Why we give up on Dutch

The point of learning any language, Dutch included; is to be able to communicate more clearly with the people around you. Unlike with other languages, trying to learn Dutch is guaranteed to slam the brakes on quality of communication.

This half Dutch half American Derek Scott Mitchell has become a total hero by memifying this phenomena:

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Many expats in the Netherlands will tell you: if you speak to a Dutch person in plain English, the chance that they will understand and engage with you is about 95%. If you speak to a Dutch person in broken Dutch – this drops to about 10%. Attempting Dutch feels like guessing your password on a website you haven’t logged into since 2014 – the ballpark isn’t good enough.

Learning a new language is one of the hardest things you can do and I have total admiration for everyone that has pulled it off, especially with Dutch.

So many of us though, me included, feel like we’ve settled for this 95%. We stop learning Dutch because we live in a ‘local optima’ *gestures towards x1 on the below graph*. We’d all rather be at x2 where our Dutch is fluent and life is much better – but getting there requires making everything worse, awkward, clunky and praying that all the effort is going somewhere.

Instead we learn to brush off the awkward guilt we once felt about living in a land and not speaking the language.

After coming here in 2017, I took an A1 Dutch class and finished it – I also got pretty far on Duolingo and Memrise, hundreds of hours were spent building my little habit of app-based language learning. I also found that I could reliably pass the A2 Dutch test that Hao took for his ‘inburgering’. Now its 2024 and all of this seems to have led nowhere because of my deep reluctance to speak it, and my ingrained lifestyle of avoiding it. I’m in my bubble – all the movies, TV, podcasts and music in my life are in English, and most of my friends here can’t speak Dutch either.

The only real issue is when I’m walking Ziggy through the streets of Houten and a friendly Dutch dog owner makes small talk – I cringe, take a stab at what they’re saying to me, and either reply in English. Or even worse I just smile and say “Ja haha” then scurry away before they say anything else. If I feel completely cornered and confused – I have to shamefully announce “sorry I don’t speak Dutch”. This inevitably leads to the same full-English conversation I’ve had dozens of times about how long I’ve been here, why I came and why I’m such a terrible human.

All of this nutures a little rebel inside me who is desperate to declare a total ‘in your face’ policy of indifference. “Nah I’ve got no interest lol” I imagine myself saying confidently, “I’m more or less just waiting for Dutch to fade away like Welsh”…








One response to “Why we give up on Dutch”

  1. Mike avatar

    Odd how you made such a concerted effort to learn it but make very little effort to speak kit. Speaking and conversing in Dutch is how you really learn, a bit like after passing your driving exam, that’s when you really learn how to drive.
    Sure you go through a phase where you’re speaking to people in Dutch fully in the knowledge their English is far superior to your Dutch, but that’s just part on the learning process. Stick at it, make a fool of yourself even, you will get there in the end.

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