Life

An Englishman speaking Dutch? Dank u wel!

Trying to speak the local language may leave you looking like a muppet, but it’s polite – and rewarding – to give it a go.

What’s the point of learning Dutch? Everyone in Holland and the Low Countries speaks English, so why bother to speak their language? Why shouldn’t I improve on my Italian or French, those international languages of music, diplomacy, cuisine and literature? Hell, if I’m going to learn a Germanic language properly, why not learn a useful one? Like German.

These thoughts presented themselves to me as the coach was making its way through northern France on to Flanders. It was 11 November and I was on the way to Ieper – better-known to the British by its French name, Ypres – in the northern, Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. I was rehearsing in my head words and phrases in Flemish Dutch that I thought would impress the natives mightily.

‘Hallo!’ That was easy to remember. ‘Ja’, ‘nee’ and ‘dank’ are ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘thank you’. Full phrases were to include ‘Hoe veel kost het?’ (‘How much is it?’) and ‘dank u wel’ (‘thank you very much’) – remembering that a Dutch ‘w’ is pronounced broadly like an English ‘v’.

What was the point, though, really? The BBC-watching peoples of Belgium and Holland are the most Anglophone of them all, so there’s no need learning their Foreign, innit? And I’m bound to get a reply in English anyway.

We English can indeed be lazy and triumphalist about our language. Yet when I passed through France, I was reminded of another reason why we are linguistic cripples. It’s that fear of failure. The English are terrified of looking stupid and losing face.

I blame the French for this. For most of us, French is the first foreign language we are introduced to. It’s also the first language in which we are humiliated. Who hasn’t tried to speak their schoolboy French in France, to be answered in clear English blatantly designed to belittle us? An older generation will remember Frenchmen pretending not to understand you unless your diction was pitch perfect. Many Englanders are afraid of foreign languages because we associate Foreign with being made to feel small and stupid.

Trying to speak French in Belgium is fraught with different complications. Outside Brussels in the north, French is still associated with the francophone elite that used to rule the country. But it’s the Dutch-speaking Flems who are now wealthier and more bullish. So don’t bother with your GCSE French in Belgium. Using it will annoy the Walloons aesthetically and offend the Flems culturally. English is the recommended lingua franca for everyone in Belgium.

And yet, I can’t be doing with resorting to speaking English abroad. I hate hearing it bellowed boastfully on the streets of continental Europe. I cringe that my fellow countrymen, out of chauvinism or timidity, can’t even muster a ‘hello’ or a ‘goodbye’. In the age of the smartphone, there’s no excuse for not knowing that ‘goodbye’ in Dutch is ‘tot ziens’. In Flanders, instead of asking ‘Je voudrais un…’, you should say ‘Ik wil graag een…’

When I arrived in Ieper, I went into a Spar store to buy some gherkins and chocolate. At the till, my heart was pounding. I was terrified about speaking Foreign. Transaction completed, I feebly proffered a ‘dank u wel’. These were my first precious words of Dutch, as spoken to a native speaker. The reaction? Utter indifference. Either I had a brilliant Flemish accent that was untraceable or I had an English accent that was unspeakable.

In the newsagent, I pointed to a postcard: ‘Hoe veel kost ‘et?’ (I had read that in Flanders Dutch they drop the front ‘h-’. I was going properly native). ‘Eighty cent’, the shopkeeper replied in English. I persisted. ‘Dank u wel’, I said as I departed. ‘Dank u wel’, he replied, sighing.

Less than three weeks later, I am back in Flanders, this time in Bruges for the Christmas markets. And the results were even better. At a bookshop next to the town square, I got a reply in Dutch. I didn’t understand how much he was asking for – I hadn’t got past the number 10 in Dutch – but I silently passed him some euros and bade him ‘Dank u wel. Tot ziens.’

Things also went well at the next shop. I bought a newspaper, De Morgen, and a francophone Belgian royalist magazine (for my mum, honestly). ‘Voici!’ is how he ended our exchange; perhaps he took me for a Walloon.

Finally, when asking for chips at a stall by the ice rink, I triumphed:
‘Ik wil graag een frites, alstublieft.’ (I would like some chips, please)
‘Klein? Met saus?’ (Small? With sauce?)
‘Ja. Klein. Met saus. Dank u wel. Tot ziens!’

I think I got away with it.

Even if I didn’t, it doesn’t really matter. So one Englishman tries to speak Dutch and is frightened of looking like a wally for doing so? So what? Language is about communication, but communication is about cordiality. In the end, for a native, especially of a minority language, badly-spoken Foreign always sounds nicer than loudly-spoken English. Not speaking English abroad is the sign of a true internationalist. It’s something I intend to prove when I return to Belgium next month and speak Dutch badly again. In the meantime, I’ll be watching BBC4’s current Belgian detective series, Salamander.

Patrick West is a columnist for spiked. He is the author of several books including Conspicuous Compassion (Civitas, 2004). Read his blog here.

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