Originally Posted – November 2006:
After five years of living in Holland I have come to a conclusion that has not been easy to accept. I have been trying to ignore this revelation for some time but I must finally accept it. I would be a terrible spy. The child in me has taken this as a heavy blow. During my day to day life in Holland I regularly find myself in situations that would result in my cover being blown if I was an undercover spy.
It can happen in a supermarket queue, on a train platform or any other place where random people gather together in close proximity. It might begin with an observation about the weather, a comment about something amusing or any random topic that can spark a conversation between strangers. All that matters is as soon as someone says something to me in Dutch that I do not understand I only have a moment to decide; Apologize and tell them I don’t understand or react as if I did understand (and hide my identity as an Englishman).
Being honest usually results in a look of sympathy with out the comment being repeated in English so I often try to hide my lack of linguistic skills with a smile and a nod. It’s a simple plan designed to avoid the awkward moment but it usually back fires.
The fake response is sometimes so convincing that it starts an actual conversation. Although it is sometimes possible to continue this sham for a short while ‘something’ usually happens that brings the whole charade crashing down to the ground.
Even if it’s impossible to understand what they are saying the rising inflexion at the end of their sentence is unmistakable. They just asked a question, a question that demands an answer, a question that can’t be answer with frantic nodding and smiling unless I want to appear very simple and slightly scary.
If I was living in a World War 2 Spy movie (in Germany) it would probably not be long before I was dragged away to a basement to spend sometime in the company of a man who has an unhealthy interest in dentistry. However, my Dutch language skills would not be a complete loss. If my interrogator asked if I ‘had a bonus card,’ or ‘wanted mayonnaise on my fries,’ as he was pulling teeth I would be able to reply convincingly and still hide my true identity as an Englishman.
Luckily this extreme example has not happened yet but my failed attempt at blending in does mean I course myself much more embarrassment then I would have. This is why I would be a terrible spy but maybe it also means the Dutch would make great interrogators.
Short Update: I was hoping to relaunch the site last weekend with the new redesign but I ran into a few technical difficulties. If all goes well I hope to have it finished this coming weekend with new posts following again shortly after that. Watch this space.
Life is full of mysteries. Who are we? Why are we here? Did I leave the oven on? Great big mysteries that are difficult to solve and keep a lot of very intelligent people busy.
However, there is a mystery that is bigger than any mystery ever pondered! Larger than any question ever asked! More infinite than any puzzle ever puzzled! Many people have attempted to solve this mystery and been driven insane by it. It is simply cannot and will not be solved… What is the correct usage of de and het in the Dutch language?
The true meaning of life will be solved long before anyone even comes close to solving this unsolvable mystery.
Please! Do not try to answer this question yourself. Even if you believe that you know the answer. Simply pondering this question for even a moment can put your mental health at serious risk. Thinking about if for just one second puts your sanity in danger. If you are an expat trying to learn the language it is far safer to just get it wrong and refer to things as de huis or het man (for example). It simply is not worth risking trying to get it right. I cannot stress this enough.
Dutch people especially might think they can answer this mystery. They are Dutch after all and being Dutch is a pretty good qualification to have on the subject of being and speaking Dutch. However, no matter how much they think they know the answer the truth is that they do not. This becomes very evident the moment they make the mistake of trying to explain the answer.
At first it is all very simple. ‘De’ is used for masculine and feminine words, where as ‘Het’ is used for neutral words. That’s it. How hard can it be?… But then they remember that one occasion where the rule does not work… and then that other one where it does not apply… and another where it is invalid… and that strange one where the rule is flipped… and sometimes reversed… or occasionally upside down… or when a entirely different rule is used based on the position of the moon!
Suddenly they realize they cannot explain the mysteries of De and Het. It was foolish of them even to attempt to do so, and it is probably best that they stop before the headache (that they don’t remember having a few moments ago) gets any worse.
It is at this point that there is only one explanation that they can give, wise words that have been handed down from generation to generation of Dutchman when dealing with outsiders trying to learn the language; “You just have to know it.”
It is a mystery that can never be solved without being born Dutch. And even then, trying to truly understand or explain it ends in madness.
There is no other sentence in the whole of the Dutch language that will get you into more trouble than “Ik spreek een klein beetje Nederlands.”
In the beginning it might seem harmless enough. After all it is just a polite way of warning the Dutch what kind of conversation they are letting themselves in for when they try to communicate with you. What could be wrong with that? It even shows a willingness to learn the language.
Maybe it is the first Dutch sentence you learn. Maybe you even start using it to open every conversation with every Dutch person you meet and in the beginning they will most likely appreciate your attempts to speak their difficult language.
But then it slowly starts to happen…
With each new encounter you become more confident in using the sentence. Over time your stutters and stammers become less, your pronunciation improves and you even start getting all the words in the right order. In fact, the rest of your Dutch might not improve at all but you become really, really good at saying this one sentence. And because of that, it happens…
One day, you meet a Dutch person you have never met before and (for whatever reason) you enter into a conversation with them. Expecting the same positive reaction you have received countless times before you use your trusted sentence, “Ik spreek een klein beetje Nederlands.”
