The 5 things that happened when I learned elementary Dutch

Dutch _

Learn the local language, always strikes me as a sound tip for expats, and so every time we move I attempt to learn the local language.

As a result, my Mandarin is serviceable, my Cantonese is shit and, after an intensive course, my Dutch is A2 level certified.

So what does A2 level Dutch mean practically speaking?

In my experience, A2 level Dutch means that I:  

1. Still speak English with Dutch people, because they are all language protégés and bloody show-offs. 

A sample conversation:

shopkeeper: Goede morgen.

me: Goede morgen. Ik wil graag een kilo koffie alstublieft. Mag u …. [I ask for a kilo of coffee beans and I want them ground but I can’t remember word for that.]

shopkeeper: [Big smile.] We speak English here!

me: Yes, I know you speak English. You all speak lovely English, but I need to practice my Dutch.

shopkeeper: Oh! You are studying Dutch. Dutch is a very hard language to learn. Do you want me to speak in slow Dutch? I learned English from watching Friends but I think Dutch must be very hard for you to learn. Do you find the sounds hard to make? Do you find it hard to learn Dutch?

me: Yes, I do find it difficult to learn because none of you will ever speak Dutch with me!

2. Think I can read German.

Because I can grasp a lot of written Dutch, I fool myself into thinking I can similarly comprehend written German. For example, last month I only realized half-way through ‘reading’ an Austrian website, that I understood absolutely nothing.

3. Know why the postman says 83 in English when he means 38.

A week into my Dutch course a lightbulb went off when I suddenly understood that the postman was asking me to take in the mail for house number 38 and not for number 83, which doesn’t exist on my street. (Thirty-eight in Dutch can be literally translated to eight-and-thirty in English.)

The postman, by the way, is one of the few Dutchmen whose English is on par with my Dutch and yet he still defaults to English with me.

4. Was happy to discover that my children were merely calling their father a ‘fatso’ and not a ‘dick sack.’

On the holiday of Saint Martin, children in Utrecht go door-to-door singing for their neighbors in exchange for candy (like Dutch Halloween). I tittered inwardly as my children and I were taught this common song by the neighbors:

Sinte maarten mik-mak
Mijn vader is een dikzak
Mijn moeder is een dunnetje
Geef me een pepermunetje

Are we really calling fathers dick sacks? Did we just scream-sing ‘dick sack’ to that smiling white-haired couple?

Then I looked up the lyrics and saw that the song means:

Saint Martin mik-mak
My father is a fatso
My mother is a thin-y
Give me peppermint-y

‘Fatso’ seems a rather lamely tame by comparison.

5. Think I am learning hip slang when really I’ve just completely misunderstood something. 

Yeah, I found her to be a very tightening corpse! <wink, wink>

Is what I understood the bachelor-farmer to say about the lovely blonde on the Dutch TV program, Boer Zoekt Vrouw (Farmer Seeks Wife). I looked up the word I’d written down from the sub-titling, aantreklijke, and thought, Now this is why I watch Dutch TV: to be exposed to super cool slang!

I was completely wrong.

I had simply left a ‘ke’ out of the middle of the word that I had jotted down. He had actually described her as aantrekkelijk (plain old ‘attractive’) and I’d written aantreklijke (‘tightening corpse’).

Or maybe Google Translate is playing sick games with me. Do the Dutch really have a compound word for ‘tightening corpse’? If they do, then I am very glad to have signed up for the next course (A2 to B1) in anticipation of getting to meatier and more obscure vocabulary!

Google translate screenshot.

Google translate screenshot.

48 responses to “The 5 things that happened when I learned elementary Dutch

  1. Laughing out loud! It does get better. I asked for a nipple to stir my tea once. Lapel not tapel! Oops. The problem with the spell check was lijke which means body.

  2. I do like a tightening corpse man 🙂 German does the same thing with numbers – I’ve got the hang of that now! And Germans also speak German with me if I try in German first – Latvians always reverted to English when they heard an accent. It makes learning very frustrating! Good luck with the next level!

  3. Very funny. What you want is for one of them to give you a pronunciation of the colour Fuchsia. The combination of that memory of Welmoet’s failed fabric matching trip at the market and your blog post reduced us all nearly to tears again this morning ; )

    • Perhaps I should just switch to extremely complicated and slang-filled English. That’ll show those Dutch smarties. 😉

      Glad to give you all a good laugh! I can just picture you all standing in the sun and swatting away those damn Tai Po sand flies.

  4. I wish that Google translate worked better with Thai… it always comes out very differently than it actually means. I am going to start Thai lessons soon as we are thinking we will have z go to preschool a few mornings a week. I cannot wait to learn it. I find that I keep going back to Mandarin when thinking about how to say something to a local here. 🙂

    • Ha! I too switch to Mandarin whenever I can’t think quickly of the proper thing to say in Dutch. Good luck with your Thai lessons. Sounds fun (and it’s always nice to have a few hours to oneself).

  5. Oh my god! I was dying laughing while I read this! I am finding the same problem in Germany with everyone speaking English the moment they realize I must not be a native German speaker. I try so hard to work on my skills but they are all English speaking prodigies!!

    • Darn, I thought the Germans might force you to use German. Twenty years ago I was backpacking through Germany and found few people who spoke good English (or maybe they were just faking it because they didn’t feel like talking to yet another 19 year old American backpacker who want directions to the hostel).

      • I have heard it is quite different on the east side of Germany, as far as people speaking English. Here in Baden-Wurttemberg, though, plenty of people speak English rather well! Which helps me very little.

  6. Brilliant! And yes, I have encountered lots of people who learnt English by watching Friends… But no one says ‘how are you doing ?’ like Joey does!!! But good to know that you use TV shows to learn Dutch. I’ve tried and failed massively when leaning Cantonese…

    • The problem with learning Cantonese by watching TV, is that it’s too hard to follow the character subtitles fast enough to complement the spoken dialogue. I tried to watch a Cantonese hospital drama a few times and failed miserably. Sigh. I think of how truly difficult Cantonese is everytime a Dutch person tells me Dutch is hard to learn.

  7. Enjoy your ‘tightening corpses’ Mr Fatso! 🙂 I personally love how the same word means something completely different in another language like ‘susu’ in Hindi means ‘pee’ and in Bahasa ‘milk’?!

  8. Hilarious. But I wonder – when you say you *think* you can read German, is Dutch grammatically similar to German at all? You know when the German language puts the *something* at the end of the sentences when the *something* should be in the middle, etc.?

    • I know absolutely nothing about German. It *appears* to me that many German words look like Dutch words. This does not mean that I actually understand any German at all.

  9. As a native Dutch speaker the first thing I think of with ‘aantreklijk’ is a wearable corpse, not a tightening corpse. Aantrekken can mean to tighten, but to me its first meaning is to put on (as in clothes).

    Als je Nederlands wilt oefenen, wil ik je best helpen. Ik ben een vriendin van June in HK. (Woon zelf in Engeland.)

    • Thanks Jean. I figured this out in my Dutch class a few months later! I still think of a corpse every time I stumble across this word, which is good for a laugh.

  10. Great post. But Google Translate? I was on a site, just before the Greek referendum, that used the word Oxi. I knew it meant No, but Google offered to translate it for me so, what the hell, I hit the button. It translated it to Oxi.

    Thanks, Google. Don’t know what I’d have done without you.

    As for my Greek, it’s–. How are we going to describe this? I can read No. I can say And. I can also say Cheese pie, Head cheese, and Shithead. Because you never know when you might need one more more of those words.

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