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Een Beetje Tongue Tied – Learning Flemish in Belgium

By - August 31, 2005 (Updated: November 30, 2014)


Andrew and I are taking Dutch lessons. I alter between thinking this is a noble way to integrate more fully into our community and considering it a totally masochistic endeavor.

Neither of us are strangers to learning languages. Being brought up in Canada’s bilingual province, New Brunswick, it was considered important to my future job prospects to enroll in a French immersion program in junior high school.

I had grown up with French classes in elementary school, French on Sesame Street and French on road signs. Most of my friends were enrolled in immersion as well and with a child’s inherent adaptability, it was only a matter of weeks before I was speaking full sentences en Français.

Six years later I graduated high school with a certificate stating that I was bilingual.

Then I moved to Nova Scotia for university. Despite its large Acadian French population, Nova Scotia (NS) is decidedly English. Even though Andrew, who grew up in NS, took French immersion as well, we both went through university without speaking so much as a word of French.

Fast forward to my current life in Brussels. I am, in turn, amazed at the French that has remained filed away in the dusty recesses of my brain after years of neglect; and horrified at the simple French words that have fled my vocabulary.

However, each time I venture into the city, I am more and more comfortable with my ability to parler.

My French does little good in Everberg. While only a 15 minute drive from the heart of Brussels, in language, Everberg is as Flemish as can be.

While many people, expats and locals alike, insist that there is not much value in learning Dutch, as most people can communicate in English or French, I feel it is important.

When foreigners come to Canada, we expect them to speak English. I believe it is not only respectful for expats to learn the language of their host country, but essential to becoming a part of their new culture as well.

That is not to say that I’m having an easy time of it. After three lessons, I am already feeling defeated. Not only is it impossible for me to remember to pronounce the ‘e’ that is silent in English, but I feel I’ll never be able to re-create that guttural ‘g’ sound — at least not without picking up a chest infection.

Andrew has the advantage of being surrounded by Dutch speakers at work. He picks up phrases and hears the proper pronunciations while he clatters at his keyboard. During the week, my social companions are four cats and a dog and their grasp of Dutch seems even less than mine.

While I know I can’t expect much after just three lessons, part of me feels that my bilingual background should give me language learning superpowers.

Mostly, I think it confuses matters even more. Trying to remember if ‘e’ is pronounced ‘ee’, ‘ay’, or ‘eh’ is going to drive me mad and please don’t get me started on ‘j’ and ‘g’.

With another lesson scheduled for tonight, I can only hope a little more of the Dutch will stick. Until then I’ll be guiltily asking: “Spreekt u Engels?”

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