About chattering to learn and ways of communication

During my stay in Utrecht I mostly encountered two foreign languages: English during my studies and of course Dutch everywhere else. I will try to be not too smug about it, but I am encountering few problems in both languages. In Switzerland I already had some courses in English and most scientific articles were in English anyway, so this was not much of a change for me. In terms of Dutch skills I benefited greatly from a language course I took in the first half of the semester, which was twice a week for two months. I think a big plus of this course was that it allowed me to be confident enough to speak with Dutch people right from the start and as much as possible. Yet I was surprised how easy it was to pick up new words. Hearing them once or twice in their context plus their closeness to German usually did the trick for many words and if not, there was always google translator at hand. What also makes it very easy is that the Dutch are not people of fancy words. Hence, they may use the same words in different situations and depending on the context it has a slightly different meaning. This contrasts with the Flemish, who, according to the Dutch, are fonder of a more precise use of words.

My unofficial second language school was and is the university’s volleyball club that I joined. There I have many opportunities to use the language and listen to others talk. I told them from the beginning that they should continue speaking Dutch to each other and also to write Dutch in our team chat. At first, I could not really contribute to discussions and spent excessive amounts of time checking and writing chat-messages with the translator. Further, I had to ask them for some explanations of abbreviations that they were using. But over time everything became easier and easier and now I can talk with them pretty well about day-to-day life and only have to ask occasionally. My pronunciation is probably very bad, but people can understand me. Yet what is still tough is following the conversation in situations where many of the teammates speak at the same time and to think quickly enough to contribute to the discussion and not only at the point where the discussion is already on a different topic. This can be, for example, the case when being in the changing rooms or when having the (almost obligatory) beer after practice.

In terms of which strategy I used to learn the language, I thought of not caring about making mistakes. It was not really a strategy but helped nonetheless. On the other hand, the Dutch are also nice enough to not feel the need to correct every of my mistakes and are in addition patient when speaking slower and clearer, if necessary.

What I found myself doing again (as during an earlier stay in Australia) was that I engaged more often in discussions with people I don’t know, such as salesmen or random people at house parties. This is probably because I see it as an opportunity to practice my Dutch (and maybe, maybe also to show off my already achieved language skills). But it is definitely also because I am, due to the whole exchange situation, out of my comfort zone, which makes me generally more courageous. This fact will also most likely lead to me pursue further experiences abroad.

One difference in communication per se was that the Dutch are far more direct than the Swiss with confronting others or saying their honest opinion. For this I tried to be more direct myself, which was and is fairly hard. I try to remind myself that people will not get offended or will not perceive it as rude if I confront them. Because what they will actually do is consider my opinion and reflect on whether to agree or disagree (which they will then again let you know, of course).

These realizations about being (slightly) able to change one’s manner of speaking consolidate my opinion that one adapts one’s own language to the surrounding culture, way of speaking and even situation. Yet, whether this happens because of conscious decisions and choices or subconscious influences such as group size or importance of the people to oneself is unclear to me.

Niklas Kochsiek

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