26 March 2013

Speaking Nederlish... in Dutch... and English... (Kind of...)

There's no doubt that living in a foreign country has it's perks (i.e. a once in a lifetime experience, travel opportunities, etc); but one of the perpetual disadvantages is not being able to speak or read the language. In the Netherlands, a high percentage of the population is conversationally fluent in English, which makes it easier for us to make our way around, but there are still plenty of situations where knowing Dutch is essential, especially because you don't want to rely on a hope that someone else speaks English.We're working on learning Dutch - Mark took a course at the university back in the fall, I'm in the midst of lessons right now, and the Little Man is enrolled for 4 days a week at peuterspeelzaal to help his language acquisition - but it's so far been a slow process for all of us.

Dutch, or Nederlands as it's said in Dutch, isn't an easy language to learn. Like English and German, it's not a Romantic language and has weirdo grammatical, spelling, and pronunciation rules and exceptions, but if you already know both English and German you will have an easier time learning. When reading, there's a higher chance of recognizing a few words because of the closer relationship between Dutch and English, but listening to someone speak or attempting to speak yourself is a whole other story. There are sounds in Dutch that just don't exist in English, and when combined with certain regional dialects the whole experience of a conversation is rather painful at times. But I suppose it's not to different than most of our conversations with the Little Man and his toddler-English dialect.

More recently, the Little Man is using Dutch words more often. He's seemed to understand quite a bit for some time, but only now is he thinking to use Dutch terms himself. He'll now talk about something being "on the tafel (table)" or about how much he loves paarden en shaapen (horses and sheep) and has started to realize that there is a word in English and a word in Dutch for the same thing. We also try to use what Dutch we know at home to reinforce what he's hearing at school and encourage him to use the simple sentences we use, but he's often a step ahead of us. At Christmas, Little Man made a Christmas ornament at school and was telling me in Dutch what he had made. After repeated mispronunciations of what he was calling it, Little Man informed me with narrowed eyes and a tone that suggested the conversation was over, "It's a ball."

What's always a bit odd is how often we see and hear English phrases, particularly in advertisements. We realized that we've made our way around easier than we first realized precisely because we do seem to see English everywhere. Products even have whole phrases and sentences in English that have helped us know what it is going on immediately. HEMA, a department store similar to Target in America, often uses English on their packaging though the store primarily serves the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. Many other brands and stores do the same.

From an ad for HEMA dierenvoeding (animal food) - with English as main identifier

While English is often used, it's still hard to find what you need when you don't know Dutch. Especially in the grocery stores or the markets you are less likely to find English on labels for foods and household staples. Personally, I don't think I would have been able to get around the winkels (stores) without the amazing technology of the internet and having the benefit of a smart phone. Thanks to a Google Translate app I always have, at worst, a mediocre translation of a new word to help me think through what I'm looking at. The app can also translate text when you take a picture with your phone's camera, eliminating the fat-finger typos of a language you already don't understand on a small touchscreen. Like I say, it's a lot easier now than it would have been even just 10 years ago.

With a little bit of hard work and a little bit of work, we'll figure out the language on our own and rely less and less on the amazingly helpful phrase, "Spreekt u engels? (Do you speak English?)" Or we start relying on the Little Man to translate for us...

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