By Linda A. Janssen
First published in ACCESS Winter 2010 Magazine
Linda A. Janssen offers ten reasons why learning at least some Dutch can enhance the expat experience.
As newly arrived expats in the Netherlands it's easy to end up in sensory overload. It takes energy and attention to find your way in a new country, culture, job, home, neighbourhood, school, and local Dutch community. For some, it's hard to imagine grappling with a new language as well. And we are pleasantly surprised to learn that so many Dutch speak English.
Perhaps you started with an introductory course, but later found that you were able to survive without speaking Dutch. Or you may have had the best of intentions, thinking that you'd study the language 'once things settle down', only to find your days filling quickly with other activities. The result is many of us decide not to continue, thinking there really isn't a compelling reason to learn Dutch.
Regardless of how long you have been in the Netherlands or how long you plan to stay, mastering fluency or speaking no Dutch at all needn't be the only options. Learning to speak at least some Dutch can positively impact your experience here.
It does require some effort, but the benefits begin almost immediately as you interact with fellow students while learning the language. Practice these newly found language skills in the world beyond the classroom and you will gain confidence in communicating at home, at work and in your neighbourhood, with Dutch friends, family and your colleagues. Your efforts to learn and speak will broaden your understanding and deepen your connections to the society you live in, resulting in a richer, more rewarding expat experience.
It's never too late to study Dutch, and there are many good reasons to do so. Here are ten:
At its very core, attempting to learn a foreign language is about the basic desire to understand and be understood. When you choose to only speak English, you are ensuring that you are understood. No matter how rudimentary your language skills, when you attempt to speak Dutch with your fellow compatriots, you send a very clear message that you wish to understand them.
2. When in Rome...
The original comments from St Ambrose in 387 AD have been paraphrased into "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." It acknowledges that while customs may differ from one place to another, it helps to celebrate the unique differences while seeking common ground. So while in the Netherlands, why not try speaking 'Nederlands'?
3. Learn beyond the language
Words and phrases call for explanation about meanings, culture and insights into how the Dutch live and think. Learn more about your Dutch home and its cultural, social, political, economic, religious and ethnic customs and beliefs. Chatting with Dutch friends about the news and recent experiences helps build connections to the country and its people.
4. Feel a part, not apart
Expats sometimes suffer from a sense of not really 'belonging'. Learning the language can help you feel more involved in your surroundings. You feel more a part of Dutch life, rather than merely an observer.
5. RESPECT, find out what it means to me
Taking the time to try learning the language shows respect for your new home. It lets your conversational partners know that you acknowledge and value the linguistic and cultural differences, and want to close the gap between your experiences and theirs. Friends and strangers alike will quietly confide their appreciation that you're trying to learn their language.
6. Widen your circle
We can all benefit from meeting people and making new friends. What better way to get to know Dutch friends, colleagues and neighbours than making an effort to practice your Dutch with them? Learning of my language classes, my neighbour offered to practice Dutch with me. Now we have coffee together and (despite my stumbling) chat away.
7. You never know when you will need Dutch
Not all Dutch people speak English. For expats living in smaller cities and towns, days and even weeks can go by without encountering other English speakers. Whether you're dealing with Koos the plumber or exploring a picturesque village away from the tourist hordes, knowing some Dutch will prove useful.
8. Feed your brain
The mental challenge of studying Dutch is intellectually stimulating and helps keep your mind sharp. According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, learning a foreign language has a 'positive effect on intellectual growth ... enhances mental development ... leaves students with more flexibility in thinking, greater sensitivity to language, and a better ear for listening'.
9. There is no 'right way'
Some newly arrived expats dive into Dutch to help 'acclimatise' to their new surroundings. Others haven't the time or energy in the early days when grappling with so much change. Or perhaps you've put it off, unsure how long you'll be living here. It's up to you whether you test the waters with a quick introductory class, or join a more structured Dutch course.
10. Make the most of your time in the Netherlands
Armed with whatever level of Dutch you've achieved and a good attitude, you will be more open to venturing out, meeting new people and seeing more of this wonderful country. Some of our most enjoyable day trips have been to places and events recommended by Dutch friends, rather than the usual places frequented by tourists.
Linda blogs at: www.adventuresinexpatland.com