When I first attempted to learn Dutch (back in 2001) I took up the offer of a free course from my employer. The Dutch lessons took place twice a week, an hour before work, in a meeting room in the office basement. The office itself was an old Dutch bank which added to the strange atmosphere. The lessons were given by an ex-school teacher named Hans.
Hans had a very unique technique for teaching Dutch to adults. This probably had something to do with the fact that he had taught teenagers before he retired. He had a zero tolerance policy that seemed to include forgetting that we were taking the lessons voluntarily and that we were grownups. Myself and the other students were often told off. Unfinished homework was a source of frustration for him but it was lateness that was truly unforgivable (as I soon discovered).
Angry Dutch Teacher
One morning I was late due to some train trouble. It was unfortunate but unavoidable. I arrived to discover Hans sitting at the table in the basement meeting room, reading a newspaper. None of the three other students had arrived either. I apologized and explained what had happened. Hans responded by completely ignoring me. He made a grand show of reading his newspaper as if I was not even in the room. A very awkward two minutes followed of him slowly turning each page and pretending to read different articles. Eventually he finished, slowly folded the paper, put it down on the table in front of him, folded his arms, leaned forward and with forced calmness in his voice said, “You waste my time, I waist yours.”
Free-Form Dutch Lessons
But this attitude to lateness was not the strangest thing about Hans. The strangest was how he acted when he was actually enjoying teaching. When the lessons started he had been teaching us from an official Dutch language book. Then, as time went on, things got a little more free-form. He got us to translate articles from the newspaper, magazines and such other things. Then, one day, he started bringing in his own fiction. It appears Hans fancied himself as a bit of a writer. I guess he figured it was the best way to gather useful feedback, getting his students to awkwardly translate it from Dutch to English (and barely understand it).
After a few weeks of translating these short stories a certain pattern started to emerge. It was clear that all of Hans’ writing focused on a very particular subject matter. They were all from the point of view of the author (although never explicitly stated). They were all based on real events. Each one took place in a cafe or bar and they all involved awkwardly detailed descriptions of the female customers. He went into great detail describing the way they looked, the way they dressed, the way they flicked their hair. It was one step up from translating erotic fiction. Unsurprisingly, the one female student in the group quit soon after the lessons turned into a Fifty Shades of Dutch book club.
Awkward Dutch Translations
A few weeks later I was the only student left in the group. I found myself translating a story about a twenty something with long red hair, freckles speckled on her face and a smile on her lips. I was starting to wonder how useful these kinds of phrases would be in my day-to-day entry level Dutch usage.
It was a short while later when I had to translate the Dutch phrase slanke rug that things got really weird. It turned out the translation in English was slender back. As in, “as she leaned over the table her shirt lifted slightly to reveal her slender back.” I tried to ignore the weirdness of the sentence and carry on… But Hans wanted to make sure I really understood the phrase (even though he’d just translated it into English for me). He stood up out of his chair, came around to my side of the desk and leaned over next to me like the girl in the story. He started indicating his own not-so-slender back and asking if I understood the translation. I nodded vigorously in the hope that he would stop what he was doing. He did. It was the last of Hans’ lessons I ever attended.
Read the story of my second awkward attempt to take Dutch lessons: Dutch Scrabble