My Dutch isn’t perfect, let’s put it that way.
Last week I was excited for my first week at work. This week I am lamenting the fact that I managed to stick my foot in it precisely two times, on my first two full days of employment. That’s right. I fucked up twice at my new job this week.
To be fair, I’ve always been told it’s quite difficult to offend a Dutch person; mostly because they are quite forward with their own thoughts and expressions there-of. So perhaps it’s not as bad as I think. Perhaps my family and friends back in England laughed because what I did was funny. Not because I really messed up. Their laughter definitely wasn’t nervous and they weren’t using it to mask their pain and embarrassment.
Naturally, I’ve met new colleagues this week, and, being the human being that I am, I want to fit in. I want people to like me. So I’m trying, I really am. I’m attempting to speak Dutch to people. I still feel the need to tell people I’m English when we first meet, as though it automatically deletes any incorrect pronunciation or badly spoken sentences. Turns out, everyone knows.
“Yes, I can tell because of your accent…”.
There’s one colleague who speaks really quickly though, and I have extreme difficulty understanding everything she says. This is by no means a ‘problem’. I simply need to catch up, and sharpish. So, said colleague and I join each other for lunch, and I’m chatting away, asking as many questions as I physically know how, in order to make her do most of the talking. It’s working, and what’s more, we’re onto the subject of cats; something I know a little about, and something I adore. It’s a win-win situation, you’d assume. My colleague has recently brought home a new kitten – so I gush over my own cat a little bit and ask her if there’s anything her new kitten is afraid of. Of course it’s afraid of stuff, it’s a cat. So we’re talking, and actually, I’m rather pleased with how the conversation is going. I feel like I’ve got a bit of control over the situation. Now it turns out that she had another cat before this one, and it lived to the ripe old age of 19. This is where my brain seemed to stutter, because I started to cease full understanding of the conversation. This happens quite regularly, at least for me. I miss a word or two and then the conversation has steamed on ahead without me and I fight to play catch up for the rest of the talk.
It’s ok, you’ve got this. And if all else fails, just smile and nod, right?
The answer is no. don’t do that.
So she’s talking about her previous cat still, and my brain seems to try to put some pieces together by itself. We were just talking about what our cats were scared of, so you’re probably still on the same subject, keep going. I hear her say the word ‘klompen’ and then she carries on merrily talking. Klompen are clogs, so… her previous cat was scared of clogs! I laugh, out loud, thinking hey that’s kind of funny that a cat is scared of clogs! But her face suddenly freezes and her eyes narrow just ever so slightly. Now, anxiety brain has kicked in, and I struggle to replay the last sentence in my head, wondering at the same time, how I could have possibly offended her. As I’m playing catch up (whilst, by the way, she’s still talking away. And, by now I’m behind and still focused on one particular sentence. How will I ever catch up?) I seem to stumble over the word ‘overleden’. She definitely said ‘overleden’. Was her cat in fact, killed by a pair of clogs?
I still don’t know. I didn’t really feel like pushing the conversation too much further, given the fact that I just laughed in this poor girls face. I simply apologised – profusely, and told her how slow I was at in-head translation sometimes. She took my apology and carried on talking, but by now I was in full panic mode, and actually, the rest of the lunch is a shamed blur. Still, I think I made a friend.
My second fuck up, was actually in the classroom, with a child. Now, back in England, I never made kids cry. I was the sort of teacher you could come and spill your problems to. I didn’t run a strict classroom. I was the fun one, alright? I don’t plan to change. I’m here to guide kids, not turn them into robots. Anyway – these kids still know me from last year. I was the real English lady with the funny accent then, and I think that’s probably going to be my name forever in their eyes.
So I’m taking my first group of kids and we’re doing a nice, easy hour of ‘what did you do in the summer’. These kids are good. They’re really enthusiastic, and they want to speak English, so I’m going with the flow and we’re talking about all the things we’ve been up to over the summer holidays. It’s literally great. By the end of the hour, I ask each person to give me one sentence, using simple past tense. Again, it’s going great. 13 out of 14 kids have told me, with precision and accuracy, what they’ve been up to.
Number 14 doesn’t look so confident.
I ask her again – can you give me just one sentence about what you did over summer? She shakes her head, and smiles nervously. Now, I’m no monster, but I know that sometimes, in the classroom, some pupils need a bit of a push. So I push. Just one sentence, I’ll help you to start it off. This summer I… She repeats the sentence slowly, stumbling over her words. Great start! I tell her and beckon her to continue. This…summer…I…went…to… her hands are by her face, and I see the crumpling eyes and mouth. Oh God, what am I doing? Full in-head panic mode ensues, and I’m screaming internally, because this has never happened to me before and actually, I have never had to comfort a weeping Dutch person before, so my language skills don’t quite reach that far. Luckily, I’m saved by the literal bell, and the rest of the class pack away their belongings and skiddadle sharpish, leaving myself, the poor girl I’ve just harassed for an English sentence and her friend, who is comforting her and looking at me side-eyed every so often. I comfort the girl, and her friend tells me that she didn’t like the fact that people were looking at her whilst she was trying to speak. I totally get it; being insecure in a foreign language and contending with 30 eyeballs is nerve-wracking. All I can do is promise her that we have plenty of time to practice and that actually she did a wonderful job throughout the whole lesson. She seems unconvinced, but desperate to leave, so I bid her farewell until next week. Poor kid will probably hate every single lesson coming, but I promise to persevere with her, and to never make her cry again.
So, there you have it. That’s how you offend two people in two days. But that’s how we learn.