There are a
few lot of words in Dutch that I just can never seem to get right. This list is really a running one, as I always seem to be forgetting things, or my knowledge of certain words seems to become hazy after not hearing or reading them for a while. I thought I might share my follies here as a bit of comic relief. I do have to laugh sometimes because it often creates an unusual mental picture, especially in regard to the first example. Hopefully I’ll get these things straight some day because I think it could be important, it’s literally life and death in the last case.
I have seen this uitdrukking (expression) three times today and each time I thought of what a strange expression it was and wondered what it possibly could mean. On the third time I decided to look it up.
Naturally, this is as crazy as any other expression in Dutch. That is a truth like a cow? What does that mean… what could that possibly mean? Well, according to www.woorden.org it means “dat is overduidelijk waar” meaning that is obviously true or something that is completely obvious. I wasn’t satisfied with that response. I wanted to know more. Why is a cow obvious? Why do these curious people say this? I found some answers here. Namely that a cow is a very basic animal. Thus, the expression stems from the assumption that everyone knows what a cow is. Not the spannende explanation I was hoping for but, nevertheless, a bit more satisfying. One uitdrukking less to drive me crazy.
Any native Dutch speakers have an alternative explanation?
To live is to learn, to learn is to grow, and to grow is to change.
Life is comprised of change. As children we grow and change physically; add more words, both beautiful and vulgar, to our vocabularies; learn what it is to love, what it is to be hurt. We grow older and we learn what it is to care for someone else even more than we care for ourselves. In some unfortunate cases, age brings with it the learned behavior to resist change. These are processes of life and sometimes change can be a scary and overwhelming thing. Beginning a life abroad can be described almost entirely through that word ‘change’. There are big changes; stepping outside of the confines of what is familiar can lead to a whole different perspective on life. I’ve experienced a lot of big changes, but I’ve also been noticing that I’ve experienced smaller changes, as well.
During the past summer I finally had the opportunity to return to the US and visit my much-missed family for the first time in two years. It was a long over-due visit but the long length of time away gave me a unique opportunity to notice the differences with a sharper eye than I would have before. Although my observations were interesting, it was the observation of my uncle that sparked my inspiration for this post. I was a bit alarmed and definitely surprised when he almost immediately noted and informed me of the fact that I am now speaking differently than I used to. When I asked him what specifically he noticed, he wasn’t able to tell me anything in particular but just insisted again that something had changed.
Quite honestly, it’s been a worry of mine that my language and vocabulary have been deteriorating with all of the foreign words I’ve been trying to cram into my brain during the last few years. It’s no secret to me that my vocabulary and speech have changed. I notice it myself sometimes. It always shocks me when a strange word tumbles out of my mouth. For example, in the US the word ‘super’ only existed in my memories as a red-penned affirmation of an exceptional job on a spelling test or perhaps preceding the word ‘man’ on a pair of children’s pajamas. In Europe, it’s a perfectly normal exclamation and I’ve noticed it jumping off my tongue before my American brain has the chance to stop it. In addition to ‘super’, many Belgian people, while having a conversation with me in English, have asked me why I keep saying ‘ja’ instead of ‘yes’. This is a change that I’ve been completely unaware of, as I always think I’m saying the English ‘yeah’. Could it be that Belgians don’t know of the word ‘yeah’ or perhaps it’s that my pronunciation has undergone a slight transformation into the Dutch ‘ja’?
Nevertheless, I notice these small but strange things quite often. It’s a bit of an unnerving experience when I find myself doubting words I’ve known nearly my entire life, but I’ve learned to laugh at these strange occurrences, try to conceal my astonishment at myself when they happen, and to come to see them as one more bizarre quirk of living a life abroad.
Throughout my blogging history I’ve always found the blog platform a healthy motivation and inspiration for language-learning. Since I’ve been living in Belgium I’ve had to begin learning Dutch. It is true that Dutch-speaking Belgians are quite talented with languages; as an English speaker, I could probably navigate Ghent for years with few problems while only speaking English. However, I do think it’s essential to learn the local language for many reasons.
I completed a lot of Dutch courses during the last year but that still doesn’t mean that I know everything. In fact, I’m frequently reminded how little I actually know. If I’ve learned one thing throughout the last year, it is that I will never be finished learning. The point is that I’m still always trying to learn more Dutch. I’d like to try and begin sharing this process more on the blog. One of the reasons I created the ‘Nederlands’ tab was to actively archive all my study materials, language stories, tips, etc. Until now, I haven’t been using it much, but I hope to start.
