Linguistic gymnastics

“To all Undutchables out there, a warning: there’s an expiration date on every excuse for not learning the language of your host country properly.

All of mine have expired, and I can finally proudly say: I speak Dutch. And it feels bloody fantastic. My grammar isn’t perfect, my pronunciation far from native, but who cares? I can’t do linguistic somersaults, but after years of crawling it feels good to just stand upright. I can laugh at jokes, listen to news, understand cooking instructions. I no longer avoid the book store’s Dutch literature section, answer loudly and proudly when asked for directions in the street, and always ‘press 1 for Dutch’, just because I can. But most importantly, I can now freely communicate with my Dutch colleagues and friends.
Language proficiency comes in waves: you absorb the sounds until the cup overflows and you can connect sounds into separate words and words into meaningful sentences. You build up your vocabulary, and suddenly the sentences make a story. Then you build up your grammar and you can retell that story to someone else. A certain saturation level must be achieved before a new level is reached: it may seem your knowledge isn’t improving at all until suddenly, BAM!, you speak the language fairly fluently.
The secret here is to shun perfection — it’s absolutely unnecessary when learning a language. I once spent an hour writing a two-sentence mail in perfect Dutch, and was incredibly proud of myself until I received a two-page reply that I couldn’t understand. First attempts at enjoying Dutch literature ended up with pages of pencil scribbles of translations, making reading such a chore. A friend who had learned Dutch as a second language recommended an alternative approach: just read. Ignore the words you don’t understand. Just keep reading and your brain will soak up the information and make sense of it eventually. I tried and it worked.

Having passed the speaking and reading hurdle, the next important skill for fresh Dutchables is faking language proficiency. If you forget a Dutch word during a conversation, just say zeg maar (the stall-phrase) followed by the word in English. You’ll sound like a local hipster who purposefully peppers the conversation with English words. Swearing is a different story. While the Dutch freely drop the F-word on daytime television, a harmless medical term such as cancer or typhus can make them recoil with disgust: Dutch swearing means literally cursing a person with a stream of diseases you wish upon them.
Finally, learning Dutch in a student city like Delft has its funny sides, too. ‘Delfts’ — or local student-speak — is a dialect of its own. Thanks to my Dutch workshop mates, for the longest time I was convinced that zwarte meuk (‘black goo’) is the proper term for heat-resistant silicone, tatti-bak (gunk-container) the correct translation of ‘trash can’, and bakkie pleur (cup of murky stuff) the legitimate way of ordering coffee anywhere in the Netherlands. In Delft such phrases can be used in serious conversations, but elsewhere… be prepared for raised eyebrows and nervous laughter.”

Olga Motsyk, from Ukraine, is a BSc aerospace engineering student.

Deze benen verraden wat er achter het witte doek aan discotheek Lorre en sociëteit Phoenix gebeurt: schilderwerk. Het monumentale pand van het Delftsch Studenten Corps bevat houtrot en moet er vanaf de tweede week van februari weer even tegen kunnen. 

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