Being as fascinated by and interested in languages as I am, I thought I would get the hang of the Dutch language relatively quickly once I moved here. After all, living in this country would inevitably and inescapably expose me to Dutch people and, consequently, their language so consistently as to make it effortful not to automatically learn, right? I know enough about languages to teach myself the basics and, from then on, it would only be a matter of continuous practice, which, surely, would be in ample supply. How, then, is it that after four months in Rotterdam I can say with reasonable certainty that, if anything, my Dutch skills have actively declined compared to when I was living back in Germany spending my days on Duolingo?
I have been wrestling with this question for a while now, and I think I have finally figured it out: As far as I can tell in my daily life, I am not actually living in a non-English-speaking country. That is not to say that people on the street here can’t communicate well in English. They absolutely can, but that is neither my point, nor is it news to anybody. What I mean to say is intended to go deeper.
Like many other international students, I live in student housing. My building shelters 220 people, of whom, as far as I know, exactly three are Dutch. At university, I am part of a class of 150 internationals studying for an International Bachelor of Psychology. This is not as well-known as perhaps it should be, but 150 is a magical number in this context. Research shows that 150 is the maximum number of people you can have in a group while maintaining an atmosphere in which everybody knows everybody else and everybody also knows how everybody else is interrelated, which is to say that I don’t only know A and B, but I also know how A and B feel towards each other. If this feels like a digression, that is because it is – I just think it’s interesting (for more information on this, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point). But it actually feeds into my point: A group of this size makes for a very myopic, albeit familial, social circle, meaning that I hardly ever get outside of it. I am hard-pressed to find more than a handful of Dutch people that I regularly spend time with, and literally all of them are part of the committee through which you are reading this article right now. But even when I meet those rare Dutch folks, I meet them under such international conditions that I forget that they are not just “internationals” as well. What I am trying to say is this: Dutch people, their culture and language are not part of my life at this point. They simply disappear. As far as I’m concerned, I’m living in England (same weather, too). And I think this works both ways. Whenever I do meet a Dutch student (not enrolled in an international track) and I ask them about internationals, I am usually the only one they’ve met in just about forever. From the Dutch perspective, we (the internationals) don’t exist, which leads me to my second point:
Dutch people disappear – until they don’t. Every once in a while, you find yourself as the only non-Dutch speaking person in an exclusively Dutch assortment of people. That might be at a tennis club, a martial arts lesson, a workshop, or any other sort of meetup one might join on one’s own. And suddenly, it all comes back: you live in the Netherlands. People speak Dutch here. What the hell… Now, confronted with that scenario, you might very well think to try and integrate yourself. Well-intentioned, but you will rather quickly realise that the people around you are generally neither used to nor in any way inclined to switch to English for your sake. If you explicitly ask a question, yes, they will answer in English. But after that one sentence, it is back to regular Dutch conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to bash the Dutch here: I absolutely get the instinct. If you’re out with your friends talking, it can be undeniably awkward to talk to them in another language than you’re used to just because there’s one person you are trying to accommodate. So, I’m not pointing fingers when I say this, but nevertheless, this situation makes it hard for the two groups to interact, let alone coalesce. Personally, I am at a point now where I actively avoid situations in which I am likely to be the only non-Dutch speaking person, and I get similar vibes from my international friends whenever we talk about our bubbled existence. This obviously drives a vicious cycle in which we feel unable to integrate, therefore avoid situations that expose us to the Dutch, and therefore are even less able to integrate than we were in the first place.
My goal here is not to complain (though, of course, there is that). Rather, I have noticed that whenever I bring this up with non-internationals, it seems to be a glass-shattering moment for them. They had never thought about it before. What I am trying to do here, therefore, is mainly to raise awareness and, perhaps, humbly suggest to both Dutch students and internationals to meet somewhere in the middle. I still want to learn Dutch, and I can tell you that many, if not most, of my international friends have the same intention. The problem is that, for the first time in my life, I genuinely don’t know how or where to do so. Even when shopping for groceries at Albert Heijn, I find myself automatically replying to the cashier in English. Retrospectively, of course I can manage the three to five Dutch words required to make that interaction work, but it simply doesn’t occur to me, because my daily life is lived so exclusively in English. On the other hand, confronted with situations like the ones I described earlier, one would clearly hinder the flow between friends if one were to interject with one’s broken Dutch to try and make a contribution to the conversation. And thirdly, if I’m being perfectly honest, I quite enjoy the fact that I am part of such a small familial class. I don’t want a 1000 people-strong class in which everybody’s a stranger.
In a nutshell, I am trying to say this: Don’t judge us for not integrating perfectly. We are trying our best, and we are certainly well-intentioned, but the system is really not that favourable to us here. And if you do see an international somewhere, try to include them in your conversation. If you’re feeling really charitable, maybe give them a hug. They’re trying. In any case, you stand to benefit as well: it never gets boring with an international crowd.
By Joel Bornemann