For sheer entertainment value it has to be 10/10. No, this is not a review of a West End Show, but a language and culture class at Europe House in London.
The Dutch readily concede that their language is not the most melliferous on the planet. If you want honey in your ear, better study Italian. Judging by Thursday’s taster class, the Dutch do not take their language too seriously. They certainly know how to make learning about language and culture FUN.
First up was Gaston Dorren, author of Lingo: A language spotter’s guide to Europe. The title of his talk had worried me in advance. Dutch: the Sound of the Swamp sounded derogatory. A frog peered out from the screen at us all.
All became clear. Gaston showed how the story of Dutch began in a swamp with detailed maps. Clever drainage and building up hillocks improved the landscape. The Dutch use Frogland as a term of endearment for their country.
|Gaston Dorren presents sign interpreters with Dutch gender challenges|
Size v. Influence
Gaston joked about the size of the Netherlands. At one seventh of the size of the UK, it could fit into Scotland and get “mislaid” up there. He explained how Dutch appears in the top 1% of the world’s languages. Dutch has 24 million speakers. It is the twelfth most widely used language on the internet. It is the fifth most commonly requested language in job vacancies according to a 2013 UK survey.
How did the Netherlands become so influential? It became populated and prosperous at a time when Northern Germany was in economic decline. Gaston acknowledged a “shameful colonial past”. Standing in London before a largely British audience, he had no fear of anyone throwing stones on the subject. He reduced the historical wars between our two countries to wins, losses and draws as though they were international football matches. Our two nations do so love the beautiful game.
The country’s geography helped create extraordinary linguistic diversity. There are very different dialects. A dialect on one side of this small country is unintelligible on the other side. You can still hear traces from the three original tribes. Gaston attributed their retention to the population’s lack of mobility. They didn’t travel much for 1500 years. If you need a huge pole to cross all the wet bits, well, you don’t get very far from home.
Dutch has a reputation for difficult sounds. Gaston admitted that getting your pronunciation wrong could cause difficulties in the kitchen. You might get your eggs and onions muddled up. Disastrous.
The infamous “g”
It is the “unpleasant g” sound produced in the throat that is the real issue for English-speakers. Henriette Louwerse of the University of Sheffield tackled the “g” issue head on. No room for any delicacy. Dutch is loud. Seconds into the language class, she had the whole room grazing their throats to throw up the correct sound.
|Henriette Louwerse demonstrates Dutch sounds|
Attitude to language
Henriette continued the humorous tone set by Gaston. She regaled us with the incredulity of her compatriots that she taught Dutch language and literature in Britain. The Dutch are proud of their country, art history, football and sports. They have never won a Nobel Prize for Literature. While they expect refugees to learn Dutch to integrate, Henriette described the attitude as “mercantile” rather than emotional.
The Dutch will insist on speaking in English to her students however. She has to equip them with humorous badges to overcome the problem: “I speak Dutch. Can I do it with you?”
Obviously, Henriette could not teach the whole room her native tongue in just 30 minutes. A better target was to be able to pronounce Dutch footballers’ and football managers’ names correctly. We all repeated the various sounds after her.
Henriette demonstrated the rising intonation of Dutch questions. The intonation may sound exaggerated to an English ear. It is important if you want a Dutch person to understand that you are asking a question. Otherwise you risk not getting what you want.
In the Netherlands, you do not greet someone from a distance. The words alone are not sufficient. The Dutch are a tactile nation. You must go right up to them, look them in the eye and shake them firmly by the hand as you greet them.
|Henriette explains how easy Dutch is|
Otherwise Dutch is apparently easy for English speakers. Henriette proved this to us by having us decipher two printed conversations on a leaflet. No problem. Henriette is the kind of teacher you can’t disagree with. Her enthusiasm is catching.
This great language taster event was organised by the Dutch Embassy with Europe House’s language officers Paul Kaye and Stephen Turkington. Paul gave particular credit to Lauren Harris at the embassy.
|Attentive full house at Dutch and Frisian taster classes|
At the break they laid on Dutch beer and delicacies. They catered for everyone. The ground floor venue gave easy access for a knowledgeable disabled guest. Two BSL signers interpreted for two deaf visitors amid the full house. It can’t have been easy interpreting some of Gaston and Henriette’s vocabulary - never mind the speedy and humorous delivery.
Every six months, Europe House stages an event celebrating the language and culture of the current holders of the EU Presidency. Slovakia will hold its first-ever Presidency of the EU next. The Dutch have set the bar very high for the Slovak Embassy.