Monday, February 4, 2013

Lost in Translation

Not about nursing.  Unless you count nursing my feelings.  Then it is kind of about nursing.

I was caught completely off-guard last weekend by a bartender at Cafe de Klos.  I walked into the bar to meet with a cultural hodgepodge of friends for spareribs, purportedly delicious at this particular location.  I'm American, my friends were Dutch, British, and Kazakh.  There was a Dutch family seated in the banquette next to ours, with a small boy who was mesmerized by a brown paper shopping bag.  My Dutch friend had asked him Wat heb jij? in fawning "hey little kiddo" tones, so after a couple of minutes of watching him, I took a deep breath and said to him, "Dat is een fantastisch tasje!" in an effort to amuse the adults, since the bag had kept the kid busy for ten minutes straight.  The two men and the woman at the table all looked at me and laughed.  "Wat heb je gezegt?" asked the man.  "Een fantastisch tasje," carefully enunciated the woman, "zegt zij," and they all ho-ho-ho'd,... at which point the bartender, who had been very friendly with them, looked at me and walked away, sneering "Stick to English.  You're raping my language."

I know that Dutch humor tends to be frank.  I spend a couple of hours a week with Dutch humor at my running club.  This was not Dutch humor.  This was somebody being an asshole.  What still rankles, two days after the fact, is that I was completely unprepared.  It's been so long since someone treated me with unwarranted jerkfacedness that I'm losing my once-proud ability to retort at will.  Does he know what "raping" means?  Does he know anyone who has been raped?  I do.  I know nine-year-olds who have been raped.  My job was to give them support and stability (and medication) on weekends from 15:00-23:00, so that perhaps a fraction of the rest of their lives would not have to be spent trudging, heads down, through a hell of distrust and self-hate.  "Raping" is beating something down, stuffing it in the dirt, leaving it emptier than empty and blacker than black.

Did I do that to "his" language?

Did he do it to "my" language?

Of course, there is also the chance that he was referencing the archaic form of the word "raping," in which case he meant only that I was "seizing" his language and "carrying it off by force."

In any case...

"People" say that Dutch is a difficult language.  I've been told this by as many Nederlands natives as English-speakers.  Most English-speaking expats in the Netherlands don't even try learning Dutch.  "Everyone here speaks English," they say.  They are right, for the most part.  English is nearly innate here.  Everybody speaks at least a basic amount of English, and many people, at least young people in Amsterdam, speak fluent, effortless, enviable English.

They know it.  They know it to the degree that they sometimes forget that it took them some effort to learn English. When I discovered that the process for transferring an American nursing license to the Netherlands "BIG" nurse registry starts with paying 650 euro and taking a Dutch language proficiency test, I knew that was highly unlikely to happen in the two years I planned to live here.  Going from zero to second-language proficiency takes a little longer than a couple of months.  I presented this rationale to my Dutch friends, and still heard from some, "Oh, that shouldn't be a problem!  Are you taking a Dutch course?"  While appreciating their optimism, I had to laugh.  Come on. Get real.  I think I might be able to achieve second-language proficiency in a year, at minimum, and that's only if I can find a way to speak Dutch to people all day long, on subjects pertaining to everything under the sun.

I don't think that Dutch is a particularly challenging language to read or write, in terms of grammar rules and syntax.  Even comprehending spoken Dutch isn't too tricky, once you figure out the slight differences between pronunciation of "v" and "w," and between "ch" and "g," and learn to listen to context to figure out whether a word ends with "d" or "t."  There are fewer conjugations than in a Romance (Latin-derived) language like Spanish, and the irregular verbs are much more intuitive for an English speaker.  This makes sense, as Dutch and English are from the same language family; they are both Germanic languages.

Speaking is the beast, chiefly because many Amsterdammers would rather listen to fingernails on a chalkboard for twelve hours than listen to a non-native speaker trying to hawk up the syllables of their mother tongue.  Some are so pained by this that they will deter you from continuing by switching to English.  Some are truly goodhearted folks, switching to English for your comfort.  For others, it's their own comfort that concerns them.

