James Kennedy: Dutch learners should be appreciated, not criticised

So what if your Dutch isn’t perfect: it’s joining in that counts, says James Kennedy

The other day I gave a speech to an audience of English graduates. I have always been impressed with the enthusiasm with which the Dutch try to master another language – mine, in this case – and my impression is that are getting better at it all the time.

When the formalities were over I spoke to a number of people who had been born in an English speaking country and had learned Dutch later in life. It all sounded very familiar. If you are self-taught, like me, the Dutch language will always remain a challenge.

I spent a year at a Dutch Montessori school as a child, did a Dutch literature course some years later and that was it. My work and my family ties have given me a good working knowledge of the language but these features couldn’t be written without the editorial help of my Dutch wife who will change ‘de’ into ‘het’ and vice-versa. I still can’t get those right.

Critical

Even if you do a course and end up speaking the language reasonable well, the Dutch will remain critical. Newcomers had better speak the language pretty near perfectly or they won’t be accepted.

Things are different in the United States. Your English may not be very good but as long as you can make yourself understood and join in you will be taken seriously. The ability to communicate effectively is more important than a good accent or faultless grammar. Maybe the Americans are tolerant because they don’t usually speak more than one language themselves and are in awe of people who do.

Accent

Not so in the Netherlands. Before I gave my inaugural speech at the Vrije Universiteit I had rehearsed my speech out loud several times in an effort to get the emphasis right. I could have saved myself the trouble because afterwards I overheard some students mocking my American accent.

A year later I held a lecture on William of Orange and again some blogger commented on my heavily-accented Dutch. There really isn’t much you can do about an accent.

And that is why I got so furious with PowNews’ Rutger Castricum when at the time of the Wilders hate mongering trial he interviewed director of Moroccan organisation LBM Mohamed Rabbae and asked why he still couldn’t speak Dutch properly.

Rabbae was perfectly capable of expressing his views but all Castricum was intent on showing was that as long as Rabbae’s Dutch accent wasn’t flawless he didn’t fit in.

Why? Is it because, apart from a means of communication, mastery of the language also means you belong to a culture? If you speak the language well people think you understand the mores of the country and have become ‘one of them’. If you don’t, you’re on the outside looking in.

Encourage

Personally I never had much of a problem here and I’ve always been made to feel welcome. My Dutch has come in for compliments rather than criticism but then again my position as a university professor may be sheltering me from the worst of it.

Nevertheless I can’t help feeling, especially after talking to my fellow expats that the language community they are trying to become a part of is not exactly welcoming them with open arms. Surely encouragement is better than discouragement. Stimulate newcomers to learn the language and appreciate the effort they are making instead of criticising their grammatical lapses. In this way we all benefit.

James Kennedy is professor of Dutch History at the University of Amsterdam

This article was published earlier in Trouw


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