By Mark van Engeland

Talkin' Proper

Like most people, when they are learning a new language, I have a small collection of books on the subject.
I have three separate translation dictionaries, and a couple of 'Teach Yourself' books.

The problem with the Teach Yourself books (of course I found problems with them this is me we're talking about, remember?) is that they can never seem to decide at whom they are targeted.
In places they read like they are written for the dimmest of 5 year-old schoolchildren; in other places they seem to forget that the reader has not had a lifetime of speaking the language; and the rest is filled with garbage that no-one needs to know.
The one I have been going through lately, for example (no names, no pack drill I've had enough of being sued) focuses on single words; it demonstrates nine-hundred and sixty-three ways of using a single word before moving on to another, where it repeats the process.
I don't know about you, but that's pretty useless to me.
I don't need to memorise every single possible use of the word waar (pron: [soft v]-ahr; trans: where), most of which will only confuse me making it harder for me to remember the one I need, in order to ask where there's a shop which sells oliebollen I just need to know what waar means, and where it usually goes in the sentence!  The rest I can pick up as I go along.

Another thing that really, really bugs me is that these books are so damned polite!
Dutch!  Polite!
They've gotta be kidding!
When was the last time you asked someone, in English: 'Excuse my intrusion, kind Sir, but could you possibly spare the time to point me in the direction of a vendor of oliebollen?'?
Oh, must have been on every day of your life, right?
At best, you would be likely to ask: 'Excuse me, but could you tell me where there's an oliebollen shop?', but normal would be: 'Is there a cake shop around here, Mate?'
That is how I talk in English (and Italian), so that is how I want to talk in Dutch!  Why in hell should I want to talk like a character in an historical novel?

And what the hell is this eigenlijk (pron: eye-*cough-hack*-en-like; trans: really, actually)?
I spend a lot of time listening to people speak Dutch, but I hardly ever hear the word!  According to this book, every other sentence ends with eigenlijk, so as not to sound 'abrupt'.
Sound abrupt?
God forbid!
If I find a book which, in the first chapter, gives me the Dutch for: 'What the bloody hell d'you think you're playing at, you prat?', then I'll know I'm on to a winner!

I went all the way through this particular book, but not once did I see mention of the kind of thing that I needed to be told e.g. that the Dutch use auxiliary verbs so rarely that they practically don't exist.
How did the writer (and the writers of several other books) manage to miss that small point?
What, do they think that everyone who starts to learn a foreign language is an idiot, and won't know what an auxiliary verb is?  If so, why not tell people what it is, just in case?
Like this:

In English, the main auxiliary verbs are To Be, To Do, and To Have.  They are used in front of other verbs, to build different verb forms.
e.g. (auxiliaries are underlined):
I have been here for an hour (this is called Present Perfect, because it is an action which started in the past, is connected to now, and might continue into the future).
I will strangle the guys who write these stupid books (Simple Future; states an intention for the future).
They are going to hell, as they deserve (Present Progressive started in the past, is happening now, and will finish in the future).

Was that hard to understand?  Would it have been too much for the writer to help me avoid looking for the translations of 'will', 'to be', and 'going', in order to wrongly to translate 'I will be going to the vram-a-lam-a-ding-dong', by simply telling me that the Dutch don't use auxiliaries?  And that they don't use participles, either!
Does he think I'm an Idiot??!

Having said all that, the Dutch do (rarely) use auxiliaries when they use participles (which they don't use at all!)(???).
Sounds confusing?
It's not, really.
A dutchman will not say: 'I am going to the shops', because he rightly leaves that kind of thing to the women ... because the participle form: 'To Be Going' is not used, said, written, voiced, or otherwise communicated from one person to another or others in any way, shape, or form whatsoever.
The participle does exist, however, despite not being used.
'Ik ben aan het gaan' would be the equivalent of 'I am going'.
Ik ben = I am.
Gaan = To Go.
Aan het = Who the hell knows?  Literally, it means 'on the', but it's the same as putting an 'ing' on the end of the verb which follows it.  Think of it as 'busy with', and imagine an 'ing' on the end of the next word.
That translates to: 'I am busy with going', which sounds pretty understandable to me (and they also say 'ik ben bezig met' which translates directly to 'I am busy with'.  I rest my case.
But those forms are almost never used, except for stress, so don't waste your time with them.  If you want to say: 'I am going', you just say: 'I go' (Ik ga; pron: Ick *cough-hack*ah), and have done with it.  You'll pick up the finer detail as you go along.

The sentence construction differences, and different ways in which things are phrased, are always the hardest things to learn about any 'new' language; and these batty books don't help at all with that kind of problem.  They just expect you to learn the language by showing you how to ask a series of gormless questions.

Personally, I think you only learn to overcome problems by looking at them...

<Typical Day in Holland mode on>

    Dutch Person :  How late is it?
    van Engeland :  {not knowing that this is how to ask the time}  How late is what?
    Dutch Person :  No, how late is it?!
    van Engeland :  I don't know!  What are you waiting for?
    Dutch Person :  {getting impatient with the foolish foreigner}  No, you misunderstand me.  How late is it?
    van Engeland :  {getting impatient with the foolish foreigner}  Oh, for God's sake!  How the hell do I know?
    Dutch Person :  You're wearing a watch, aren't you?
    van Engeland :  Yes, but it's no good to you unless I know what you're waiting for.
    Dutch Person :  What does it say?
    van Engeland :  My watch?
    Dutch Person :  Yes, your stupid watch!  What does it say?!
    van Engeland :  {frumpy}  Well, if you're going to be like that about it...
    Dutch Person :  {placatory, but still annoyed}  All right, all right!  I apologise for losing my temper with you.  What does your watch say?
    van Engeland :  {looks at watch}  It says half six.
    Dutch Person :  {puzzled}  Half six?
    van Engeland :  Yup.
    Dutch Person :  That can't be right.  It was gone six, before I left the office.  {the Dutch say half TO the hour, not half past, so 'half six' means half past five to them}
    van Engeland :  Well, It's only half six now; so you must have got here quickly.
    Dutch Person :  No, I stopped for a coffee, then I went into the department store to phone my wife to tell her to go to the department store to do some shopping.
    van Engeland :  Well, It's still only half six now.  Just gone.
    Dutch Person :  Aah.  I see.  You must still be on English time.
    van Engeland :  No, I'm on Dutch time.  I've been here for months.  What, do you think I'm stupid, or something?
    Dutch Person :  {pointedly}  ...
    van Engeland :  {growls, sotto voce}  Oh, shut up!
    Dutch Person :  No, You shut up!
          {protracted silence}
    van Engeland :  I said it first!

<Typical Day in Holland mode off>

Of course, that's always better than...

<Typical Day in a Teach Yourself Dutch Book mode on>

    Introducing-type Person :  Hello, Mark.  This is Wim.
    van Engeland :  Hello, Wim.  Where do you work, actually?
    Wim :  I work at the hospital.  Where do you work, actually?
    van Engeland :  I work at home.  What do you do, actually?
    Wim :  I am a pig-bin emptier.  What do you do, actually?
    van Engeland :  I am an idiot.  Where do you live, actually?
    Wim :  I live in Den Haag.  Where do you live, actually?
    van Engeland :  I live in Rotterdam.  Where is the pharmacy, actually?
    Wim :  It is over there.  Where is the adult goods shop, actually?
    van Engeland :  It is over there.  Where is the department store, actually?
    Wim :  It is around the corner.  How late is it, actually?
    van Engeland :  Oh, don't start that again!

<Typical Day in a Teach Yourself Dutch Book mode off>

See you next time.


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