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.

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Moving to another country = so. much. paperwork.

Ghent: My almost-permanent home!

I’m sure that Belgium isn’t unique in it’s frustratingly convoluted public administration system (though if you watch this video, you begin to understand why it’s so convoluted) and I understand that immigration policy is necessarily complicated. But it’s still a frustrating experience.

So remember when I wrote about the hassle of getting my fingerprints taken so I could get an FBI background check? There were a handful of other documents I also collected while I was home that I was told I would need once I arrived back in Belgium. This included such basic documents as a medical check-up and the background check, but I also had to travel to Harrisburg (2 hours from my hometown) to get apostiles for both my diploma and birth certificate. In total, I probably spent over $100, once you break down the processing fees, administrative fees, and general cost of the items (and not counting the trip to Harrisburg, since I turned it into a day trip to Gettysburg with Mom and Dad, who covered most of the costs — Thanks guys!).

Once I got back to Belgium, guess how many of these documents I actually needed.

That’s right. None.

Upon my return, I first registered in the city hall as a tourist. That came with its own annoyances, particularly that the woman who was helping me used four (four) of my best-ever passport photos (i.e. all I had left) to put on four copies of a document that no one has ever asked to see (and is now expired, so no one will ever see them). Then Joery and I had to register as a couple, which is similar to a civil union in the U.S., so that I could apply for residence status based on our relationship.

As it turns out, the only document I actually needed for legalizing our relationship was the one I didn’t get while I was in the US. It was the affidavit of celibacy (that name still cracks me up), which I ended up having to go to Brussels twice to get. Once to actually go to the US Embassy and swear that I am not married or in a serious relationship with anyone other than Joery (seriously, I had to hold up my right hand and everything) and the second time to go to the Belgian Department for the Interior because I didn’t have a stamp on it. Why no one mentioned that this stamp was necessary before I went to the Embassy, I don’t know.

To make a very long process short, after registering as a couple, having two visits by the police to verify we were, in fact, living together, and waiting for the police to send the documents back to the city hall,  I was finally able to produce the “samenwoning” (literally “living together”) contract, along with a few other docs, to the immigration office so they could issue me a temporary permit.

So the process that started in January is now (semi)over in May.

Example of one of my sweet photos from Paris. Yes, I was gripping the ferris wheel. We were the only ones on and it wouldn’t stop and it creaked a lot and I freaked out, just a little.

We still have to get my permanent card, which will be valid for 5 years, and to do that there are still more documents we have to collect. They include proof of health insurance, proof of a suitable residence, proof we have a durable relationship (meaning we have to prove we’ve been together for at least two years. I have some sweet time-stamped photos from my first visit to Belgium in 2006 I’m going to send in. Joery ruining all my awesome European photos with time stamps finally worked in his favor) and proof of financial means. We have an appointment today  in three weeks (our insurance company is kind of dragging their feet on processing our request) to turn in the aforementioned documents. This means — taking the 3-month processing time into consideration — I will finally be a permanent resident of Belgium — by the end of September.

Now, this experience differs for everyone. I think the process for me went rather smoothly (aside from a few minor setbacks, like not having the proper stamp on my affidavit of celibacy and needing to wait a  month or so between every appointment), but this can be attributed to a few things: Joery being a Belgian citizen, me being an American citizen, us having been registered as living at the same address for the last two years (which makes proving our relationship rather easy), Joery owning his apartment, us being in Belgium, which I hear has rather relaxed immigration procedures, among others. Every  situation is evaluated individually (which also means you can’t just call the city hall beforehand to talk about your case, you must make an appointment to get every stupid question answered. And just because you have an appointment doesn’t mean you don’t have to wait for an hour, or so.)

The best advice I can give (if you happen to be going through or trying to go through the same thing) is to stay flexible. Things will go wrong. You will have the wrong (or completely unnecessary) documents. You will have to suffer through long waits in order to get an appointment. You may also have to use all your awesome passport pictures on the document no one will see, leaving the zombie-photos for your permanent card (and no, I can’t just pry them off — I tried. They have a stupid stamp on them). Staying calm is hard. I had my fair share of mental breaks, particularly when my tourist visa expired and I still couldn’t get an appointment at the city hall. But as long as you satisfy all the requirements, it should be a rather painless process (at least in hindsight…nothing was that bad).

So good luck. And if you have any questions, please direct them to the city hall of your domicile.