When Dan & I first moved to the Netherlands, we wanted to learn Dutch but we were naive about just how important it really was. “Oh you don’t need to learn Dutch” people (not just non-Dutch people) would say to us, “Everyone speaks English in the Netherlands”. “Oh they speak something different in Limburg” was another one (true, but still not an excuse). We even had individuals advise us to learn French or German instead; purported that it would be “more useful” since the Netherlands is a small country and one of the few in the world that speaks their tongue.
We said, “No, no. Learning Dutch is the right thing to do if we’re going to live there.” We understood that it would matter for finding work, making friends, and joining clubs. But honestly we didn’t try very hard. But everyone speaks English in the Netherlands. No problem right?
Wrong! Maybe if you live in Amsterdam, in a community of all expats, and never want to connect with someone cross-culturally you don’t have to learn Dutch. But if you can’t stand being functionally illiterate and live anywhere else you better get yourself enrolled in a course ASAP. Because that is exactly what it is like to live in a country without speaking the language: like being illiterate. And I’ve got it easy.
I think what people really mean is “you can get by”. That’s true. I’ve been getting by for nearly a year now, but its embarrassing to order poorly in a restaurant and sad to miss out on conversations with colleagues and friends. I don’t have an office to go too, but it would be nearly impossible to engage with your coworkers without making the effort to speak their language. While everyone is friendly about speaking to me in English (and stares at me funny when I try to speak Dutch), I feel guilty and separate from the people around me. It’s a very foreign feeling and not a pleasant one.
So what’s taking so long? Well, honestly I’m not very good with languages and scheduling conflicts kept us out of the Dutch for Expats course for longer than intended. Poor excuses I know, but there you go.
We are now enrolled in Maastricht University’s Dutch for Expats second module and struggling through homework on a nightly basis to get a handle on all aspects of this new language. The first module was taught more or less in English, but this one is exclusively being taught in Dutch. While that’s good for my ear, I feel like I’m falling further behind every week.
Despite its apparent similarities to English, Dutch is actually quite different and difficult to learn, but I still believe it is worth learning. After a module and a half my reading comprehension has shot way up (long articles wear me out) and my writing and speaking is slowly improving. My listening comprehension remains terrible; probably because I don’t get forced into Dutch conversations or situations very often and it is easy to miss things when you’re not prepared to be spoken to.
I’m still extremely nervous about testing out my measly skills even in simple situations because while I’m sure I can say what I want to, I’m not sure I’ll comprehend the response. Hopefully by the end of the three modules I’ll be more confident and will be able to at least do simple things freely. I’ve got two more years to get it right.
Moral of the Story: Learn Dutch. Please. Seriously. And don’t say I didn’t warn you.