But they don’t respond with the usual appreciation. They don’t commend you on your attempts to speak the language and joke with you about how well you are doing. They just stare at you like you are a complete and total liar.
The look of mistrust should come as no surprise. It’s your own fault. On the one hand you have just informed them that you can’t speak much Dutch but on the other you have just done so using better diction and pronunciation than most members of the Dutch royal family.
It’s like a Dutchman approaching you in the street while wearing a top hat and monocle suddenly announcing, “I am so terribly sorry to inconvenience you old chap but my abilities in the English language are sadly lacking in verbosity. Please do forgive my embarrassed attempts at communicating with you.”
It sends very mixed signals.
And even if they don’t think you are somehow trying to trick them you are in even more trouble because they will instead assume you are simply being modest and suddenly launch into the kind of full speed Dutch conversation that even a diplomatic translator would have trouble understanding.
Any confused, blanked and (let’s be honest) slightly panicked expressions on your part won’t help either because they are now convinced that you are a master of the Dutch language. They will simply assume they have used one of the small handful of Dutch words you have not got around to learning yet and repeat the sentence with a different and inevitably (for you) more difficult set of words as if the previous words were somehow to far below your IQ level to be understood.
There is usually no way out at this point and it simply becomes easier to simply nod and smile a lot. In fact, in the future when using the sentence “Ik spreek een klein beetje Nederlands” it’s probably safer to say it really, really badly.
Dutch is a very difficult language to understand but I was determined to master it this time. Since our arrival I had only spoken in Dutch. I had not spoken a word of English (or any other non Dutch language for that matter). I was deeply proud of this achievement even if it meant that I had not actually said much of anything yet. It still counts.
We (my wife and I) were visiting a friend for a cup of tea and a chat (or in my case a cup of tea and the mumble of the occasional Dutch word). Also present was a young Dutch girl that neither my wife or I had met before. She had arrived shortly before us.
The three of them were now engaged in a conversation in Dutch about… something. It was going too fast for me to understand but I listened carefully none the less. I was not going to give up so easily. I was determined to understand. I was determined to stay focused. I was determined to follow their Dutch banter.
Two minutes later I had zoned out again and was studying the wall paper pattern on the opposite wall (the pattern was slightly miss aligned) while occasionally nodding and smiling at the points in the conversation when it seemed right to do so (this is an automatic coping mechanism of mine when it comes to Dutch).
I was eventually distracted from my wall paper assessment when I noticed that the young girl was looking directly at me. I looked over shyly. I had been caught. She had noticed that I was not even attempting to listen to the conversation any more. I felt embarrassed and foolish… But the look on her face said that she did not judge me for it. She smiled at me with understanding. I smiled back and felt relief. It was nice to know that someone understood how difficult it can be at times.
The conversation continued.
A short while later my wife also noticed that I was struggling and started to repeat the story that had just been discussed. She does this sometimes to help me with my Dutch. She will re-tell the story directly to me in summery form, still in Dutch but with all the difficult words filtered out and replaced with much simpler ones. To make things even easier she will talk very slowly and pronounce each word very carefully. Sometimes this works. Sometimes I just nod and smile some more.
My wife’s friend also started to join in by asking very simple questions in Dutch, carefully pronouncing each word and repeating the question even slower when I looked back in blank confusion. It was all starting to get a little bit embarrassing really.
The young girl gave me another sympathetic smile as I struggled to understand a question which had just been asked for the third time. It was the kind of smile that said, “I understand. It must be tough being an Englishman in Holland, surrounded by all these strange Dutch people constantly speaking Dutch at you.”
I returned her smile. I suddenly felt closer to this girl I had never met before. She was my ally now. She was someone who understood my daily struggle. She was someone who understood that it can be difficult to not understand what is going on the majority of the time. She was…
She was still smiling at me. Her smile was starting to look a little too sympathetic actually. My daily life is not ‘that’ much of a struggle. Her smile now looked like the kind that said, “Aaawwww. You poor little bunny. You brave little soldier.” It was starting to become a bit of a patronising smile in all honesty.
This continued for some time as I was addressed in very basic Dutch. I became more and more confused by her reaction to all of this. Why was she starting to look slightly uncomfortable?
And then I suddenly had a horrible thought. Could it be? Oh no! I decided it was time to break my vow of no English. I needed to test something.
“That’s nice.” I responded the next time my wife repeated a comment at half speed so that I could understand it.
The reaction was immediate. A look of shock and confusion passed over the young girls face. There was a sudden silence. Sensing that something had just happened my wife looked between the two of us.
“My husband is English.” My wife informed the young girl having seen the look of confusion on her face.
I too had just realized that the young girl had not known that I was English. She had not even realized I was not Dutch.
“Oh,” the young girl suddenly exclaimed in embarrassment, putting her hands up to her mouth.
She had spent the last half hour under a very different impression.
“I thought he was mentally disabled.”