The Dutch language is deceptive. You walk around town and familiar words jump off the side of a bus or store windows – “cooking”, “koffie”, “weekend.” Or, in this dual-language society, you’ll commonly see complete sentences in English touting travel packages or the benefits of drinking coffee! The instant familiarity of many Dutch words is not surprising given that Dutch is drawn from the same linguistic family as English and German. Many recognizable words pop out as we walk about.
But then listen to a person speaking in Dutch and (if you’re us, some three weeks into this adventure) you realize that it’s utterly unintelligible! I say, “Blame the letter ‘g’!” Dutch uses a profusion of ‘g’s, as though they’re on sale, and you best hurry to use yours before they run out of supply! And herein lies (one of) the challenges of the beautiful Dutch language: it involves pronunciations that defy the sensibilities of an English speaker – as well as perhaps those versed in the romance languages of Spanish or French.
‘B’s can be pronounced as ‘p’s, ‘w’s as ‘v’s, combinations of ‘ie’ sound like ‘ee’ and ‘ee’ properly spoken is ‘aye’. All manageable — but then we’re back to the ‘g.’ The Dutch cheese of Gouda is pronounced like “khowt-da” and the painting master Van Gogh (did you say “Van Go”?) is heard as “Van Hoff.” Then there’s the typical greeting of ‘goedemorgen’ (“good morning”) which (prepare yourself to spit!) is pronounced as “khoot-ah-mor-gen”! It’s that first syllable that will particularly tax your salivary glands. And once you’ve mastered that, try the Dutch equivalent of “you’re welcome” – ‘graag gedaan’ which is pronounced (approximately!) as ‘khraakh khuh-daan’! Yes, that does just roll off the tongue!
And so — with a nod to both Hoot Mann and Hans from BRPC! – I say that learning Dutch is a (k)hoot! We’re using several strategies to help us make our way. There’s the Duolingo app on our phones, an array of book resources, reading Dutch newspapers, simply imbibing all of the spoken Dutch around us on the street, in cafes and in stores, and then ‘Notting Hill.’ Yes, the film with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. Taking one person’s recommendation, we’re watching the film in English with Dutch subtitles one night and then dubbed in Dutch with English subtitles the next night! The question is, will I now sound like a Dutch version of the self-deprecating travel bookstore proprietor who has a penchant for saying ‘classic!’ time and again? (Before you do, I’ll acknowledge that hair considerations should, right off the bat, prevent any such confusion!)
The Dutch people themselves are extremely kind and good natured — so speaking with them as you’re buying groceries, ordering a meal or just trying to find your way someplace are all good opportunities to try to harness a bit of the language. Janet has observed a striking thing. Everyone we approach — everyone — greets us first in Dutch. They do not assume that because we do not fit the traditional Dutch appearance that we’re not from here. It’s a rather extraordinary display of inclusion across racial, ethnic lines.
My last strategy to learn Dutch might be expected from a pastor – I bought a Dutch bible! In certain verses, we can again see the seeming ease with which one might comprehend Dutch. Consider this verse:
In het begin was het Woord, het Woord was bij God en het Woord was God.
With the help of several common-looking words, many might recognize this as the opening verse of the Gospel of John. Here is another verse from the same gospel, perhaps a bit less evident:
Want God had de werld zo lief dat hij zijn enige Zoon heeft gegeven, opdat iedereen die in hem gelooft niet verloren gaat, maar eeuwig leven heeft.*
As I use the Bible as a language tool, I have found it most doable and fun to read from the epics of Genesis and Exodus as well as the parables of Jesus, given that they have recognizable story lines to follow. I love seeing how the parable of the prodigal son unfolds in Dutch or how the Dutch language captures such vital expressions as “Ik ben het brood dat leven geeft” (“I am the bread of life.”)
Of course the Bible aside, the single greatest challenge in negotiating any given language is to use it to navigate computer technical support! Janet and I bought an HP printer yesterday and we had to register the device and wanted to sign up for their Instant Ink program. Because we needed the ink shipped to the Netherlands, the website assumed we were Dutch speakers and didn’t offer English as an option.
So we fumbled our way through various screens, clicking various boxes along the way –which quite possibly will mean that we’ve subscribed to a dozen Dutch magazines and said yes to allowing HP to sell the contact information of all our friends (sorry!). The funniest part of all was completing the follow up customer service questionnaire!
Finally, I was out walking this afternoon and saw that a special summer event was underway in the Grote Markt in the center of Groningen. I was then reminded that there is (at least) one verbal experience that transcends all languages — their ‘g’s and all — and that’s the screams of fright and exhilaration that come from soaring into the sky on a carnival ride!
* P.S. That other Bible verse is John 3:16.