Friday, November 14, 2014

Why I Love Dutch, the Dutch, and the Netherlands

Until recently, I was never a huge fan of Amsterdam and hadn't really visited anywhere else in the Netherlands (with the exception of the Efteling theme park), so I'd never really had an experience to write home about.

I'd visited Amsterdam with my parents when I was at an age when I still thought girls were disgusting. This meant that during an accidental trip into the red-light district (which is right by a beautiful church I was visiting), the view of scantily-clad prostitutes in the window made me cry.

On a later trip around Europe I ended up partaking in a small amount of Amsterdam's other popular pursuit, cannabis, and the ensuing paranoia coupled with again accidentally finding the red-light district led to a wholly unpleasant time.

As they say, the third time's the charm, and upon my arrival in Amsterdam, the first destination in a trip around Europe, I was adamant that I was going to enjoy myself and change my poor opinion of the city and, by extension, the country. I made sure to find the beautiful parts of the city and subsequently the beautiful people of the Netherlands.

Even though I was hoping to learn some Dutch and had quickly consulted a couple of web pages on the matter, when I stumbled with the longer words and seemingly endless number of vocalic phonemes, the locals were all very friendly while they put me to shame with their flawless mastery of my mother tongue.

From Amsterdam, I headed eastwards to the city of Zwolle to meet a good friend and exceptional English teacher. In Zwolle I was treated to the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the city, as well as travelling on a typically-Dutch bicycle that was kindly provided for me.

The Netherlands, and Zwolle in particular, is a wonderful place for cyclists and while it seemed odd to me that nobody wears a helmet when cycling, it became abundantly clear that with all the cycle paths, cyclist-friendly road layouts, and drivers that are very familiar with being surrounded by bikes, there was little danger of ever encountering any trouble.

I was lucky enough to be able to sit in on a couple of English lessons at the school where my friend taught and was left completely astounded by the level of English on display. The older children were discussing Jewish-American Literature and not only providing exceptional insight into the passages they had read, but doing so in impeccable English.

So it might be pretty clear that I think the Netherlands is a wonderful place, since the people were friendly and happy to converse with us in English without being upset that my Dutch is abysmal. While I don't speak Dutch and the words I know could be written on a postage stamp, I love the look, feel, and sound of the language.

One particular highlight was sitting in on a lesson on English accents. As a special guest, I was allowed to provide a sample of my finest Geordie. The children then had to ascertain, given my accent, where I came from. Sadly, they were more familiar with the accents of those on the reality tv show Geordie Shore (which I was shocked to find the Netherlands is also subjected to) than a typical Geordie accent, and struggled to pinpoint my city of origin. Nevertheless, it was an incredibly fun and eye-opening experience, putting my foreign language education in the United Kingdom to shame.

The Dutch Language

Since large portions of my time in the Netherlands were spent speaking English, I did my best to learn as much as I could about the language from native speakers while trying to pick up as much vocabulary as possible from every example of the written language.

While the phonetic differences between Dutch and English are vast, the language is similar enough to English to make my ears hone in on speech. This left me confused as my brain clearly felt it could understand the language but never quite managed.

While other languages have left their mark on the Dutch language, you can certainly tell that English and Dutch are cousins as many words have shared roots that become apparent when you hear or read them.

Despite struggling with the pronunciation of countless phonemes, I would certainly recommend learning Dutch. While you could argue that it may not vastly increase your career prospects, I found the language both beautiful and fascinating, and am very keen to learn more.

My only criticism of the whole experience is that any English speaker may find it hard to have an entire conversation in Dutch with the natives. I got the impression from the Dutch people I met that they are not only masters of English, but also very keen to use their foreign language skills. I'm sure once I reach the level of basic communication I will enjoy many wonderful conversations in Dutch, if I could just get a chance to practice!