When we moved to the Netherlands two years ago, I had only a rudimentary understanding of the Dutch language. A lack of fluency compromises your ability to participate in a culture in the same way smoking too much dope impairs your senses; you know people are saying something that resembles words, but by the time your mind translates for you, the conversation has moved forward. With your language skills on low, you miss jokes. Eavesdropping is virtually impossible and the quick wit and dry humor that help define your personality in your mother tongue are taken away from you in one fell swoop.
It is quite tempting to remedy the situation by speaking English. After all, most people in the Netherlands, be they native Dutchies, Croatians or Spaniards can speak English reasonably well. But to do so means you are missing out on the ego-threatening discomfort and embarrassment that can be the wind beneath your language-learning wings. If you make an embarrassing mistake in a language–asking for your butt instead of the bill, for example– chances are you won’t make that one again. Mag ik de rekening alstublieft? (May I please have the bill?) Mag ik my bill alstublieft? May I please have my butt? (Bil = butt).
Luckily, through exposure and persistence, you reach a point where you understand enough of the words in a conversation to follow along. After two years of daily exposure to frog language, I have reached that level and it has given me a boost of confidence in my daily activities. I can now comfortably eavesdrop on Dutch conversations around me and participate knowingly in conversations. That is until an expression is thrown into the sentence.
And the Dutch are not only very fond of their uitdrukkingen or sayings, they use them prolifically. There are whole books dedicated to the topic and they are also taught in Dutch courses. Seeing as the Dutch are a seafaring nation, many are nautical in theme. For example, if something was overlooked, we might say it’s fallen through the cracks. I’ve heard this used quite often for sweeping government programs that are supposed to help the most needy, but the most needy often “fall through the cracks.” The Dutch equivalent is “tussen wal en schip vallen” or to fall between the dock of a harbor and the ship. So just at the moment your ego is warming up at your level of comprehension, one of these babies is thrown into the sentence. And then your experience goes from head nodding and smiles to what in the ham sandwich did they just say? I understand all of the words, but the meaning escapes me.
I was following one conversation swimmingly until this little ditty came along:”Maak jouw borst maar nat,” which translates to “Make your breast wet.” My mind quickly translated the words from Dutch to English, which left me staring oddly at the older church lady in front of me, wondering if she had a famous Amsterdam profession before joining the church. Before my imagination further discredited her character, I promptly interrupted her. “Wat heb je net gezegd? Maak jouw borst maar nat?” What did you just say? Make your breast wet? A round of chuckles ensued that made me feel culturally cute and ridiculous all at once. Luckily an explanation soon followed. This means be prepared for what’s to come; it’s going to be busy or a rough road ahead.
Every language and culture has its expressions and colloquialisms that can be confusing to foreigners. This is also true in the U.S. Even Americans can be caught off guard by expressions used by Americans from different generations or different regions of the country. For example, how would you tell a friend or family member who was overreacting to a situation to calm down? It depends on your origins. If someone from Southern California needed to convey this information, they’d simply say, “Chill out man.” But if you’re from West Virginia, your word choice may be more like “Don’t go gittin yer gussie up.”
Did you read this whole blog post? Well aren’t you the cat’s meow!