The Importance of Language

Ik spreek een beetje Nederlands.

I speak a little Dutch.

I think this is the first sentence in Dutch I really mastered. Like really nailed time and time again when it came to intonation, pronunciation, speed, and all the other elements that make speech come naturally to you.

I’ve been studying Dutch for almost six months now and I’ve progressed in my courses from being able to count, navigate a menu in a restaurant and say the above phrase, to actually writing texts (poorly) and holding, more or less, conversations (one-on-one. I’m not so good at following group conversations or conversations in particularly noisy venues). My sentences aren’t always correct — in fact, more often than not they are mistake-riddled — but most people seem to understand me. I even can “trick” store clerks and bus drivers and random people on the street into thinking that I speak Dutch.

But learning a language is hard. I have a ton of respect (and slightly more than a little envy) for the people who speak three, four, five different languages. It can’t be easy.

Language is the biggest barrier I face to really integrating into daily life here. In reality, most (Flemish) people speak English, so going about your day-to-day activities without knowing Dutch is rather easy. The universities offer complete masters programs (not so sure what’s happening on the bachelor level) in English, so studying isn’t a barrier. And while I haven’t found a “real” job yet, there seems to be reasonable opportunities for English speakers, particularly in Brussels and particularly if you’re flexible. So it’s relatively easy to build a life in Belgium if English is the only (or the only common) language you have.

But you will still find yourself in situations where everyone around you is speaking in Dutch while you stand there and twiddle your thumbs.

It can definitely be frustrating. It can be boring. It also can make you start to feel a bit unsure of yourself (after all, if you’re standing in a group where everyone is speaking a language you don’t understand and someone tells a joke, people tend to start laughing and look at you. I’m sure most of the time it’s just checking to see if you understood or wondering why you’re the only one not laughing, but it’s hard not to let your mind wander to a place where it’s asking if everyone is laughing at you).

I just passed the next level of the Dutch program I’m doing. The program is offered by Ghent University’s language center and is really for international students who wish to study in Flanders (in Dutch). Therefore, the program offers six levels of language instruction, ranging from zero knowledge of a language to being able to study at the university level, in nine months. The idea is that once you complete the program, you will be able to follow courses at the university, write academic papers in Dutch, and be able to succeed in whatever study program you choose to do.

It has a very low success rate.

I was having drinks with former colleagues the other day, and the French intern asked why I was studying Dutch. I said because I lived in Flanders and that’s what they speak, to which he responded, “yea, but why?”

I get the sentiment. On my CV, Dutch won’t really make much of a difference anywhere but here (or the Netherlands) and it’s not like most people in both those places don’t speak English. So why? Why Dutch?

I’ve asked myself that a lot over the last couple of months, particularly when throwing out job solicitations after reading “Working knowledge of French and English mandatory”. And especially right before my exams.

But when it comes down to it, I do live in Flanders, my boyfriend’s friends and family are Flemish, so Dutch is what I should be speaking. After all, why should they all switch languages because I’m in the room?

Also, even though most people have a working knowledge of English, it can be very embarrassing when you meet someone who doesn’t speak English or when you have an entirely different conversation than the one you attempted (imagine trying to explain what a yeast infection is to a pharmacist who doesn’t know the term in English. Or mispronouncing a word in a way that changes fire eater to fire shitter).

I think you don’t realize the importance of language — as a social binding agent, as a means of communication, as a unifying factor — until it’s gone. Not speaking the language of a country can be isolating; it immediately labels you as a foreigner, a non-Belgian. So there’s always that feeling that maybe, just maybe you actually don’t belong. It’s this question I tend to push away when stuck behind the scenes of a conversation I can’t really follow.

For me, the hardest part about learning Dutch is that I’m a native English speaker. Because everyone speaks English, I know I can fall back on it, if necessary. Also, I’m afraid my broken Dutch will be interpreted as my being stupid. So I get self-conscious and freeze, chickening out and asking my questions (which I practice by talking to myself all the way to the city hall) in English. Being a native English speaker is a curse and a blessing.

But in the end, learning Dutch is more than just trying to fit in to daily life here. It’s more than being able to communicate effectively with people (after all, I usually can do that now in English). It’s a personal challenge, a way of changing how I think to include another language. It’s understanding more about the country I’m living in and the people who live here (you know how Inuits have 100 different words for snow? I think Dutch has 100 different words for drunk).

Plus, once I become fluent in Dutch, Joery and I will have a secret language in the U.S. That alone may be worth it.