During the last week I’ve been trying very hard to make my way through Agatha Christie’s, Zwarte Koffie, and am happily nearing the middle. I’ve been following Hercule Poirot, coincidentally Belgian, through a sea of Dutch words as he uncovers the secrets of the Amory family. Here are some words I’ve learned along the way:
Are you a fellow language learner? What methods do you use to help with learning new words?
Belgians are superior language learners. A week or so ago I was amazed again by their vast language capabilities. I was waiting for the tram around 10 in the morning so that I could make my English literature class lecture when an elderly man and woman made their way to the stop. As the tram was arriving the man asked me something in Dutch that I didn’t understand. I replied to him in Dutch, “Sorry, maar ik spreek Engels en ik kan je niet goed begrijpen.” (Sorry, I speak English and I can’t understand you well). He immediately switched to English and asked me if I could help his lady friend off the tram in a few stops. I was amazed that this man, who reminded me of my own grandpa, could so easily put an English sentence together. I said of course that I could help her. I sat next to her on the tram and after a few stops I asked her in Dutch, “Moet je hier afstappen?” To which she replied with a smile, “No, the next one.” She made a little joke about buying too many groceries at the grocery store and I commented back that I usually do that, too. It was the same sort of friendly conversation that I would have with the American equivalent of this sweet older lady. When occurrences like this happen it is apparent to me just how much English pervades life here. This was a pleasant experience but sometimes there are also experiences that give me more of a negative feeling.
It’s common to be walking down the street or sitting on the tram and hear an English swear word thrown in among a string of Dutch words. The preferred expression of girls between the ages of 12 and 25 is, “oh my god.” Because I had a relatively conservative upbringing, these words still don’t often cross my lips. I was made aware at a young age that people can be easily offended by this expression. The choice not to say this expression, in my eyes, has nothing to do with religious preference, but rather a common courtesy that I take in order not to offend someone. The strongest of English swear words, for which we Americans have many silly substitutions (such as ‘freaking’, ‘flipping’, ‘fudge’), is very commonly heard. When I first moved here, I always felt taken aback when I would hear young people saying this so freely in public. Likewise, sometimes from the mouth of my boyfriend comes the swear word ‘shit’. Although, seemingly less strong of a cuss word to me than the ‘f’ word, it still always makes me look around quickly to see what catastrophe has occurred. I hate it when he says this while we’re in the car because my automatic reaction is to think that something is going terribly wrong. This brings me to my point that as these English swear words cross the barrier of language they seem to lose some of their strength. Belgians, specifically Belgian youth, throw them around with reckless abandon while I still choose to use them more sparingly. Although I hope to someday be able to switch languages as easily as these amazing Belgians do, I don’t want these ugly words to become part of my daily vocabulary. Afterall, damnit, when I say ‘shit’ I want to mean it.
If the title of this post confused you, then welcome to my confusing little world. During the last half year my brain took a turn down crazy language street and I have been living in a semi-confused state pretty consistently. Most of my friends and family know that I spent a year living in Spain and also have a bachelor’s degree in Spanish. Right after completing my year in Spain, I moved to Belgium and began intensively studying Dutch. It is a requirement to pass the ITNA exam, which demonstrates that you have reached a B2 (intermediate) level in Dutch, in order to be able to study at a Flemish University. My goal was to meet this requirement and then to begin studying at Ghent University in order to attain a master’s degree.
This is not my first experience studying multiple languages, but it is the first time that I’ve attempted to learn a third language so intensely. When I first began the Dutch courses palabras españolas (Spanish words) were escaping my mouth when they weren’t welcomed. Now that I am participating in a Spanish course this semester Nederlandse woorden (Dutch words) are jumping out. I am not the only one studying two additional languages. All of the students are studying two languages. There is a large number of students studying both Spanish and English and I must find some way to convince them to give me their secrets as to how they keep these two languages separate. I even have experiences while reading my native language during which I see a word that I’ve known my entire life in a completely different way.
I know that anyone that has set out to learn a language has to know that it is a never-ending process. There will always be more to learn because language is a constantly changing art. This is something that I love about learning languages because it is a challenge that will never bore me. The most important thing for my own personal learning process is to maintain a positive attitude and to allow myself to learn in a fun and interesting way. I am very happy to be able to understand enough Dutch to enjoy reading or watching the news, reading tweets of Dutch speakers, watching TV or movies, and all other normal life activities. One of my favorite ways to study and maintain my Spanish is to read novels. Spanish flows beautifully in written language as well as in music. I think it’s important to find an activity that is enjoyable to supplement traditional ways of learning languages. Of course, it’s important to learn vocabulary and grammar but perhaps sitting with your nose in the grammar book for hours isn’t the best way to learn. My brain is not a superhero brain, that’s for sure, but I am still pretty happy to be living this experience and to have endless opportunities to learn something new.