Thursday, July 29, 2004

Myth #1 of Amsterdam

I would like to address what I feel like is the biggest myth of Amsterdam. It is that everyone speaks English. It's true that to be a tourist and to get around it very easy because a lot of people, especially in the more touristy places, speak English. But when I was thinking and talking about moving here, several people said, "Oh you don't need to learn Dutch, everyone speaks English." And I will even go as far to say that if a person is only going to stay here for a year or two, it's not really that necessary. The things a person like that needs can be found using English.

However, one of the most frustrating things to me is to be someplace and not be able to understand - by listening - or to read the language. Newspapers, the local news on television, many signs in stores, street signs, flyers, billboards, all of that is in Dutch. And people speak in Dutch immediately, as most people in America speak in English immediately.

Then I have been places - the drug store, the library, the grocery store - where people don't speak English. And this is in Amsterdam. I actually went to get a library book and found that my Dutch, which is not that good, was better than the woman's English. And the library is located near the Center of Amsterdam.

Also, if a person is going to venture out beyond his or her English speaking ghetto, Dutch is completely necessary. I don't think people want to speak English just so that the one person in a group who doesn't speak Dutch can keep up. Certainly F's friends don't. I've gone places with them and the three of them would speak quick, coloquial, gay Dutch for, really, up to a half hour. And I stand there. I finally said that I would not be going along to anything with them until I could keep up. It's just too frustrating.

When a person gets outside of Amsterdam - even to Haarlem, which is fairly large and cosmopolitan - the percentage of people who speak English drops dramatically. F's entire family - he's one of eight children - will get together. There are two out of the remaining 14 that speak English. They just don't need to speak it, so they don't.

My point is that to live here and to not learn Dutch is social suicide. It keeps you on the outside of things. Sure people can translate, but they never do it faithfully. I've had twenty minute conversations summed up in one sentence. It's not subtitles. It's just a really poor substitute. And my final note on this subject is that many people speak English, but they don't speak it as well as they think they do. And learning a new language is fun. It's frustrating as hell, but it's fun.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I totally agree! I live in Utrecht and there definitely are benefits to learning the language, though it isn't a necessity as long as you're only here for a year or two or three. Certainly more speak English in Amsterdam and that makes it nice for tourists and expats on short assignments. I am a member of a Dutch vocal group and we gave a concert once in Amsterdam. A few of the girls got lost and stopped people to ask for directions. They had to ask in English because no one they asked spoke Dutch - not even the person who gave them the accurate directions. I found that so amusing!