Friday, 10 September 2010

My Dutch is perfect... My Dutch is non-existent

If you read my posts regularly.... or occasionally, you will know that I have a special interest in languages. As I've said before there probably isn't a European language I haven't at one stage or other studied, started to learn, or at least examined the structure of. It's an obsession, I can't help it!

One language, however, I've never studied is Dutch. I have a funny relationship with that language that many people assume is so close to both German and English (my 2 "perfect" languages) - but which really is full of faux amis, and quite a treacherous little number.

A funny relationship because on the one hand I'm ultra-perfect in it: My pronunciation is pitch-perfect and I defy anyone to conclude that wasn't born and bred in Haarlem when I read out a piece of text. Or speak it. Albeit the latter with an enormously restricted vocabulary, and preferably revolving round ball games, dolls, and "mens-erger-je-niet".

Why? Because I grew up in Holland, learnt the language solely by picking it up orally from our neighbours, especially their two daughters who were my best friends.

Other than that, my Dutch is non-existent. I cannot hold a normal adult conversation. I cannot spell at all in Dutch, I've never written a single sentence. It is a mystery to me how even the most ordinary greeting would be spelt (goej morgen? goeje avond? goed middag?.. something like that, but don't quote me on it!)

It always struck me as a bit unusual that you can feel utterly familiar with a language, and yet totally not know it.


  1. I discovered it's a substantial faux pas to assume that the Dutch will prefer an English speaker to speak German, instead of English to them.

  2. Ha, very true, the Dutch are not keen on the moffe (or how ever you may spell this:) but of course their German is mostly perfect.

  3. Interesting thoughts Margit. However, I"m still baffled. If you grew up in Holland, does that not imply you spent your childhood there? Did you not go to a Dutch school? If you didn't, did you not interact with a lot of other people besides the two children? I'm curious how your Dutch is limited. I suppose you must have gone to a "foreign" school (not Dutch) and lived an expat life?

    SomeBeans; Well, the Dutch probably prefer the English over the Germans. Old rivalries, and "awkward" history and all that.

  4. Yes Jackie, that's exactly right, I went to an international school where all subjects were taught in English. It was a NATO-HQ,but curiously, there were no Dutch pupils at all, just British, American, Canadian and German. Life there was a kind of bubble and not many people had Dutch friends. All very odd, in retrospect!

  5. Thanks Margit for the info. The great thing is, that you have the authentic accent. Learning the vocab is just a matter of study. Learning how to pronounce like a native is almost impossible when you're an adult. Except perhaps, if you've got your own private speech coach on your Hollywood movie set.

  6. Well written! Very well written! I have read this blog several times because it strikes à cord. My native tongue is not Dutch but Papiamento. My langauge consists of words borrowed from many languages and sometimes distorted on purpose. Just like the Patois language. The reason for this is the slavery heritage of course. Anyway, my point is, my language was à spoken one for many many years and there was no official spelling.
    À car would be un auto (short for automobile). Nowadays we do have an official spelling which I never bothered and or resisted to learn.
    À car would probably be speller like this: ung owto.
    So my bezitneming mixed language with all it's influences from Dutch, Spanish, Portugese, French, English and other languages that I speak fluently is now à language I can not spell properly. So yes Margit... I can relate!

  7. interesting. I learned languages by rote, medieval style, rather than by listening and learning. It was just the way languages were taught in grammar schools in the terror rather than total immersion. no wonder people chose media studies rather than eg russian or german. dutch is a funny one. I have always considered it a guttural and rather unattrative spluttering language, and not the kind of hybrid you get (like flowers or dogs) when you cross breed. Oh well. One lives and learns. Work to do....