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Language & Culture

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

Learning a language and becoming familiar with a culture go hand-in-hand. You may have heard before that complete immersion — in other words, living in a place in which you must speak the native language — is the most effective way to learn a language. To a certain extent, this is true: if you’re forced to speak the language on a daily basis, your vocabulary will grow quickly and you will become familiar with the phrases and expressions that people use regularly.

Unfortunately, living in Amsterdam often doesn’t make it too easy to ‘immerse’ yourself in a Dutch language environment. English is often too prevalently spoken for expats, immigrants, and foreigners to get much practice. Dutch native speakers who want to be helpful and welcoming, while at the same time showing off their English, often switch to English very quickly.

It’s important to learn a language as more than just a one-to-one equivalent of your native language; languages don’t really work that way. Yes, you might be able to say that French’s ‘canard’ means the same as Dutch’s ‘eend’, but there are often words, expressions, gestures, and habits in languages that are much more nuanced and unique to that language and culture.

Example 1: Although the Dutch stereotype tells us that Dutch people are extremely straightforward, there are actually very important qualifying words to soften a request to someone else. You may hear someone on the street say ‘Kom maar!’ to a child. This ‘maar’ (which means ‘but’) softens the command ‘come!’ Parents or teachers will usually only say ‘Kom!’ straight-out if a child is in danger or if they’ve been requesting the child to come several times already.

These subtleties can be difficult to capture in a typical language-learning environment that is focused solely on translating one language to another (or on Duolingo, for that matter); picking up on these cultural nuances and differences is important to learn the language and to understand the culture.

Example 2: Hoe gaat het?

In Dutch, there are many ways to ask how someone is doing, depending on the situation and the intentions of the speaker. If I just want to acknowledge your presence, but have no time or intention to engage in conversation, I would say something like: ‘Hoi, alles goed?’ of ‘Hoe is het?’. A long and detailed answer would be rather unexpected and cause for surprise.

If I’m ready for a longer conversation, I would, for example, say: ‘Hė Sarah, hoe gaat het met je?’. If Sarah responded with just a quick ‘Hoi, alles goed’ for an answer, it would probably leave me thinking that I must have done something wrong!

Example 3: Being the boss in Dutch culture.

Personal autonomy is usually important in the Dutch workplace. When you are in charge of a team with Dutch natives, it can sometimes be challenging to find the right tone to get things done without offending anybody. That’s because, even as the team leader, there are certain unwritten rules when exercising leadership. Using the right language is important to ensure that your relationship with the team is smooth and effective.

The key is to ask and not order to do something (even though everybody understands it is not really a question), and to explain why it’s important (even if you work on the same project and both know why).

These are just a few examples of how learning the language and learning about culture go hand-in-hand. The best way to learn more about the culture of the language that you’re learning is to practice in real life! Yes, you’ll make plenty of mistakes, but you will also learn by doing and get a better sense of how Dutch people talk in various situations. It can also help if you have a native Dutch speaking teacher in small or individual group lessons, especially if you have time to discuss your Dutch practice outside of class.

In other words, practice with native speakers and practice outside of class is essential to learning the cultural nuances of a language!

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