Saturday, June 11, 2011

Nederlands Week

I've been in the Netherlands for ten years now, and I'm fluent in Dutch.  I can understand it, I can read it, I can write it, and I can speak it, certainly good enough that the government is willing to hand me my NT2 (Nederlands als Tweede Taal aka "Dutch as Second Language"), a certificate that shows I'm "good enough" in Dutch to go to school here and so on.

But there's a difference between being able to speak a language, and being able to speak a language well.  One issue I face, as an English speaker, is that everyone in the Netherlands speaks English, and so I never actually need to speak Dutch if I don't want to.  In fact, I could probably go the rest of my life without speaking Dutch, except to little old ladies or peculiar foreigners that live in the Netherlands, know Dutch, but never learned English.  However, when I applied for a job as a help desk guy, I was turned away because my Dutch wasn't good enough to explain complex things to Dutch people in their native language (and I agreed with their assessment).  At this point,  I decided I needed to do something.  I needed to learn to speak Dutch more fluently, more beautifully, more naturally.  The only way to truly master a language is simply to speak it, over and over again, as much as possible.

And so Nederlands Week (Dutch Week) was born.  The first week of the month, Monday through Friday, I speak nothing but Dutch.  I reasoned that if I had to speak Dutch for an hour a day, or one day a week, I simply wouldn't talk much during that time, but over a whole week, I'd have to speak, and so I'd have to learn.  I've been doing this since February, and you can already notice the difference.  Where I used to stammer a great deal, now I speak more fluidly, with a proper rhythm and a broader vocabulary.  I still struggle with verb tenses (Dutch has an annoying habit of sticking both secondary verbs at the end of a sentence ("Ik moet mijn boek meenemen") and some constructions simply stick all the verbs at the end, but they're the standard verbs, so they're not infinitives, and you still have to conjugate ("Omdat ik een student ben") and I'm forever mixing those two elements up), and constructing really large sentences (the equivalent of sentences like "I am studying Dutch not because I enjoy it, but because I need it." in Dutch would, for me, be a nightmare), but it's beginning to come together, bit by bit, piece by piece, until it becomes second nature to me.  I'll never speak Dutch beautifully, not as beautifully as I speak English, and I've accepted that, but it's still a worthy goal, I think.

The reaction from my Dutch friends has been interesting.  Nearly all of them have heard of Nederlands Week, and they really enjoy it when it comes around.  They'll even criticize one another for speaking English during Nederlands Week (even though it isn't about listening to Dutch, for me, but about letting me speak Dutch).  In some ways, it's sort of turned into a celebration of Dutch.  Several people have commented that they simply appreciate that I'm making an effort to speak their language.  One or two, I think, take this far, criticizing me for not having learned more Dutch more quickly or not speaking Dutch for 2 weeks out of the month, for all the time, but most people are very supportive and enjoy it.  That makes Dutch week something to look forward to, which is odd.

The hardest part, for me, is the transition.  Remembering that it's Nederlands Week is a bit difficult, and I often fall back into English on the first day.  Peculiarly, the opposite is true too: When Nederlands Week is done, I find I still tend to think in Dutch, I still want to try to translate what I'm going to say, and sometimes I forget to speak English.  I take that as a good sign.  Eventually, I won't need Dutch week, I think.  I'll just speak Dutch whenever I'm out with other Dutch people.  That'll be an experience...

I still have a long way to go.  Perhaps next time I discuss Nederlands Week, I'll do it in Dutch.  I'm sure my Dutch readers will enjoy that!  But for now, I'm just glad that my Nederlands Week is over (it can be exhausting, though it's getting less exhausting).
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