On Nov. 23, 2005 I moved to The Hague from Washington, DC. This is my new Dutch life.


Lost in Translation

I feel like a 4 year old. Not only can I not read or speak Dutch, but the affect of speaking stilted sentences to non-native speakers is having a toll on my command of English.

Sure sure, I'm picking up vocabulary here and there, but I don't even know the Dutch word for "good bye." Wait, that's not true. I've seen the words, but God help me to pronounce them.

There's a myth widely perpetrated by Americans who visit The Netherlands on vacation: everyone speaks English. I'm here to debunk that myth.

It's true that some Dutch speak English and even speak it quite well. They tend to be professionals or have jobs in parts of the city where non-Dutch speakers are more likely to be. In my neighborhood, this isn't the case. The usual interaction I have with adults these days consists of gesturing, one-word sentences or pointing to words in my Dutch-English dictionary.

When I find an English speaker, I feel a bit ashamed.

I don't blame the Dutch for not speaking much English. Americans could learn a thing or two from the mere effort to become bilingual. What bothers me is that the expectation is that English is spoken everywhere. Even The Hague's language guidebook for foreigners is only offered in Dutch.

It's simply not true that English is spoken everywhere, and if you're going to spend any time in this country you should set your mind to learning Dutch. So, I've been researching Dutch language classes and hope to start a course in January.

** Caution. This next bit gets rather geeky, and I suspect only one person will find this interesting.**

Not that I need convincing, but one language school hosts several web pages dedicated to the worthiness of attaining Dutch literacy. In a section that "attempts" to make the case that Dutch isn't all that hard to learn or all that different from English, they blame English for Dutch being difficult to pronounce. In reference to something they call the "great vowel shift," they inform English speakers that, in fact, Dutch pronunciation is more phonetic.

As if! A hundred points goes to anyone who can properly pronounce "voorbereidingen," "slechtstscrijvende" or even "kindercarnavalsoptochtvoorbereidingswerkzaamheden." Rob's not allowed to play.

So, I looked up this so-called "vowel shift." According to one Harvard scholar, a shift in the pronunciation of long vowel sounds indeed began around the 15th century when we quit speaking Middle English (remember those recordings in high school?). The affect is that words like "sheep," used to be pronounced like "shape." Who knows, then, how you'd pronounce "shape." I haven't bothered to investigate deeper.

Though an interesting tour of linguistic history, this explanation does little to boost my confidence. It hardly makes a difference given that I don't speak the Pardoner's English. Perhaps Chaucer would have had an easier time with Dutch. My money's on "probably not."



Blogger Reid said...

Everytime I tried to learn a bit of Dutch during the one week I was in Suriname, it was incredibly daunting. It seemed so easy, but the way it sounded and the way it looked made me want to run and hide. The Dutch students I was with kept giving me the "it's not that hard" bit, but the Japanese, Italian and Argentian in our group had given up and they had lived in Suriname for months!

Face it, the Netherlands: your language is hard.

6:14 PM GMT+1

Blogger soo doh nim said...

You're right. I find this very interesting, and I hope you write about it more.

8:26 PM GMT+1


Post a Comment

<< Home