Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Remembering to Conjugate the Verbs: Dutch 101

There is something decidedly wonderful about learning a language properly. More specifically learning said language in the country in which it is spoken. It's double the motivation because it can be used just beyond the doorstep. After four years, I've become a student again: I began my Dutch language class yesterday here in Groningen, and I walked away feeling both extremely encouraged and overwhelmed. (A surprising mixture...)

The class is a perfect size: ten of us, nine girls and one poor, shy chap that might be regretting his choice. We are all about the same age and around the same level of proficiency as well (intermediate). It is incredible to hear Dutch spoken with so many different accents in one room! We are all well motivated for our own reasons, and everyone helps each other out if we make mistakes. It felt very encouraging and wasn't too intimidating. With such a friendly group, by the time the mid-morning coffee break came around, we were all chatting and gossiping (kletsen in Dutch) easily. Such fun!

The overwhelming bit came when I suddenly realised, in the middle of conjugating the verb "to go", that I would have to relearn everything. Yep. Start again from the beginning and learn it properly. I have come in "off the street", as it were, whereas the rest of the group have come from the previous class. My knowledge of the Dutch language has come from being surrounded by it with family, copying other people, listening and repeating, and so on. So, my grammar is substandard to say the least. I can say a sentence correctly, but I can't tell you why - I just do it.

Suddenly faced with parts of a sentence, tenses, and irregular verbs, my heart sank: this was going to be Hard Work. I spent the afternoon curled up with a grammar book, and began the homework we'd been set with a revived gusto. Half way in I had to stop, as I was getting my sentences back to front and my conjugations were becoming steadily worse. I put it aside and didn't look at another Dutch word for a few hours. It can sometimes become too much. Speaking and listening is fine, but when the brain has to really engage and do tasks that you've been set, it is much more tiring. Going to the butcher for my grandmother is one type of test; sitting and writing out essays is quite another.

In the evening there was a meet up at a Taal Cafe - a language cafe - where both Dutch and International students come together to practise the language. I went with some girls from class, and it was a huge success! There were lots of people there from all over the world, and we were all communicating splendidly. It was very neat - English is often used as the lingua franca (or "bridge language") between countries, but last night, we all found common ground though an entirely different language. For many Dutch was their third or fourth language. It is only my second, so I rather felt like the poor relation. I spoke to one chap who said Dutch was his fifth (!) language. I found it reassuring that a Dutch guy said to me at one point in the evening, "You have no accent? But...you said you aren't from here?"

Best pick up line a Language student can ever hear...

Most of us left after about an hour and a half. As more people arrived, the harder it became to hear each other. Once back at home, I put the television on to catch up on what's been happening at Sotchi. It looked far too cold and I have no real interest in skiing, so I flicked around, only to land on an episode of Borgen (a Danish television series about a female prime minister, amongst other things). So, as you might have guessed, it is subtitled. But being on a Dutch channel, the subtitles were not in English as I am used to when watching my Nordic Noir series. Needless to say, after an entire day of immersing myself in Dutch with speaking, listening, writing and now reading, I was exhausted. I went to bed with an aching head, only to lay there thinking in Dutch.

It's a long road ahead until certification; I know that, but I'm excited. I want to learn it properly and not just fly by the 'seat of my pants'. Doing something, and doing it well are quite different. It is important to me that I learn it properly because I'm a bit of a perfectionist, but also it means that the history of my family isn't lost or forgotten. Hundreds of years of my family history are flowing through my veins, desperate to be understood. The Dutch language is for me, both intuitive and mysterious. I think every language has those exceptions you just have to know. I can see my own progress, which helps my confidence. I know that if I do get it wrong, the Dutch, in their wonderfully blunt way, will just say, "What!?" and I will try again.

Language is representative of culture in so many ways. I think there is so much to be gained from speaking another language.

Stayed tuned for more conjugation updates from de zolder kamer (the attic room)...

(And if I can just take a moment to add: I've just become a featured blogger on ExpatBlogs. There is a link to your right that will take you to a page where you can review my blog. So, if you enjoy reading this, please leave a quick review to help push me up in the rank and file of Netherland blogs. Thank you!)