Thursday, 2 July 2009

Spreek U Nederlands?

So, you lived in Amsterdam for eight years and you’re fluent in Dutch, ja? Er, nee - to use a very common Dutch phrase dat kan niet. It’s not possible. Everyone seemed to love speaking English. So much so that it’s actually very difficult to get anyone to help you practise your Dutch.
The only people who would help me practise were my local greengrocers, which is why I can tell you any fruit or vegetable in Dutch and can conduct impressive conversations about whether things will be ripe today or tomorrow. I could probably work in a Dutch greengrocer's shop. Everything else – forget it.
In eight years I came across only two people who would or could not speak English. One was collecting dog tax, the other was laying our new floor. Geen problem.
But today I had to phone the Dutch tax office to query a bill. ‘Goede morgen,’ I began, ‘Is it OK to speak English?’
‘No,’ came the reply. ‘The government will not allow us to speak in foreign languages. You will have to find a Dutch person to speak for you, or speak Dutch yourself.’
What? Nee…For the first time since I moved to the Netherlands in 1999 I was forced to hold a serious conversation in Dutch that did not feature dogs, floors or ripening mangos. Of course I fell to pieces completely. I could not even remember easy words like ‘bill’ - rekening - which I once used every day. As I stumbled through the conversation the Dutch tax man whispered useful words to me.
Mach ik Engels spreken en jouw Nederlands?’ I asked, which I hope meant I could speak English and he could talk Dutch. ‘Nee’ he replied, 'Dat kan niet.'
I imagined him sitting in a vast call centre office, with government spies scuttling around listening for illicit conversations in English. Eventually he transferred me. And I had to go through the same thing again. And again (nog een keer…it’s all coming back to me now) And eventually someone read me out a phone number for buitenland callers and I spoke to someone who wasn’t banned from speaking English who explained why I had a bill for 68 euros despite leaving Amsterdam two years ago.
So, what is this all about? Is the Dutch government bowing to pressure from ultra-right politicans like Geert Willders? I can remember immigration minister Rita Verdonk suggesting that it should be illegal to speak in a foreign language in public places - a suggestion that caused much merriment among expat wives. Is it a sign of the Netherlands becoming less cosmopolitan, more insular?
Looking on the internet I see that there’s been a campaign this year to persuade immigrants that they must learn Dutch. An ad has been produced showing 'obvious' foreigners - black, Chinese, head-scarfed - failing to make themselves understood to Dutch people who seem implacable in their refusal to even try and understand. Very unDutch in my experience. But then I never wore a headscarf.
In fact, given that the ad is in Dutch and therefore can only be understood by Dutch people it seems to be giving the message that the Dutch should be as unfriendly and unhelpful as possible to ethnic and religious minorities.
Banning tax officials from speaking foreign languages must be a way of coercing immigrants into integration. But will the Dutch try and help others learn their language? I’m not sure. I hope so.
When I was writing When I Was Joe, my pathetic failure to learn Dutch may have had something to do with creating a main character who loves languages and loves London because of all the different nationalities he can leanr from.
When I was in the incredibly fortunate position of having to choose between three fantastic agents who wanted to represent me I was drawn to Andrew Nurnberg Associates in part because they specialise in selling translation rights. I knew Joe would think that was really cool. And I did too.

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