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One of the things I was most curious about before I moved to Startblok and became a “Elzenhagenaar”, was the question of language. A place where people with so many different native, second, third… and maybe many more languages live together would be a great environment for a language enthusiast and graduate of Dutch linguistics and literature. Language – in the broadest sense of the word – is everywhere, it is essential for communication and using a language often seems very self-evident and unconscious. At the same time, language can be one of the biggest sources of for instance stereotyping and exclusion and acquiring a foreign language is usually really hard for anyone older than approximately twelve years old.

Written by Maria Dijkgraaf

Twists and peculiarities of the dutch language

With this in the back of my mind, I replied to a Facebook post about becoming a language buddy last June. I was curious to know with what language learners have to deal when it is more serious than for instance me learning Bahasa Indonesia during my studies in order to be able to examine Indonesian sources as well. I also hoped I would be able to offer someone a helping hand regarding all the twists and peculiarities the Dutch language is rich of.

It was not much later when Clotilde from the foundation Warm Welcome brought me into contact with a really nice (almost) neighbour. Babel’s tower fell immediately because Dutch was the only language we had in common. However, it may have been exactly that which has enabled us to learn a lot from each other in the past six months – and have a lot of fun.

Not in the least fun because of language itself: I for instance (re)discovered a lot about my own mother tongue and its seemingly unconscious rules – why are there for instance Dutch sentences that require the word “er”? Also habitual expressions or “laat maar zeggen” [so to say] stopgaps are not safe. The same goes for many culture specific idioms which are really nice but – in bad English – “unfortunately peanutbutter” untranslatable.

No, that “k” is not a k

Moreover, I experienced all the more how hard it is to learn a new language: try to say the word የቕንየለይ [yekenyeley = thank you] slowly if you are a not a native speaker of ትግርኛ [Tigrinya] – and no, the “k” is not quite pronounced as a k. This has to do with the fact that it is easier to learn certain aspects of a language when you are younger. For instance, the first six months of his/her life, a baby is able to recognize all approximately six hundred sounds in the world, whereas by the time this baby is six months old, he/she can only identify the forty or fifty sounds of his/her own mother tongue; and there are many other language structures like this that are harder to learn as someone gets older. One can thus only respect anyone who is learning a foreign language.

Not a language fanatic? Don’t worry!

Also when you are not a language fanatic or you do not have a background in linguistics, it is nice to become a language buddy, for instance to get to know someone new and do nice activities (when you learn Dutch from Maria you might for instance also encounter seemingly irrelevant documentaries about penguins…) – but perhaps it also invites you to engage with all the fascinating and fun aspects of language such as what it means that you are able to read this text.

Do you want to become a language buddy as well? Fill out this form. Take a look at the website of Vrijwilligerscentrale van Amsterdam if you are interested in other volunteerwork!