Press three for English (or, a taal order)

For Ryan, as a former language teacher, the most intriguing opportunity presented by the move to Holland was the chance to learn Dutch. Below, he recounts the ups and downs of his attempts to get by in the local tongue.

{ … }

For the first time in my life, I responded to the sentence with something other than disinterest. In fact, the words were a relief to hear.

“Press three if you prefer English.”

I was on the phone with Gemeente Delft (the city's municipal office). Having lodged at three different temporary apartments to this point, Matt and I had days before gotten the keys to our permanent accommodations on a charming lane just outside the city center.  As law-abiding migranten, we understood our obligation to alert the city to our change of address. To do so, though, we needed (as is the case with most things here), een afspraak -- an appointment. So the following day, while on a break from work, I walked to a quiet corner of the office to make the call. Though I knew it was entirely irrational, by this point I couldn’t ignore the anxiety I harbored about my pisspoor Dutch. It been gnawing at me and growing more palpable all morning.

Located across from the Nieuwe Kerk on the Grote Markt, the old stadhuis no longer houses the municipal government, which now occupies a much uglier space on the Phoenixstraat.

Located across from the Nieuwe Kerk on the Grote Markt, the old stadhuis no longer houses the municipal government, which now occupies a much uglier space on the Phoenixstraat.

This was new ground for me. Back home, neither Matt nor I suffered from the phobic aversion to telephone conversations that plagued many of our friends. (We had even talked on the phone before our first date; it was an early sign of our compatability.) That has all changed in Holland, where conversations on the telefoon reveal, better than anything else, just how far we have to go before we can say we’ve woven ourselves into the Dutch society.

Phone conversations, of course, expose our inability Nederlands te praten — to speak Dutch. Of course, in person there are plenty of things that signal this, too. Our facial features and clothes are distinctively non-Dutch; more often than not we are speaking to each other as we enter a restaurant or a shop, and in English loud enough to be heard by anyone around. Taken together, all these grease the wheel for easy communication -- it’s easy to (rightly) assume that we need to be addressed in English. And since that cultural divide can be tacitly acknowledged before the conversation begins, each party gets a few extra moments time to plan their first remarks. In most cases, this makes it easy to save face.

But a phone call starves you of every security blanket, worst of all the furrowed brow or shrugged shoulders that are universal gestures for “I don’t understand you.” No, the phone demands a spoken reply. And in my experience, I have only one line ready to go once the Dutch from the other end of the line dies down.

“Sorry, ik begrijp het niet. Spreekt u Engels?”

“I haven’t understood -- do you speak English?” In theory this isn’t asking too much, particularly in a country where at least 90% of the population can conduct a conversation in English.* But over the past two months, I have grown increasingly frustrated at having to ask the question. I worry about how often and brazenly I impose my native tongue on the Dutch. My inability to return the favor, while all around me the Dutch perform linguistic gymnastics, breeds both guilt and complacency in turn.

It is the complacency, I am realizing, that is most dangerous. Long stretches of incident-free English exchanges have left me sorely unprepared for moments when communication does break down. Most of these failures are trivial: the wrong flavor of ice cream on my cone or a butcher who can’t explain the provenance of a cut of meat. But some are more serious, like when a throw-away punchline gets mangled and misinterpreted as a slight. In eight short weeks, I’ve suffered a lifetime’s worth of linguistic awkwardness and caused all sorts of unintended offense.

Just how far have the Dutch gone to accommodate us? Trainers at our new gym have detailed the intricacies of Olympic weightlifting in English; friends have switched avoided Dutch for hours at a time (and flawlessly, despite the liquid cheer they’d consumed) to keep us from feeling left out of conversations. In our experience, those who claim to speak only gebrekkig Engels suffer less from a lack of aptitude than a surplus of modesty.

The obvious solution to our problem -- just to speak more Dutch -- isn’t quite as easy to implement as it seems. Ironically, Hollanders’ excellent English complicates things more than anything else. Even when at our bravest and best prepared, Matt and I will be betrayed by shoddy pronunciation or too-long a pause, at which point our interlocutors glide seamlessly into English. It is rare that we cross back into Dutch from there.

It should be mentioned that the Dutch never admit to feeling imposed upon. The butcher, checkout girl, and bike salesman, all with no way to know we’re anything other than tourists, address us in English because they think that we want them to. (Sometimes they are right.)

