Vowing to learn the language
July 16, 2003 Leave a Comment
An indecipherable phrasebook, wild hand gestures and blank stares from the locals are not an uncommon experience for people visiting another country – which is why Maastricht can seem a language paradise for foreign workers.
Go to any restaurant, hotel or shop, or simply ask someone directions in the street and you’re likely to have got exactly what you were looking for in near perfect English before you have even got your tongue round ‘alstublieft’ (‘please’).
Ask most local people in Maastricht why so many speak good English and you will find the most common combination is learning the language at school and being influenced by the entertainment industry.
For example, most English films or TV programmes are subtitled in Dutch, rather than dubbed over, and the vast majority of the songs in the music charts are sung in English.
But if foreigners are determined to tell their ‘taal’ from their ‘taak’ (‘language’ from their ‘task’), there are a number of options to learn Dutch that cater to beginners or the more advanced.
Just over the Limburg border, The Talen Instituut Regina Coeli in Vught, Brabant (also known as ‘The Nuns in Vught’ ) can offer some divine inspiration through its intensive and tailor-made language courses.
The institute was founded by the Sisters of the Holy Order St Augustine in 1597. But at the beginning of the 20th century, religious orders were forbidden to be involved in education.
However, the sisters established a boarding school at a country estate in Vucht and in l963 decided to set up a language school. On the site where the convent’s roots have been since 1900, the institute has moved well into the 21st century with its multimedia facilities. The nuns have left the teaching team but the institute has trained more than 50,000 course members in the last 40 years.
In Maastricht, there is the Berlitz language centre or foreigners can take a Dutch course at the Maastricht University Language Centre, which has around 150 students from international organisations.
But putting the learning into practice is not so easy. Not only is Dutch pronunciation difficult for most foreign workers, they also have to get used to hearing the Maastricht dialect, a combination of French, German and Dutch words. “The Dutch love speaking English,” said Nele Hillewaere, head of the Dutch Department at the Centre.
“Speaking Dutch is the most difficult for students, especially at high speed, and the Maastricht dialect doesn’t help.”
“People from different countries have their own difficulties learning Dutch as pronunciation differs with the mother tongue. For example, people from the US have very strong accents and it’s usually the first language they have learnt. But we encourage people to keep speaking Dutch. We begin by teaching people what they need every day, such as saying hello, shopping, eating and talking about their families and past career.”
Douglas Robinson, a 36year-old from Washington DC who moved to Maastricht in May to be with his Dutch girlfriend, is taking the eight-week beginners course at the University Language Centre. “The Dutch always recognise that I’m from the US and switch into English,” he said.
“The problem for me is the pronunciation and sentence structure. The Dutch also speak so fast. When I try to get the first word they are already at the end of the sentence.”
“I wanted to learn the language to integrate myself into society. It is helpful to do things like going to the supermarket or to know my train is going to be late. I can also speak to my girlfriend’s parents,” said Mr Robinson. “I also think Dutch people will accept me more as I think they like you to try to speak Dutch.”
But it is not just the foreign workers who have moved to Maastricht learning the native language. Désirée Nijst, a professional Dutch and English teacher, has been teaching the language to workers in international companies for over six years.
She said: “I never wanted to be in front of a class and started teaching Dutch by accident. A friend of mine from Portugal wanted to learn as she was working in a European Institute.
“But since teaching Dutch I have not only learnt a lot about other peoples’ language and culture, I have learnt a lot about my own.”
Source: Crossroads print issue, July 2003