Ik spreek Nederlands. Soort van.

You do weird things when you date Dutch girls. 

Like learn Dutch.

I hadn’t made the barest attempt to learn a new language since Spanish class back in college, but a couple of years ago I went over to Duolingo.com just to see what the deal was. The clever bastards who run that website have made it absurdly easy to get started. Within three clicks I was learning the Dutch words for man (man), woman (vrouw), boy (jongen), and girl (meisje). 


This is kind of a dumb way to spend my time. Dutch people not only speak English, they speak it better than you do. Thanks to an upbringing of American media with Dutch subtitles1, Amsterdammers are not only fluent in English, they sometimes have American accents when they speak it. And when a waiter hears YOUR American accent as you try to stumble your way through a pancake order, they’ll more-than-likely just take pity on you and switch to English.

So I have little practical reason to learn the local language. Many expats never bother. But Duolingo is an addictive website, and I’ve been learning from the cartoon owl for 815 days and counting. I’m afraid to stop.

There are the quirks that come with learning any language—yesterday I did somersaults trying to remember the Dutch word for “hard,” finally remembering it’s just “hard.” You also learn a bit about your own language in the process. I learned Dutch uses the word “weg” to mean both “way” and “weigh,” which sounded completely insane for half a second, until my eyes widened and I realized ENGLISH DOES THAT TOO. Sometimes it’s so dang close to English that it sounds like you’re faking it (“That is my cat” = “Dat is mijn kat”). Other times you swear it’s just messing with you.

(But their word for “checkout counter” is “kassa,” so we’ll call it even.)

The biggest pain in the language is the whole gendered-noun situation. Ya know how Spanish has masculine and feminine forms like “el chico” and “la chica”? Dutch has that as well (“de jongen,” “het meisje”) but without the -o or -a clue at the end of the word. So you just kinda have to KNOW which version of “the” you should use for every, single, noun.

It has some fun advantages, though. Dutch people get to use words like “efficienter” and “expensivest.” There’s even a word for y’all—jullie, pronounced “yooly.” It can be delightfully literal: rhinoceros is “neushoorn,” cheating is “valspelen” (false-playing), and gas is “brandstof” (fire-stuff). And while we stumble through all four syllables of “The Netherlands,” Dutch people just call it “Nederland.” Can we at LEAST adopt that one?

Free Dutch lesson: the letters “ui” are pronounced “ow,” which makes words like “uit” and “huis” a lot more understandable. If you pronounce your j’s like y’s and your w’s like v’s, you can sound like you know what you’re talking about next time you visit! 

I’m still in what I call Phase 1 of learning the language—if you give me a second I can mostly read a sign, and I can get the gist of a conversation, if not actually follow it. With some mental preparation, I can probably order those pancakes. I’ll have Kiki’s nieces for conversational practice, which is great since (a) since they’re not throwing around five-dollar SAT words and (b) they seem amused with my efforts in the same way they might be with a talking parakeet. After a year or so, maybe I can converse with adults. Maybe.

  1. Movies and shows aren’t usually dubbed into Dutch—not enough people speak it to justify the cost—so you watch the movie in its original English with Dutch subtitles, which makes you really good at English from a young age.

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