I’ve found that I can only get practice by wedging an awkward preamble into the opening lines of a conversation, in which I acknowledge the circumstances (I’m American but live here now; I don’t know much Dutch but am interested to learn) and humbly request patience. But as well as this strategy works at restaurants or bars (where there are several opportunities to speak to the same person), it proves inefficient for cursory exchanges at the checkout counter, and downright irresponsible anytime large sums of money change hands.

{ … }

When I called the gemeente, the chance to “press three for English” offered me an unexpected reprieve from my anxiety. My thumb jerked towards the touchpad before the automated message could finish; I was overjoyed that an English speaker would greet me at the other end of the line.

After a minute, the line clicked and the operator started in:

    “Goedemiddag. Gemeente Delft. Hoe kan ik u helpen?”

Foolishly, Dutch was the last thing I’d expected to hear. But it was an easy phrase, one I’d heard in almost every shop I’d visited: “Good afternoon. How can I help you?” I had a parry prepared:

    Goedemiddag. Mag ik een vraag in het Engels stellen?”

“Afternoon. May I ask a question in English?” I’d looked up the idiom and rehearsed the line several times before making the call. I spoke quickly and assuredly, the tricky, guttural g delivered with adequate friction; I’d remembered to drop the unstressed n at the end of the final verb.

The operator’s response took the wind out of me:

    Ja, maar uw Nederlands klinkt goed.”

“Yes, but your Dutch seems fine.” I was ensnared by a trap my own diligence had laid. We’d started in Dutch and in Dutch we were to continue.  No matter how recklessly I bulldozed the rules of grammar, how many false cognates I employed, or diphthongs I mangled, the operator insisted I keep speaking in Dutch. With each successive clause, I dug my linguistic grave deeper and deeper. When words failed me completely, my penance was to repeat a Dutch translation of whatever English phrase the operator supplied for me.

Finally it came time to hang up. I lowered my head onto the desk in front of me, in part to hide my face -- I was sweating and flushed with embarrassment -- and in part out of pure exhaustion. When I finally raised my head, I was relieved to find I was still all alone in our break room. And for all the nerves I felt on my walk there, I was overcome with pride as I walked back to my desk.

What had I accomplished in seventeen minutes on the phone? Objectively, not much.

I’d explained that I had moved from New York to The Netherlands and needed to make an appointment to register my new address. I’d told the operator I had a fiancé, laboriously spelled out each of our names, and gave her our cell phone numbers, one carefully-spoken digit at a time. I asked for an appointment for the following Wednesday at 9:20 in the morning, and recorded the code that the automated system would ask for upon our arrival. At the end of the conversation, I thanked the operator and wished her a pleasant rest of the day.

All very simple, admittedly, but I had proven that I could manage in an absolute emergency.  I had learned a few new crucial words, how the Dutch talk about clock time, and, crucially, the pronunciation of the letters of the alphabet -- all of which has served me well since.

{ … }

Those were special circumstances, though. Besides the prodigious inefficiency of the exchange (it would have taken two minutes in English, tops) and the operator’s boundless patience, the conversation drew upon a store of fearlessness I find hard to conjure up consistently.

For all the forays Matt and I make in Dutch, we typically make equally as many retreats into English. It has been hard to internalize the fact that no one is tracking our errors or wants to chide us for them. It will be even more difficult to insist that people we already know stop speaking to us in English.

There are plenty of obstacles, plus lots of time, positioned between us and competency, much less fluency.

But although Matt and I have different mindsets towards learning the language (mine being the predictable enthusiasm of a linguist, his a more begrudging acceptance), we both recognize its practical advantages. We will no longer fear picking up the phone; I’ll feel assured that the person cutting my hair knows exactly what to do. Signing a contract won’t be any scarier than it already is. (The exchange between Ursula and Ariel from The Little Mermaid comes to mind.) A routine physical will be, well, routine.

One day, we will speak English not by default, but by choice. And on trips home to the US, the Dutch we can trot out on command will be the evidence of our time here.

The good news is that our plan to pursue formal lessons is starting to taking shape. Just this week we reached out to a local language school that offers lessons for expats subsidized by the city.

But until then, we’re rehearsing a ritual we last performed as children: memorizing simple things, like the pronunciation of our new address (trust me, it’s hard) and phone number and how to spell our names.

And, of course, that all-important phrase: “Hallo, spreekt u Engels?”


*There are myriad reasons for this -- compulsory language courses in school work in tandem with access to subtitled British and American television, and the ubiquity of American pop culture. A long history of immigration and geographic proximity help, too. English, I found out, is even an official language of the city of Amsterdam.