Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Group membership and speaking Dutch


On a recent episode of the BBC Radio podcast From Our Own Correspondent (Oct 31 2008), Henri Astier discussed the tensions between Dutch and French speakers in the Flemish region surrounding Brussels.  Its a short segment and worth a listen if you’ve ever wondered how the whole language partition / cooperation thing works in Belgium.    Honestly, it sounds like the answer is “Not too well”.

Mr. Astier also commented on the almost supernatural gift that the Dutch seem to have with speaking other languages.  He notes that there is nowhere else on earth where a group of people will switch out of their native tongue in order to accommodate the only non-fluent speaker in the room. It can be a bit eerie: the Dutch will effortlessly switch languages in mid-conversation, swinging as a group into Dutch for a sidebar or a joke that won’t translate, then, without any apparent cue, back into English again.

I think this is extraordinarily polite, and I’ve always appreciated the courtesy.  Even though my colleagues rationalize that few people speak Dutch, that Dutch is hard to learn, or that they’ve had to learn English to get along in the world, it’s not something that they have to do in their own country.  Most people in other countries don’t.

There may also be secondary advantages for the native Dutch.  The limited scope for the language cements the Dutch community together, promoting a Netherlands heritage and building an identity. It gives them a way to talk more familiarly and privately in mixed groups.  It serves to instantly distinguish visitors from native- and permanent-residents.  Sometimes I wonder if the maxim that “Dutch is hard to learn” is partly a canard, a way to discourage casual membership in the Netherlands group.

Of course, on the days that I’m actually working to learn Dutch, I am a true believer that it is, indeed, hard.

Image credit arnhem.nl

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