If the Netherlands was one big group therapy meeting, my greeting at the introductory session would be: ‘Hello. My name is Marion and I am afraid of the Dutch language.’ I’d say ‘afraid’, but I’m actually terrified. When I moved here two years ago, it marked the first time in my life where I understood what it must feel like to be illiterate in a world where everything depends on being able to read.
Coming from a country where the native language is English, I suddenly felt deprived of an essential skill that I needed to navigate my environment and which could not quickly be remedied. To this day, I am still convinced that the Dutch language defies all the natural laws of letter and sound combination. I studied French in high school, I’ve been awe-struck by the syncopated and melodious sounds of fast-talking Spanish speakers in Cuba, but the Dutch language remains a seemingly impenetrable roadblock.
In my attempts to make sense of street signs, people’s names, overheard conversations and store advertisements, I find myself riding a conveyor belt of emotions – from bewilderment to amusement through to resignation. I pronounce words using English intonations and, like a malfunctioning computer, my brain automatically rejects what I read and hear as gibberish.
Consequently, I am convinced that the Faculteit Gedrags- en Maatschappijwetenschappen is nothing more than a mishmash of randomly placed letters pretending to make sense. I must confess that I still stumble when pronouncing Groningen: I cautiously apply the appropriate force of guttural sound and try at all costs to fight the inclination to pronounce the word as I would in English. So as not to re-experience the expected defeat of having my lips, tongue and throat fail to mold the word into the correct sound, I often hide away behind my fear by skillfully referring to the beloved Groningen simply as ‘this city’.
But as a psychologist, I am naturally intrigued by my own failings and have learned the benefit of diving headfirst into exploring them rather than acquiescing. In my attempt to examine the root of my fear of learning Dutch, I am reminded that while English is the country’s mother-tongue, Jamaicans also speak a dialect or ‘Patois’– an English-based creole language with West African influences. I imagine that if mi shudda stawt chat patois to unnu, nun a unnu wudden andastand mi eeda, and you would all feel just as bewildered, if not intimidated.
So, if you ever find yourself annoyed that internationals in Netherlands still haven’t learned Dutch, consider that it may not be that they do not want to learn or are not willing to integrate. It may just be that the fear of learning Dutch, regrettably, cannot be soothed by stroopwafels, frikandel, oliebollen or bitterballen.
Psychologists say the first step to defeating fear is admitting that you are afraid, so: Hello. My name is Marion and I am afraid of the Dutch language.