Dutch, the mythical unicorn of European languages.

Posted on Jul 17, 2013 | 20 comments

Dutch, the mythical unicorn of European languages.

Let’s be clear, unicorns unfortunately do not exist and neither does Dutch, my friends. Perhaps you’re saying “no way” and typing “does Dutch really exist” into the google search bar right now. If you click search, Wikipedia will try to inform you that it does indeed exist, but I’m going to tell you why it doesn’t.

Okay, let me be a bit more specific in my claim here. Dutch as a concept referring to one language does not exist. I’ve been corrected many times by Flemings (people from Flanders) when referring to the language as Dutch. They say that I should say Vlaams (Flemish) instead. Herein lies some of the confusion. I spent the better part of 6 months trying to get this Dutch language under control or onder de knie as they say. The courses I took taught me general Dutch or algemeen Nederlands. It was a mistake to assume then that after taking those courses I would have all the tools I needed to understand and function in the language. I’m still learning Dutch, I have to, but learning Vlaams (Flemish) (or rather even learning to understand Vlaams and all of its crazy dialects) is the real uphill battle now.

I’m often asked by friends, family members, fellow students and acquaintances how the Dutch is coming along. This is a difficult question to answer. When I began learning the language I was motivated to the extreme to learn as quickly as possible and reach the goal I needed to reach to study at the university. I reached that goal and I was very happy and felt very accomplished. What I didn’t realize then was that even if I study this language for the rest of my life I will probably never be able to say, “Hey! It’s going splendidly.” That’s because Dutch doesn’t only mean one thing and the collection of language variations that this little word represents is fluidly changing as all languages do.

aliceA truth about languages in general is that you will never learn it all; you cannot ever entirely learn a whole language. Languages change and ultimately the living speakers have the authority on what is correct and what is incorrect. Some day you will be the outdated person complaining about ‘that newfangled word those youngsters are using’ and although you think that word silly, it just may be on its way to being instated as a proper word in that particular language. Back to my story, though… It just so happens that right now I’m the figurative old lady complaining about that ‘newfangled’ word those Flemish are using and asking in my most annoying voice why we cannot just all agree to use words I know and understand (not to be difficult, but seriously, just to preserve my sanity).

Allow me to illustrate by way of anecdote. Sometimes we will be watching a show on Flemish TV and although I’m listening intently and am completely tuned into the context, I still have no idea what the person on television is saying. At that point I might turn to Christophe and say, “I didn’t understand any of that” and he will respond with a slight smile and say, “neither did I.” In this case, the person on TV was probably speaking some Flemish dialect that even locals from another area of teeny tiny Flanders have a difficult time understanding. No big deal, right? So I can’t understand TV sometimes, life will go on. Right, but lovely readers, this doesn’t only happen in the world of television, it also happens to me daily in all kinds of places.

Occasionally  it happens when I am attending a lecture in Dutch at the university. Usually I’m pretty oblivious to people around me during the lectures. I try to optimize my ability to pay attention so I’m often not very social during these lectures and I try to sit by people that are not very social either. It’s extremely difficult for me to listen to a lecture in Dutch, write notes in Dutch (okay sometimes Nengels – hybrid of English and Dutch), and then also try to really grasp what is being discussed all at the same time. Any extra attempt to socialize or have a little conversation during the lecture, or even anyone else’s attempt to have a conversation with their friends around me, completely ruins this delicate balance that needs to be in place for me to actually understand. Some days it goes really well and I have the feeling that I’ve done a very good job of understanding and note-taking. That is when it usually happens. The girl or boy next to me will ask me something during the short break period and I don’t understand anything they are saying. This is when that trusty old ‘Dutch’ grows a shiny horn right out of the middle of its head, its flaxen mane turns glittery, and its newly grown wings carry it off into fantasy world. Yes, friends, this is when that neat concept of ‘Dutch’ no longer exists in reality.

