March 21, 2012 | Dutch
Help from Hans
Without more Pimsleur Dutch lessons available, I have been having a hard time developing my oral skills.
Having raced through the paltry available supply of 30 Dutch Pimsleur lessons, I am left largely to my own devices—meaning my grammar books—to help me add to my store of Dutch. When you don’t have regular oral practice, it is sometimes hard to figure out how to pronounce things.
Done with Basic Dutch, on to Intermediate!
The sound of ui in Dutch words, for example, has been difficult. Then I suddenly came across an old e-mail from Jessica Sicard, a fellow language lover and graduate student with whom I exchanged messages last year when she was working on her Master’s thesis in the Netherlands.
Back on April 25, 2011—so months before I began Dutch—she advised me on the Dutch g and also told me: ”[A] key to succeeding in Dutch is the ui sound, as in how we would say ow in English, but with one minor addition that makes a major difference: press your tongue against your bottom teeth when saying ow to get the ui. This little bit of knowledge has transformed my Dutch.” I stored this away for future reference and came across it again almost a year later, just when I needed it most.
So true! I tried out her recommendation, and all of a sudden my ui was so much more right in the world! Thank you, Jessica, for your advice. Even though I have an inexplicable and ill-advised aversion to breaking my pronunciation down into biomechanical steps, it is clearly helpful to listen to tips about tongue placement and other anatomically related details.
I have been e-mailing and Facebook-messaging my Dutch-speaking friends, with whom I have previously always communicated in English, in growing chunks of Dutch. In my current state, I can compose humble little messages in Dutch for the first go-through, but then I have to run to dictionaries and grammar books and Google Translate to help me make additions and corrections.
(People interested enough in language to read this blog entry probably already know this, but just in case: do NOT use Google Translate to translate your English unless you don’t value the outcome. It is useful as a way to check details of what a thinking human brain has already produced, not as a way to create new and literate copy.)
Recently a lot of my study time has been spent trying to figure out whether I am pronouncing things wrong, and the gap between my grammatical knowledge and my ability to deploy it in conversation is growing. I find it very, very distracting to look at a Dutch sentence on a page and not be reasonably certain about all the sounds. Dutch is phonetic, after all! I need more practice.
Miscellaneous weird pronunciation-related things keep slowing me down. For example:
- I have had to devote a ridiculous amount of time and mental energy to replacing my hard German g with the more amorphous, softer, and considerably juicier-sounding Dutch g. This is an issue in particular with all the Dutch past participles that so closely resemble the German past participles but don’t sound much like them.
- Annoyingly, I keep misreading the word jullie (meaning “you”), at least when it is capitalized at the beginnings of sentences, as the name Julie.
- Apparently I sent an e-mail to a Dutch friend with the word hoed instead of goed. To me they sound awfully alike, but goed means “good” and what I sent means “hat.”
Studying in silence exacerbates problems like these. So I was relieved when a nice New York City-based Dutch friend of mine, a talented artist named Hans Broek, agreed to meet with me to converse. I was also a little nervous, because no matter how hard I study, I always feel very conscious of not having done more.
Hans and I met at Aroma, the coffee shop where I used to hang out a lot to eavesdrop on Hebrew conversations.
It was an unseasonably warm day, so we sat outside…and conversed…in actual Dutch! Ultimately we drifted back to English when we were speaking about a rather complicated political situation in Holland, but before that we each issued numerous Dutch sentences, and responded to each other in Dutch, and it was in fact very encouraging.
It is interesting: when you are dealing with a language whose grammar and writing system are familiar to you, it really is possible to move silently acquired grammar skills straight into real life. At least I find it possible. I can store things in my brain that I’ve never said, and then produce them in a real-life situation. Not with the greatest ease, necessarily, but they are not wholly unavailable to me.
I mention this because language-learning types often dismiss grammar exercises as a way to build conversational skills, but before my meeting with Hans, I had had only two or three previous encounters where I got to practice Dutch at all, and even then only minimally. Talking to Hans, I really was not totally unhappy with my conversational skills. I mean, they were nowhere near what I had acquired in Italian in a similar amount of time (I was often studying all day long with Italian and had 90 Pimsleur lessons to work with), but it went better than I had expected, and Hans himself seemed impressed.
I don’t think he was just being polite!
So thank you, my dear Hans! I mean, dank je wel!
There is something so special about starting to be able to communicate with someone in his or her native tongue—I mean someone whom you have known for a while but to whom you have never before spoken in anything but English. I really, really (really!) enjoy it.