All Nederlanders are proud of their language, as well they should be.  It's rare.  The only European languages spoken by fewer people than Dutch are Serbo-Croatian, Hungarian, Greek, Czech, and Swedish.  Many Netherlanders seem to want to keep Dutch rare, and not all of them are interested in sharing it.  They see no harm in informing you that your Dutch is not, and never will be, as good as theirs, and some of them will see fit to spare you years of language acquisition pain by letting you know that your Dutch will never survive daily oral transactions.  Some Dutch are such language purists that they will belittle their own countrymen if Dutch is not spoken cleanly.  Some Amsterdammers consider Dutch spoken in Limburg, Groningen, or even Rotterdam or Den Haag, roughly an hour away, as "not proper Dutch."  I have a friend who was born near Amsterdam to one Dutch parent and one British parent, and thus grew up speaking both languages.  She speaks Dutch with a faint accent.  At her last job, her coworkers would correct her speech and tell her that she didn't speak Dutch well.  A bartender once apologized to her, saying, "I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were handicapped."  While criticism always hits a perfect "10" in honesty, it could stand improvement in constructiveness.  I want people to correct me when I make mistakes, but I don't want them to leave me feeling hopeless and stupid with nothing to do about it.

For four months, I've doggedly used the little Dutch I know in everyday conversation, and emphasized to my Dutch running teammates and other friends that I'd prefer that they speak Dutch in front of me, so that I learn it faster.  When I write messages or emails to my Dutch friends, I do it in Dutch, without using Google Translate.  This necessitates humility.  I understand that the majority of my written communication appears to be authored by a first grader.  I've gotten used to the confused looks and "Sorry?" that is the inevitable response to much of what I utter in Dutch.  The temptation to switch to English, or just to abandon Dutch altogether, is ever-present.  But I smile and repeat the question one more time in As-Close-To-Dutch-As-I-Can-Muster, because I know if the other person strains their Wernicke's area ever-so-slightly, they will be able to figure out what I'm saying.  Consider it a linguistic intervention for Amsterdammers.  If I can piece together what the 80-year-old toothless Spanish-speaking woman with a bad mobile connection and screaming grandchildren in the background is trying to tell me about the strange rash that appeared last week, then you can probably figure out that I am asking you where the volunteers are meeting, presuming that I have selected the correct vocabulary.

This is why it is difficult to learn Dutch.  The Dutch language is not difficult.  The atmosphere for practicing it is.  It helps to have weekly exposure to the eternal patience of my Dutch teacher, who knows that we bumble, but loves her language fiercely and wants to ensure that if we learn it, we learn it properly.  It helps to be included in inane track club facebook banter.  It helps to go into stores and say that the blender that I bought in October has a crack in it... in Dutch... and revel in glowing satisfaction that the lady at the counter opens the box and locates the crack, even if I only understand half of her response.  It helps to have a teammate stick an Ajax fanzine in my hand and coach me to read aloud from it for the duration of a 30 minute train ride.  Every mistake that I make is a mistake that I'm less likely to repeat in the future.

After all, if I really am "raping" Dutch, then I might as well call it easy.


  1. This is awful! I can't believe that man said that to you. Not only is the word "raping" totally unacceptable to use in that context, it makes it even more challenging for you to build up confidence in a new language. Sorry this happened, but glad to hear you handled it gracefully.

  2. Frank does not need to be vulgar. Amelie, I think I speak for many, hopefully Dutch included, in saying that for a foreigner to show interest in my own culture and language is flattering. Any attempt to demonstrate said interest is charming and endearing. Perhaps the difference, being American, is that we generally seek the opportunity, while in other countries the study of our maternal language is a given. You self-selected to learn Dutch, keep at it, and it seems you have a network of support behind you.

    Maybe certain linguistic troglodyte barkeeps could stand a lesson in beginner ESL on choosing proper verb usage. Sounds like a personal problem.


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