speak) Dutch in Holland.

A lot of people assume that everyone speaks English – and that’s true to a certain extent – but it’s really no way to live in a country if you are planning on staying. Also, although about 95% of people CAN speak English here, you will find a very large proportion of Dutchies who are very reluctant or embarrassed to use their English.

At level B1, my Dutch is at that funny in-between level. In class, I can talk pretty well with my teacher and my classmates. We can chat about almost anything, actually. When I talk with my Dutch friends, I’m quite a bit more shy about it, but I can still have a basic conversation without too much hassle. Yes, there are definitely many words I don’t know, but hey, sometimes even the Dutch replace words with their English counterparts.

Yet sometimes the ability to say anything totally eludes me, I’m either left tongue-tied or I descend into some barbaric mixture of English, Dutch and German. Today I took care of several errands that I’d put off for months because I knew they would involve some level of human interaction more than “Tasje erbij?” “Ja, graag”.

Attitude #1 “Please stop murdering our language”

The first stop was the dentist. When I came in, he and the assistant waved me through and sat me down before I had much of a chance to warm up my Dutch. He started saying something and I kind of got what he was saying so I replied “Yes please, a check-up and a clean”. In Dutch. At least, it must have been in Dutch – horrible horrible Dutch – because they both looked at me like I’d just declared a jihad on Zwarte Piet.

Awkward silence. Me: “Sorry, mijn Nederlands is niet goed…” This is pretty much my standard response to when I get this look from people. He switched into English immediately as if to say “Stop! Please stop butchering our language”.

He was much happier speaking English to me, and also seemed pleased that once my mouth was open I couldn’t attempt any more Dutch.

Side note about my dentist: his check-ups are ridiculously time efficient. In the UK, they spend a good while poking around, scraping, scratching and generally making you miserable. This guy checked my teeth, told me it was all good except for a bit of tartar, which he mercilessly attacked and then told me to rinse. I was in there for – I shit you not – 4 minutes. I’ve now seen him twice and he seems confused when I try to pay. Apparently this is all sorted out automagically with your insurance. Who knew?

Attitude #2 “It is amazing and wonderful that you even speak a little Dutch” (rare)

Next up was the clothing repair shop. I know for a fact that this woman speaks very little English because I had to get a zip repaired before, and it mostly involved me gesturing wildly at the zip. I had to wait to be seen, so I had some time to think of what I was going to say.

“Ik heb vier broeken, die te lang zijn”

There was a bit of stuttering, so I quickly added “Sorry mijn Nederlands is niet goed…” before she could say anything and give me judgey dentist eyes.

Her response was rather nice. I didn’t quite catch the whole thing, but she either said my Dutch was “lekker” or that it was “lekker” that I am speaking Dutch. Either way, she was utterly thrilled that she didn’t have to speak English. I was in there a while getting all my trousers pinned up, and we made casual chit chat in Dutch about the ridiculous length of trousers (she’s about my height).

As I was walking out the door, she actually thanked me for making the effort to speak Dutch and gave me a smile that made me think maybe I’m not so bad at this language after all.

Attitude #3 “I can clearly hear you are not from here, so let me help you out by switching to English”

At the stationers. I needed a Parker pen refill and there were none out so I had to go and talk to the woman. I started talking in Dutch and we had a whole conversation, but by the end of it I realised we were now speaking English. This is actually a pretty common occurrence for me – and as I improve my Dutch I have very little recollection of when exactly the language changes. Sometimes this is far earlier than I thought.

At the horlogerie (conceding defeat)

I went in to get my watch fixed and a queue built up behind me of about 6 people. I thought, “There’s no way I’m embarrassing myself in front of all these people”, so I played the dumb foreigner card and after “Spreekt u engels?” managed to explain what the problem was. Of course the ironic thing was that the woman’s English was not quite good enough for me to fully understand what she was saying, so I had to ask her repeatedly, and thus the attempt to save myself from further embarrassment totally failed.

Baby steps, eh?

2 thoughts on “Dutch attitudes to Dutch learners

  1. Love reading about you learning Dutch, this really reminds me a lot of how I was. Just be glad to know you are absolutely on the right track even though it may not seem like it most of the time. For me the whole issue was confidence, even though I knew a lot I always defaulted to “ik spreek een beetje Nederlands” even though it was really “best veel”. Sounds like you may be a bit of the same.

    Lots of tips I can try to give you but in the end I think for each person it ends up being different what works for them. Looking forward to tomorrow.

    • I think the Dutch do make it harder to speak with confidence – the amount of times Dutch men (always men btw) have actually laughed in my face when I tried to pronounce a road name, for example. And the common tactic of pretending not to understand anything you say until they finally go “Ohhh… you mean…” and then repeat what you just said, EXACTLY the way you just said it. I never ran into anything like that while studying in Germany, but I think it comes from being a small country and having a slightly insular mentality.

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