My interaction with people in Dutch is minimal currently, as I’m not working, so the person I talk to most is Piet and we tend to speak in English about 95% of the time.
Which, for any of you planning on moving to a country where your partner speaks the language of that country, is the totally wrong thing to do. Piet and I really should be speaking in Dutch as much as possible. Sometimes we try, but then partway through a conversation I can’t think of a word or expression, so he supplies it in English and then we just accidentally flip back over to English. Or sometimes I’ll make the attempt but he answers in English so I switch back. Or he starts talking in Dutch and I’m just not in the mood to put a ton of effort into speaking so I whine and speak English instead.
Point being, I’ve noticed some slippage in my security with the language. Not big things, but I’m having more trouble recalling some words and stumbling over my past tense verbs a bit more than usual. The longer I have to speak with someone completely in Dutch, the faster I can feel myself getting back into the groove of speaking, but with only Piet around to talk to, I’ve definitely begun to get lazy.
Fortunately (or for my back maybe unfortunately), my sick leave will not be extended beyond April 19, so I’ll be going back to work for about a month before I begin my maternity leave. Hopefully my back won’t be too miserable and my belly will still fit into the kiosk with enough space to move, although I have my doubts. If nothing else, the working will give me something to do besides sitting around and brooding and I’ll have to start speaking almost entirely in Dutch again for 5 days a week. Plus, I do miss my colleagues and from what I understand there are two new guys working as well, both of whom are Flemish. I really find it helpful to work with native speakers so that I can correct my mistakes in the best way possible. We used to have a part time guy who was Flemish but he left right before I started my leave, so it’s good my manager was able to find a couple more. Especially when I’ve come home from work and Piet mentions that the language mistakes I’m making sound like typical Arabic errors in Dutch.*
But anyway, what all of this actually got me thinking about was something someone said to me during our wedding reception in America last May.
Piet and I were doing the rounds, going to each table to say hello (I’m the idiot who didn’t leave time for us to be in a receiving line) instead of actually sitting and enjoying our dinner, and some of Piet’s relatives who had attended were interspersed amongst my relatives. They could speak English, but obviously to Piet and me, they spoke Dutch. So we’d get to a table with eight people, speak to maybe three in English, switch and speak to two in Dutch and then another three in English. Piet is much better at this than I am, although I can hold my own, but not so easily in large groups. If I’m talking with one or two people I can switch easily, but more than that and I literally almost have to whack myself in the head to make the language switch fluidly.
Anyway, it was after one such table that we went to say hello to the father of one of my best friends from high school and his new wife, who, weirdly enough, apparently worked for the Honors College at my alma mater and who knew who I was although I’d never met her. She was a very nice lady, but the first thing she said to me was, “Your Dutch is fantastic!”
And I asked, “Oh, you speak Dutch?”
Because how else could she know mine was any good unless she spoke it too?
“No,” she answered, “but I heard you speaking over there and it sounded great!”
So I smiled and thanked her and congratulated my friend’s dad on the new marriage, all the while trying not to shoot a “wtf” look at Piet.
And later I thought about it, trying to understand how someone would make the assumption that my language skills were any good based on hearing a conversation they couldn’t understand, but then I just had to consider the situation from an American perspective. From my experience, Americans have an entirely different different concept of proficiency in a second language than many other countries. Over here, at the time, my Dutch was very good for someone who’s lived here for two and a half years, but still not good enough for me to have my choice of vocation, and still not good enough for me to watch Dutch television without Dutch subtitles. In Belgian standards, my Dutch is very good, but it’s far from the level of perfection it needs to be for me to be considered truly “fluent.”
I know an American standup comic, for example, who just did her act the other night in Dutch. Now that is what I consider fluency.
Whereas, from an American standpoint, I guess anyone who can have a slightly more than basic conversation with another person in a different language is seen as fluent, especially if it sounds good. My mother, for instance, had a colleague who lived in Brussels for three years and she says he’s fluent in Dutch. I’d be very curious to have a talk with him to see if he’s actually fluent in Dutch, or “American fluent” in Dutch. Cause I’ve definitely been “American fluent” in Dutch for quite some time now, but I still don’t think I qualify as fluent here in Belgium.
*When you work the night shift for two weeks and end up constantly working with two colleagues whose first language is Arabic, it doesn’t promote great Dutch development.