A slippery slope

If you didn’t grow up immersed in a language, trying to learn it after 30 is going to be a perilous undertaking. Dutch is supposed to be very close to English (next only to Frisian). The similar spelling of many commonly used words had lulled me into a false sense of confidence. But I soon realised that it’s going to be a slippery slope. Here is a small account of my struggles with Dutch:

  1. In Dutch the words for salt and sweet differ only by a vowel. Zout and zoet have got us the wrong sort of pop-corn many a times.

  2. The person I was to report to on my first day at work is called Giel. I mispronounced it as Geil. The latter means horny. I was politely informed of my Freudian slip.

  3. Ladies and gentlemen are dames and heren. Notice that the Dutch word for gentlemen has a her” in it. The plural forms of many nouns here end in en’ - e.g. boek (book) becomes boeken. My mind tries to apply this rule and comes to the wrong conclusion that heren is Dutch for hers. I’ve spent considerably time outside the men’s loo untangling this unfortunate kink in my logic, all the while wondering if I was standing outside the right one.

  4. There are plenty of words that are spelled identically in both languages but represent totally unrelated things. Brand in Dutch means fire. Dozen means boxes (the word for 12 items is spelled dozijn). [It occurred to me after writing the post that English does have firebrand and one of the meanings of brand’ that the dictionary lists is - a piece of burning or smouldering wood’ so I guess they aren’t all that unrelated after all. I take my brand away and give you rook - a chess piece in English that in Dutch means smoke.]

  5. Being bilingual makes accepting differences between two languages as a matter of fact a little easier. But it also means that you are carrying baggage from two languages which trips you up in unexpected ways. I still have a tough time accepting zacht as the word for soft. It is too much like sakht - the Hindi word for hard.

  6. I find that the words that are more likely to be used in daily conversation take a long, conscious effort to learn, where as the more esoteric ones just stick in one glance. The word for binoculars stuck - verrekijker. The word for gears (as in cycling gears) stuck - versnellingen. Both are compound words that had one or more words that I knew already. Verre = remote, kijker = viewer so quite logically binoculars must be verrekijker. Versnellingen has the word for fast (snel) in it and that must’ve helped me make the association with gears. But then the word for emergency stuck - noodoproep - and I think it did so purely on the strength of its amusing spelling. I picked up a small children’s book to work on my common vocabulary, but the first word my eyes settled on was Nijlpaard; literally Nile Horse, but semantically Hippopotamus.

The things I choose to learn unwittingly - NijlpaardThe things I choose to learn unwittingly - Nijlpaard

Best of luck to me trying to weave that into a normal conversation.

June 3, 2012