Spreekt Nederlands? Part 1

I've always been terrible at learning languages. My shyness, short-term memory and reluctance to practice are a lethal combination to becoming fluent, and I hate that in-between phase of understanding just enough to know how far behind I really am.

I'm half Dutch on my father's side, and grew up hearing Dutch, although I only picked up a word here and there. I've taken a couple of beginner classes, but not much stuck, and several years worth of German at university has been rather wasted, I'm afraid. That's why I knew I would have to throw myself into the fire by moving to the Netherlands if I ever really wanted to learn Dutch. It's uncomfortable as hell, but I hope it will be worth it a year from now when I can express myself even half as well in Dutch as I can in English.

Dutch has a number of sounds that are very difficult for English speakers to master, and I fear that some of them will never happen for me. Rolling 'r's, hard 'g's, soft 'g's, 'w's that sound like 'v's, 'v's that sound like 'f's, saliva rich 'sch's and other terrifying linguistic gymnastics. If you want to know more, check out this video that tries to explain how to say G in Dutch. No letter should be that complicated, am I right? Familiar combinations are pronounced differently, and words that look like English keep tripping up our tongues while we babble in vain to find the right sounds. I even say my own name wrong, as I've been told once or twice. I've been practicing the Dutch way, "Airrreeeka," but it just sounds far too decadent to use.

We've been trying, and I have mixed feelings about our progress. On one hand, we are definitely getting by in daily interactions without much English, even if we are mutely smiling and nodding too much for our liking. And we are slowly building up our vocabulary through the use of apps, language software and children's books. But the more we learn, the more obvious our deficiencies, like the time we listened to an adorable toddler on the train and couldn't understand what she was saying (other than that she wanted a lot of candy). We are proud to be mastering our exercises each day but then we expect to be able to understand a lot more than we do, and it's a bit demoralizing.

The people here by and large are impressed by our progress over the past month and a half, and seem to think we'll have picked it up in six months time. But the attitude towards picking up languages is much different here than in Canada. People routinely know two, three, four or more languages and it's just no big deal. One museum volunteer told us she had friends that spent a week at the local library reading books and they emerged  "knowing Italian." One week! It's embarrassing then to admit that we are forced to learn French in school and then do our best to forget it, not that it matters because there is very little reason to use it in much of the country. We are so very spoiled that English is spoken the world over and there’s not much need for us to try to communicate across languages.

Brian and I continue to throw ourselves into the fire, like getting an apartment on a street that is impossible for Canadians to pronounce properly: Groot Heiligland. According to some people we've met, it indirectly means "Great Holy Land." That's so beautiful and fitting, but I really wish we didn't have to butcher it every time we say it.

We have just enough vocabulary at this stage to mimic some of what we say in English. At the train station we'll say, "platform four," and then a minute later "spoor vier." The time "six-thirty" is "half zeven" and "thank you" is "dank u wel." Pairing up is helping us get used to the words we know until we can actually express what we need to say in full sentences. Unfortunately "I love you" is "Ik hou van jou," which sadly doesn't have the same ring to it...yet. I guess we'll just have to keep saying it!

It'll never happen fast enough for me. I'm coming to terms with the fact that any language learning strategy that seems comfortable is probably not going to be effective. It's a harsh, harsh world and learning a new language is not for the faint of heart. Kudos to all you who have done it! I hope to join you soon.

This new blog series will delve into our language learning activities, the programs we are using, our comical failures, and hopefully our progress. Next time, I'll share about a couple of our pre-trip forays into the language: Pimsleur's Dutch audio CDs and community lessons. Doei!

~ Erica