[a fresh mint tea],” I requested, with my best Dutch pronunciation.
“Wat?” the waitress asked, rolling her eyes.
I repeated my order. She repeated her question. On it went. Finally my (Dutch) companion intervened. And then finally she understood. Irritated, she strode off.
The good news is that this scene was scripted; it was being filmed for a comedy sketch. The bad news is that very similar scenes occur in my life quite regularly.
There’s another way that this scene goes though, which is this: I order in Dutch, and the server switches – effortlessly, almost mockingly so – to English.
That’s frustrating for me, a guy who is actually trying to learn Dutch. I theoretically have nine hours of Dutch a week. In practice it’s usually fewer, but still – I’m making an effort. And have been for ten months.
The old college tries
That effort does not get me very far. It seems as if the Dutch – in general – are not that helpful or patient with foreigners trying to learn Dutch. I may not go to all my Dutch classes, but I am trying. And still, as soon as they hear the accent, they switch.
At first I interpreted the immediate switch-to-English as helpful. They could see I was struggling, and so jumped in to bail me out. But lately, in an even simple transaction, when they understand my order, they switch.
A friend recently suggested that they’re actually showing off. Their actions saying “learning a foreign language is not so hard, you dummy. See how easily I do it?”
That friend was pretty bitter, and that characterization seems to me to be overly uncharitable. Though I think there is an element of truth there.
But I’ve recently developed a theory that splits the difference between the Dutch-as-helpful and Dutch-as-arrogant camps. It’s this: Dutch is basically a secret code. Unless you’re part of the ingroup, the code is used to keep you out. There’s a reason you don’t understand Dutch, foreigner. You’re not supposed to. Like Pig Latin.
Hey stranger, help me learn Dutch
It’s true: the Dutch are protective of their language. They’re basically the opposite of an English speaker. Where English speakers expect foreigners to speak our language, the Dutch prefer you don’t. Besides, many of them have two, three, four, or more languages at their disposal. If you speak Dutch you not only rob them of the opportunity to speak another language, you encroach into their protected ‘Dutch space’.
Plus, you’re basically asking them for a favour; if you’re some stranger in a cafe – and they don’t know you – they don’t care about the development of your Dutch language skills. Why should they?
Perhaps they can’t understand your mint tea order, or perhaps they can; it doesn’t matter. Unless they have an extra reason to do so, they won’t automatically play Dutch tutor to a stranger.
I have a number of Dutch friends, and many of them are more than happy to speak Dutch with me, and encourage me as I attempt to learn Dutch. But that only happened after we became friends.
And it often only lasts so long, before we’re back into English. Which fortunately, all parties here generally speak quite well.