Friday, 1 March 2013


Learning a foreign language as an adult can be a nightmare. I should know. I've done it a couple of times.

Amsterdam has one particularly difficult moat to swim: the overly-good mastery of English of just about everyone in the city, except the poor expats desperately trying to learn the language. They won't let you speak Dutch here if there's the slightest whiff of uncertainty. Like wolves, the locals smell fear and pounce on any chance to showcase their English language skills.

I'm glad I kicked off my Dutch experience in Rotterdam. By the time I got here, my Dutch was good enough to apply the hammer and tongs technique. Named after the joke bridge bidding method. I'd say something in Dutch, and get a reply in English, I'd continue in Dutch, English reply back . . . and so on, until eventually they spoke Dutch. It often took a while.

Given my natural level of torpor, I'm shocked I could be arsed to go through with it*.

The accent, though. I've never quite cracked that. My inability to properly pronounce the name of the street I live on, never fails to amuse Mikey. Mister bloody parrot. He can pass for Dutch. Bastard.

I can remember my Mum drilling me in the pronunciation of the "th" sound in the word "the" when I was a child. I must have got it right eventually, because she stopped correcting me.

Correcting an adult is impolite. No matter how bad their grammar or pronunciation. So no-one's sat me down and made me pronounce the rolling "R" sound until got it right. As a result, I struggle to make taxi drivers understand my address. It's a curse.

It may have seemed a little harsh when I pulled up Mark Dredge about a point of beer history. I should have been milder in my words. But I swear by the principle.

Sometimes you need correction to improve.

I reserve my right to correct**.

* I often can't any more.
** When I've evidence to back me up.


Arctic Alchemy said...

This happens to me in Quebec, even a simple "Bonjour" to a stranger, along the street perhaps, is always returned by a "Hello"

Ron Pattinson said...

Arctic, I was surprised that when I was in Canada, people kept speaking to me in French. Wasn't even in Quebec, but a French-speaking part of Ontario.

Gary Gillman said...

There is an additional layer of complexity in French Canada, in that people sometimes wish to continue in their own language, whether French or English, because they live there, and assume they should be able to speak their mother tongue, so you can get a kind of natural "conflict" sometimes. Almost always though it is resolved in some mutually acceptable way, sometimes by one speaking English and the other French but they still understand the other, or probably more commonly by Francophones speaking English because in the mixed areas generally their level of bilingualism has been higher than that of the English-speakers, or that is my experience at any rate.

Usually it is all worked out in a courteous way.


Arctic Alchemy said...

I agree Gary, and I must say, in Canada either Quebec or Ontario, people are extremely friendly if they are given respect regardless of language differences...and sharing a beer together is helpful too !

Gary Gillman said...

It is good to hear that from a visitor to Quebec. And not to say that language tensions are not omnipresent, they are at the political level, but I never felt this to be so at the personal level in Quebec. I think as you say, A.A., a lot depends on the amount of goodwill shown.

I have heard that Brussels has similar issues (Flemish-French) and perhaps they are resolved in a similar way: certainly the fine beer and gastronomy culture will help and as you said it does in Quebec too.


Andrew Elliott said...


Repeat until you get it right: "Ronde van Vlaanderen"

That should help fix your rolling R's :)

Somehow those 'r's are easier in Dutch than Spanish... perhaps it's from growing up a few years on the German/Dutch border.

EddtheBrit said...

As a Brit ex-pat living in the US, with the typically poor grammar school French most of us are armed with, I well recall my first visit to Quebec years ago. My one and only attempt to speak to the natives was in a sandwich shop. In response to the young lady behind the counter's "Bonjour" I merely said "Bonjour, comment ca va?" ... to which she replied in perfect English "Oh, you are British!" How the hell she could tell that from so short a phrase still amazes me. So much for trying to pass as a native!