Busted Dutch

I stole that phrase from a New York Times article about Megan Rapinoe, a US soccer player that is currently playing in France. I say that I speak a “klein beetje Nederlands”, but that really doesn’t capture what I do the way “busted Dutch” does.

Here are some of my favorite words so far:

  1. Echt – Really? What’s nice about echt, is that it expresses the same incredulousness of Really??!? but you don’t have to tart it up with punctuation. The ech is the question mark, and the t is the exclamation point.
  2. Geweldig – (ha-veld-da) Great! I say it in an exaggerated game show host voice because I learned it from a game show host named Linda De Mol. She seems to host the majority of game shows here, and looks like Kristin Wiig with yellower hair.
  3. Makkelijk vs. moeilijk – Makkelijk means easy, and moeilijk means hard. These words are used quite a bit it seems like, and it’s helpful to be able say, “that is hard for me”, when I’m learning.
  4. Gezellig – Loosely translates to cozy, but I think of it as a moment you’d like to stay in. It’s basically the opposite of eating fast food by yourself in the car.

My goal is to go from absolutely atrocious to godawful at Dutch in a year. Maybe after that, I can slowly work my way towards pitiful. I have made a tiny bit of progress though – I used just deduce what Manon was talking about based on a couple of words she said. I could only do that because I know what she’ll talk about, and I couldn’t understand what other people were saying at all. Now I can pick out some phrases from TV or other people, but I’m nowhere where I want to be.

I’ll give a few examples of my progress so far.

When we first got here, Manon’s parents had a dinner guest over. In order to clear the table, Manon and I had to set down a large centerpiece next to a vase of flowers that was on the floor. Alie teased me (in Dutch), “girl, don’t put your butt in the flowers!” I heard, girl, butt and flowers, so I pretended to sit on them. Their guest said, “so you understand then?” to me in Dutch. I stared blankly at her.

While we were eating meatballs for dinner, and Manon’s dad tried patently to teach me how to say gehaktbal (ha-hock-ball) for about two minutes. I kept putting the phlegm-y sound on the wrong syllable. So, then he would say “Nee! Gehaktbal!” to help me get it right.

When I arrived people started giving me children’s books to help me learn. One was called the Little Children and the Big Bear. I flipped to a random page, and realized I couldn’t understand any of it. Awesome.


This is De Kinderen van de Grote Beer. You try it. No Google Translate allowed.

I try to understand what other people are talking about, but I just hear random words like Mom and crazy, so I think that person just said that her mom was crazy, when she really said, “my mom drives me crazy sometimes”.

Clearly I need help. I began going to Dutch lessons on Thursdays, and that has helped me get more comfortable since I have to try to speak with people I don’t know very well. The women who attend the lessons are primarily Muslim – and the teachers are older Dutch women. From the beginning I had my own teacher, and I asked her why I wasn’t with a group the way the other women were. I thought it was because they could speak Dutch and I couldn’t. Her answer surprised me. She said it was because what they were learning was different: they spoke Arabic, so of course they used a completely different alphabet, and they had to learn the very basics in order to read Dutch. Some of them hadn’t had formal schooling, so they sometimes had trouble retaining what they learned. Another teacher mentioned to me at our 10 am coffee break (there’s always a 10 am coffee break) that the idea was to build a community for these women, because they were often at home while their husbands worked, etc. She told me that if they didn’t learn anything, she didn’t mind, because that wasn’t the main goal – their goal was to get these women out of their houses, to give them a place to socialize with one another and to help them feel better adjusted.

That gave me a lot of perspective – on how much easier I have it in some ways. Practically, it let me know that there are some overlaps between the Dutch and English language that someone who speaks Arabic or Japanese etc. just doesn’t have. A disadvantage is that my teacher mistakenly thinks that I understand more than I do, because some words look like English, and I can deduce (fake it?) better then the other women she’s instructed.

Published by Possibly Netherlandish

I am a US expat from the Chicagoland area living in the Netherlands.

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