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Dutch, notoriously difficult


Nijmegen, the Netherlands, 2004 —

  "Every language is difficult ."...
Dutch is a notoriously difficult language to learn. But I don't know if that notoriety (and/or difficulty) stems from the language itself, or from the cultural setting.

Specifically: the Dutch speak English; English-speaking people don't speak Dutch. The Dutch know this, and anticipate it.

I tried to learn some Dutch when I lived in Amsterdam, May-December of 2000. I concentrated on vocabulary and I learned a lot of words; nothing more. I "read" newspapers with a dictionary. I did have one day when I didn't speak English; but I didn't really talk to anyone.

The proficiency needed to speak Dutch better than the Dutch person speaks English stands as a very high bar. This is not to say that "better" is a matter of competition. Better just means that two people talking will shift or gravitate toward the most applicable language.

You want to learn Dutch, that's great — but communication is prime.

This is especially true in Amsterdam — of course. Amsterdam is an international city, by definition and from the beginning. English is the international language. In Amsterdam, one can speak the English language without asking, and without risk of embarrassment.

They speak Dutch. But they can speak English. It's strange, and it brings up cultural prejudices that I don't even like to think about. You wonder—I did, subconsciously—"why don't they just speak English?" It sounds bad; it's not overt, but I did feel that.

There is a prejudice amongst the Dutch, if I'm not mistaken, that English is an easy language to learn. One fellow told me that it's "the easiest." He even explained it.

Here in Nijmegen, it's important for me to learn Dutch. Well, the freak fact that I'm back in Holland* makes it important for me to learn the language. I really thought, when I left Amsterdam for Spain, that Spanish would be the language I'd learn, that Dutch had been a sort of an excercise. But no.


— Nijmegen, The Netherlands, Spring 2004


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*lived in Amsterdam for 7 months in 2000. I met a Dutch girl in Ireland in mid-2003 and lived in Nijmegen for a year-and-a-half.

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