This metamorphosis into the fantastical doesn’t only happen on TV and in the university, though. It also happens on the street, in the tram, in the grocery store, in the coffee shop, anywhere really. So, this is just me, informing the world of the flighty nature of this little language called ‘Dutch’. I’m still trying to trap and tame that unicorn so I can try and figure out what it’s really made of. Because, who knows, maybe it’s not so mythical after all. Perhaps my unicorn wrangling skills will improve in the upcoming academic year and I’ll have the privilege of sharing what I learn about this interesting, albeit, mysterious beast.




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  • Miranda Metheny

    Oh, I think you can say “it’s going splendidly.” You just can’t ever say, “It’s finished”. :)

    • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

      I’m afraid at this point I can’t quite say ‘splendidly’ either, but there is always hope. 😉

      • Ariane

        Leah, enjoy reading your blog. I’ve lived in Belgium (Flanders) for 4 years now. I attended a formal school for Dutch/Nederlands which is a great foundation, however, the Dutch spoken on the street or in real life settings can vary from what one learns in a formal school. In my opinion it is best to learn the language formally and then learn how it is spoken in the area in which you live. My level is decent meaning I am able to read it, speak it, write it and understand it. It helps that I am married to a Flemish man. :) I’ve never been corrected when calling the language “Dutch.”

        • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

          Thanks for all your comments, Ariane. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog so far. Congratulations on the progress you’ve made with the Dutch. I have been in Belgium for two years now so I hope when four years comes around I’m able to speak and understand more. I’m learning more all the time but sometimes it’s hard to measure progress when there is still so much more to learn.

          • Ariane

            It will come. I promise you that. Just keep at it. Sounds like you are doing great. A year of classes is just not enough time to be completely fluent in a language, however, it is a good foundation that you must build on. If you think about it the Flemish study their own language more than a year in school, so I can’t see logically how a foreigner can pick up the language in one year unless he/she already knows somes Dutch/Flemish prior to coming to Belgium.

  • Charlotte

    So interesting to read about how you experience Dutch! And I think you’re probably right, although I think, when we try to speak the ‘official’ Dutch, we’re understandable by most people. Only when using the dialects, it becomes very difficult. But isn’t it the same way in English? The USA is big enough to have different dialects, no?

    • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

      Hey Charlotte! :) Glad you’re finding it interesting to read about the experience so far. The experience itself is always interesting for me, although sometimes also frustrating. 😀 Indeed, the US is definitely big enough for dialects. What I find truly fascinating about Belgium though is the amount of dialects in relation to the tiny size. I think it’s just amazing that so much variation can exist in such a small geographical area. Consider, Belgium would fit inside of my home state, Kansas, about four times. We’re all speaking the same dialect in Kansas so it’s hard for me to fathom having as many dialects as Belgium does in the space of one corner of Kansas. And, like you mentioned, when people try to speak general Dutch then I usually understand. The thing is, I blend in pretty well here so people always just assume I’m Belgian. They usually just speak to me like they would to any other Belgian girl and usually I don’t understand on the first try (depends on the context and if I’m paying attention or not). Even then, sometimes people don’t realize I’m not Belgian… I think they just think that I didn’t hear them very well. Haha. It actually took some of my classmates a very long time to realize that I am an American! :)

  • http://www.sarainlepetitvillage.com/ Sara Louise

    I do not envy your challenge but you have the right attitude :)

    • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

      :) Thanks, Sara.

  • I think about beer

    I’ve been trying to teach myself a little Dutch and Vlaams. I was in Belgium last year staying with an American Expat friend and her Belgian boyfriend. From talking to her, it’s almost like a two step process. She’s learning the “unified Dutch” that is the official government stance, but can’t use it in everyday life because the Belgians want you to speak in Vlaams. So she’s learning her Dutch then immediately learning how to “Belgian” it up. Her boyfriend speaks the predominant Belgian Dutch, but on a few occassions, she had him speak in his native Antwerp dialect and it sounded completely different than than his standard Flemish. Totally fascinating!

    • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

      It is really fascinating. I enjoy learning languages and always find such aspects of them very interesting. Sometimes it becomes difficult and challenging when those endless idiosyncrasies stand in your way to reaching goals, though. Still working on learning to understand because that is the big challenge. Hearing and understanding dialect is proving to be difficult.

  • http://www.therandomwritings.com/ Rachel G

    As a fellow lover of language study–this is an awesome post! I can so relate. One of the most trustrating things is that after months of study, testing, and figuring out all manner of spelling an grammatical rules–native speakers don’t follow their own rules, and it is terribly confusing. What you’re talking about reminds me so much of the many, many dialects of Chinese and how some native spekers mix 2 or 3 dialects into one conversation till things just don’t even make sense any more!

    • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

      So glad you liked it, Rachel! :) I can just imagine how difficult Chinese must be… I think that might be even more challenging than my Nederlands-Vlaams challenge.

  • http://www.morethanbeerandwaffles.wordpress.com/ M Isinvar

    Having just moved to Antwerp, so much of this rings true.

  • http://www.anaelisamiranda.com/ Ana Elisa

    And they dare criticizing my procunciation – even when it’s understandable.
    I’m happy enough when I can learn new words, make sentences and make myself understood :)

  • Brian Henderson

    The same can be said of any language.
    If someone learns English and comes to Aberdeen they will not understand a word Aberdonians say.
    If someone learns Parisian French, god help them in Provence
    Spanish wont serve you well in Barcelona
    English has been murdered by those living in the South of the USA

    Thats language for you…

    • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

      Of course, Brian. Constant change is in the very nature of language – it doesn’t matter which one. No standard language is any more superior in terms of communication than a dialect, it’s our social constructs that guide us to make those distinctions. This post was simply meant to convey my frustrations at feeling like I had to learn multiple languages rather than just one. Dialects are fascinating things – especially the abundance of them in Flanders. It’s just sometimes daunting for a language learner to feel like his or her progress is so minute in the whole scheme of things. That is what I was hoping to reflect in a light-hearted way in this post. :)

      • Brian Henderson

        I spent 6 years living in Den Haag so I do know what you mean however I find English is a much more diverse than the Dutch language even within the UK. Someone from Groningen understands my Haags a lot easier than a person from Newcastle understands my Aberdonian English.

        The biggest problem I had in Den Haag was being replied to in English :)

        • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

          Ah, indeed, that problem is also a problem encountered by many a Dutch-learner here in Flanders.

          I might disagree with you though about the diversity of the Dutch language, or maybe it would be more accurate to say the diversity of Flemish. Many television series have subtitles here because the dialects are very difficult to understand. Sometimes when watching a show on TV a person speaking a strong dialect will say something and I will turn to my native Flemish boyfriend to say that I understood absolutely none of what that person just said. He’ll simply respond “me neither”. This is not an isolated case, the West-Flemish dialect (among others) is notoriously difficult to understand for people of other regions in Flanders.

          As a student of linguistics at UGent I find that Flemish people are often proud of their dialects and find the differences between them fascinating. Perhaps this comes from studying among linguistic students, but a discussion on Flemish dialects always starts a buzz in the room.

          • Brian Henderson

            In England all Scottish programs come with subtitles. If the program is one made in Glasgow I need them as well and I’m only 350km north :) We’re very proud of our Doric heritage in the north east of Scotland, it sets us apart from the rest of the country. I think thats one of the major reasons dialects not only survive in this shrinking world but thrive. People like to feel part of something and language is something people from the same area share.

            I didnt venture that far south so I have no real first hand knowledge of Flanders, only the usual anecdotes you hear from the Dutch. Is flemish to Dutch the same as French Canadian is to French? Similar but different? Thats the picture that was painted to me, they’re Dutch but not quite, they like to think they’re different but they really want to be the same. Tribal but banter at the same time.