Learning Dutch (Or: What is it like to speak and listen?)

A few days ago, I went to SamenSpraak, hosted by Gilde Den Haag. It is a group that meets the first Wednesday night of every month to speak Dutch. You have both native speakers and buitenlanders (foreigners) intermixed. The event lasts from 5:30 to 7:30PM. I’ve been there a few times already, but this was the first time that I was coming there after finishing up my volunteer job at 5PM. I was tired. Still, what I say below has been my feelings since moving here.

1. Context, context, context. If I can figure out what the main idea of what you’re saying is, I can usually figure out most of the other smaller ideas from the previously figured out context. Of course, this makes it more funny if I am actually wrong about what is the context. This happens sometimes, and usually results in me replying wrongly when you ask me a question about what you just said.

2. My body language gives a lot away sometimes. When I talk with strangers, you can tell when I am nervous about not understanding what you’re saying. I fidget, I cross my arms in front of me defensively, I play with my engagement ring, and I lightly dig my nails into the side of my other arm.

3. Sometimes I pretend to know what people are saying. I laugh when everyone else does.  This mostly happens in groups, rather than with one to one conversations. But I mimic the reactions of the people around me (like laughter or looking concerned) even when I don’t have a clue what was just said. Mostly while thinking: Oh boy, what if they realize I have no idea what is going on?

4. I need to stare at you like you’ve grown an extra head. Listening to another language takes a lot of concentration. This means I’ll be staring at you pretty intently and usually focusing on your mouth (not your eyes, which is more customary). But sometimes I can get more clues about what words you’re using if I see how your mouth moves.

5. Listening to Dutch means not thinking about anything else. The second something else jumps into my mind, that’s it. If I think about that, then I’m not listening. If I’m not listening, then I lose the context of the story and have to catch up. (Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.) It also means I can’t stop and wonder too long about one specific sentence – I lose my place then too.

6. If I correct myself in front of you, then I am more comfortable with you. Sometimes half a second after a sentence or clause has left my mouth, I realized I used the wrong word order or used the wrong conjugation. If I actually go back and repeat myself with the right order or word, that means I feel pretty comfortable in doing so. It’s how I learn.

7. I usually like to be corrected, especially in one on one conversations. There’s a fine art to correcting someone’s languages skills. How quickly do you do it? Do you wait until the end of the entire sentence? Do you only wait until the end of the clause? (I can tell you waiting until the end of the entire story doesn’t work.) Generally in group situations I don’t like to be corrected as much.

8. I don’t hear everything. I only hear the important words that clue me into the entire sentence itself. There’s a lot of little words that easily slip past. For example: Ik ben het ermee eens means “I agree”. “er” refers to the thing you are agreeing to. “mee” means “with”, so “I agree with that”. But what does “eens” mean here? No idea. But English has a lot of little, “meaningless” words as well.

9. I find it nice to use grammatical constructions I just learned. When I was studying for the test, Marco and I practiced Ik zou graag willen dat … and Ik zou graag … willen, two different ways to say you want something. Ik zou graag willen dat ik kon vliegen. (I would really like that I could fly. Translates a bit stiffly, but you get the idea.)

10. I want to be perfect. Now. Not so much in the pronunciation, which will come on its own terms eventually, but the grammar? Yes. That is one thing I can control, and the rules (usually) make sense to me. It’s simply a matter of taking them in and using them enough to get used to them. I also have control over the vocabulary – it’s up to me to learn more.

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