I spent Saturday at the Mall of America (MoA, above) picking up some clothes and sundries before headed back to Arnhem on the evening flight. The Mall was absolutely packed from parking lot to walkways, stores to restaurant. I didn’t think that the Christmas season had really started, and had heard that stores were emptied by the financial crisis, but there was no evidence of it in Minneapolis (below).
I bought a sweater as a gift, a shirt, and a couple of pairs of pants that I needed: simple things. The exchanges with the clerks played out along familiar lines, the type of scripted exchange that Artificial Intelligence types studies for years trying to make computers smarter and more sociable.
I need some black casual slacks. The clerk presents a few choices. What is the range of prices? From reasonable to ridiculous. Let’s try a 32-32. The clerk caches my shopping bags and shows me to the fitting room. No, too tight in the waist; how’s the seat? Try these instead. Perfect: do you have a charcoal wool slack as well? Yes, but sizes run different. Let’s bring up the tailor…when can they be ready…I’ll be through town in mid December to pick them up. Do you have a Bloomingdales card..25% discount on top of the 20% markdown. Perfect, I won’t need a box, thanks.
Along the way, I was translating phrases into Dutch to see how I would have kept up if I went to the V&D or elsewhere. It wasn’t pretty.
The actual phrases aren’t too difficult, simple declarative sentences with second-week vocabulary for the most part:
Ik hoef enkele zwarte incidentele broeken. De griffier presenteert een aantal keuzes. Wat is het prijsgamma? …
Even so, the casual exchanges in Dutch can go too quickly for me to parse, or contain a few words that are unfamiliar and hang me up. I’ve learned to try to get the gist of the sentence and not necessarily translate every word, but if the conversation goes in an unexpected direction, that can cause me to lose the flow.
Further, I know that the literal translation of scripts may not yield culturally correct exchanges. I now expect to be greeted with “Are you okay?” in London (which sounds like “Do you have a problem?” to American ears), rather than “Can I help you? (Identical in the Dutch “Kan ik u helpen"?”). I can’t really spot the cultural flaws in my literal translation of the MoA script without going through the process of buying pants in the Netherlands.
Finally, there is the high-level problem of getting the process and measures correct. What is Euro-equivalent to a 32-32? Is it appropriate to ask for the tailor? Can I fill in a credit card application to get a further discount? I have to observe others, read signs, do trial-and-error, and ask lots of questions to get these things right, and I learn, but it complicates and slows the transaction.
In the end, I buy pants at the MoA because I can handle all levels of the lifescript fluently. My goal in learning Dutch is to be able to buy pants at all of these levels, not just the literal translation. It means getting out there and interacting a lot more with real-life than I’ve been doing in Arnhem. I’m signing up for more aggressive conversation courses in Maastricht through work, and am making a resolution to stumble ahead with my Dutch more often. It will slow life down, but I think it’s going to be the only way to really learn it all (vs. todays’ strategy of reading De Gelderlander every day).