Tongue-Twisting Linguistic Gymnastics: Earliest Recollections


I’ll never forget learning my first words of Dutch.

Ja. Nee. Dank u wel. Alstublieft.

Yes. No. Thank you. Please.

I learned them from Husband more than two years ago.

Son, Daughter and I were visiting him during their school spring break, and had arrived in Den Haag (The Hague) the day before. Husband had been living and working there for the previous three months, and we had flown to The Netherlands to see him and what was to soon become our new country.

For a host of logistical reasons (completing the school year, preparing to sell the house and cars, finishing up key projects at my own job, etc.), we had stayed back in the US, and would be joining Husband for good a few months later.

In the meantime, we would have a brief but exciting introduction to Nederland.

There was much to do and see and experience in that week, so my foray into learning Dutch was short and to the point: the four key words/phrases necessary to negotiate Dutch society with a modicum of etiquette, minimum of harm and without causing an international incident.

I’d asked Husband how to say ‘you’re welcome’, and he sheepishly admitted he didn’t know how to pronounce it. Graag gedaan. (Believe me, it is far harder than it looks.)

Fast forward three months

Ontbijt. Lepel. Huis. Ochtend.

Breakfast. Spoon. House. Morning.

Mind you, I wasn’t sure how to pronounce some most of these words. Why? Because I was reading them on an in-flight program as I flew to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport with Son and Daughter (and Oli and our two cats safely ensconced in the plane’s cargo hold). We were flying on KLM, and it had a short intorductory Dutch computer game aimed at tourists. Unfortunately, there was no audio to accompany the visual.

KLM stands for Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij, and literally means the Royal Aviation Company, but is translated as Royal Dutch Airlines. Had I seen the actual Dutch words in KLM spelled out, I probably would have turned off the in-flight computer and curled up into a ball in my seat. (Running screaming up and down the aisle of a plane being strictly forbidden, of course.)

I’d like to say that I had spent hours upon hours listening to Dutch language CDs in preparation for our new adventure, dreaming of becoming the proficient new poster child for Rosetta Stone. But the truth of the matter is that I had had neither the time nor energy to do so.

I had studied other languages in the past (French, Spanish and a touch of German throughout high school, a couple semesters in college, a class of Italian thrown in for added color, a summer spent in Mexico). While never fluent in any of them, I enjoyed the mental and verbal gymnastics of pronouncing words that didn’t always embed themselves in my brain or fall easily from my lips.

But this was different. This was more than knowing enough of a language to get around when traveling (which I had done successfully several times before, dank u wel). This was to be the language of our new home. I wanted to learn it, and looked forward to doing so.

That I had carved out time in a horrendously, sometimes overwhelmingly, overbooked haze to order a couple Dutch-English dictionaries, a phrase book and a grammar primer before we moved is a testament to my desire to learn Dutch, if not my actual efforts.

There is a reason (many, acutually) why I refer to the seven months when we were tying up loose ends and preparing to join Husband as ‘The Dark Days’. I have yet to talk about them, let alone write about them.

Recalling them makes me shudder.

Let’s just say I had been a tad busy, and approaching physical (and emotional, if truth be told) exhaustion by the time I pressed the touch-screen on that KLM flight that would help me add to my paltry pool of  Dutch vocabulary words.

Kopje. Vork. Koffie. Brood.

Cup. Fork. Coffee. Bread.

I felt a bit like the comedian Steve Martin:

‘Boy, those French; they have a different word for everything!’


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