The Special Englishman – When Speaking Dutch Goes Wrong

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.

Struggling With Dutch

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, someone who understood my daily struggle, 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.

When Speaking Dutch Goes Wrong

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.”

24 responses to “The Special Englishman – When Speaking Dutch Goes Wrong”

  1. Alison says:

    Hee! That’s why I like to break out my rusty Italian from time to time. I may not know much Dutch, but at least I do know some other language!

    Still, I remember the time not long after moving here that I heard a young child speaking and I remember being impressed (for a brief moment) by how good her Dutch was. ;)

  2. Aledys Ver says:

    Hahaha and because she was Dutch and not one of the special people, she didn’t keep it to herself! :) Welcome to the special people group! :)

  3. AQK1982 says:

    Hahahahaha seriously she thought you were mentally disabled….. That is a very far fetched idea. I understand you can be a little coocoo sometimes, but that is a universal trait of most humans….

    Next time just break out the english earlier before you zone out. Al is het maar om het gesprek in nederlands/engels voort te zetten. I believe it is better for everyone ;-)

  4. Yvette says:

    So wait, you can’t be English *and* mentally disabled? ;)

    (Btw sorry I missed your show again, but hope you guys had a good time!)

  5. jane dutton says:

    Sometimes I think that people think that I am deaf…because of the smiling and nodding. I know a little sign language, maybe I should try to improve that instead of learn dutch!

  6. Kaitlin says:

    That is both sad and hilarious! I’m willing to bet she won’t make that mistake again with another non-native Dutch speaker!

  7. Frankly, just the cartoon alone cracked me up. Then I read the blog post. XD

    See? You *can* pass off as a Dutchman. All you have to do is smile, nod and make your eyes point in opposite directions when people address you in the language.

  8. Terri says:

    Oh, just too funny!! I was grinning by the wallpaper zone-out, then laughing out loud when you were being spoken to like a child, but the “mentally disabled” ending made me snort my coffee.

    So, excuse me, I have to go now and get a cloth to wipe off my laptop…

  9. Invader_Stu says:

    Alison – That would be great fun. To just reply to every thing said in Dutch with Italian. Hehe

    Aledys Ver – More people have had this happen?

    AQK1982 – I know but I was so determined to not speak any English. I can see how it back fires now though. I guess I could at least tell them in Dutch that I am English and might zone out at some point.

    Yvette – Some people might say it is one and the same thing. (It’s ok. You were just getting me back for the amount of times I have been in Friesland :p)

    Jane Dutton – I think it would be great for confusing the Dutch in return… That makes me wonder. Is there a difference between Dutch and English sign language or is sign language one universal language?

    Kaitlin – I think she will be very careful next time.

    Barb the French Bean – That’s a good way to look at it. Hehehe.

    Terri – Sorry for making your laptop sticky.

  10. Niki says:

    That was great storytelling there. I burst out laughing at the end. Thanks. ;p

  11. Simon says:

    Very funny! I’ve had similar experiences the first time I went to Taiwan after studying Mandarin Chinese for a year. People talked at me and I smiled and nodded and maybe understood enough to get the gist of what they were saying, at least some of the time, and they were amazed that I could say anything in Chinese.

    By the way, there are different sign languages in different countries: Dutch Sign Language (Nederlandse Gebarentaal) in the Netherlands, British Sign Language in the UK, American Sign Language in the USA, Belgian Sign Language in Belgium and so on. They might have some signs in common, but are not mutually comprehensible. There is also an international sign language called Gestuno which is used at international gatherings of deaf people.

  12. Vivian says:

    So funny I would have loved to have seen her face after she was told you were English.

  13. Lynda says:

    I was born in Holland and immigrated to the States when I was about 2 years old. I can understand Dutch pretty well, but when I speak it, I have a thick American accent which makes me feel like I sound a bit mentally disabled myself. I also have to use Google Translate many times when I am trying to read Dutch family members’ Facebook status messages. That’s a learning and guessing experience in itself!

    Good luck with learning the language!

  14. Koos says:

    Fab story, Stu. You’ve honed your sense of embarrasment so far now, that it’l be really hard to beat – by others I mean.

  15. Invader_Stu says:

    Niki – I’m glad you liked it :)

    Simon – Thanks for the info. It’s something I’ve always wondered about.

    Vivian – It was pricless.

    Lynda – Thank you. I use Google translate a lot as well.

    Koos – Thank you very much :)

  16. Gregory says:

    That was by far the funniest post yet that you have written. My wife and I lay in bed reading it, laughing until I could barely see the next sentence.

    I’m just starting to learn Nederlands and find that the most I can talk about is “why I wash my hands” and a lot of hellos and goodbyes.

    Your piece was priceless….dank u wel for the good laugh.

  17. Damn – that’s a good punch line! Pity your wife explained your Englishness as otherwise you could have played the part of a disabled person and had some fun!

    On a separate note, I hadn’t received anything from you in ages and then suddenly got the last five posts all at once today – this via RSS … strange

  18. Tanja says:

    Awesome story, thanks for sharing!! I am so glad that I started to learn Dutch before I moved to Rotterdam, because it really makes things easier…

  19. Lisa Jochim says:

    Too funny! These stories are so wonderful and classic. I’ll have to go back and start at the beginning of your story. Thank you for sharing with us!!~Lisa

  20. […] god. There are so many stories. There was the time someone I’d just met thought I was mentally disabled because of my simplistic Dutch (I guess it was a compliment that they thought I was Dutch). There […]

  21. I just discovered your hilarious blog. I’m an expat in the Netherlands too. I speak Dutch however, because I grew up as an expat in Belgium. Originally I’m German. My wife is Brazilian, though.

    I’m sorry to have to tell you that sign language is different in every country, although similarities exist, and basic signs might be the same (e.g. for “I am deaf”, or “I am English”). Especially between countries whose hearing languages are similar too, such as ASL (American Sign Language) and BSL (British Sign Language).

    There can even be several forms of signing in a single country. There can be pantomime (such as used by Italians, Louis de Funès or you and me in a foreign country of which we don’t speak a word), speaking accompanied by signs and pure sign language, for instance.

  22. P.S.: I learned a few signs in DGS (Deutsche Gebärdensprache) while I was at the university and while getting my first diving certificate (hence the motivation), and I was able to successfully use these few signs in Brazil, in order to say hello and that I was from Germany. The rest was pantomime and the people either understood me or were too polite to let me know that I wasn’t making any sense. :-)

  23. Dickie Bird says:

    A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I enjoy trying to speak the language of our adopted country and constantly cause hilarity, and/or disgust. To date, my worst blunders have been
    a) Asking a waitress for” aambeien met slagroom” instead of “aardbeien met slagoom” – Haemarroids with cream, rather than strawberries with cream.
    b) Confusing the words” Óverleden” (Died) and” Overleven” (Survived) at a funeral service.
    Some of my Dutch friends think I do this on purpose.

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