Due to the nature of my home language, I often find myself in a tight spot where Dutch is concerned.
Afrikaans evolved because the Dutch landed on the southernmost tip of Africa in 1652. Since then, the language has changed (with Malaysian, Khoi San, French and English influences) and has been simplified.
Some people like to think it’s ‘baby language’, I promote it as Esperanto. Better than Esperanto in fact, because it’s a language that already exists with a rich, thriving culture.
When we arrived in Belgium, we had an immediate advantage because we could understand about 90% of everything.
Grammar presented a problem, so I went for Dutch lessons. And I thought I was doing well, until one day at my children’s school, one of the moms said “I think I’m beginning to understand Afrikaans” when I thought I was putting my best Dutch foot forward.
I stumbled on nonetheless. Trying to master the rest of the vocabulary, I kept using words that don’t exist in Dutch. I quickly tried to right these wrongs as I could see a blank or horrified expression creeping into people’s faces.
I learnt not to use ‘naweek’ but ‘weekend’, and quickly had to stamp out the word ‘baie’ which means ‘a lot’, ‘very’ etc, a very versatile word!
I wonder how many people chuckled for hours as I stumbled about, severely maiming their language.
Here, my children learn words and songs in Afrikaans as a part of Dutch dialect studies. One day someone started singing an old folk song at me when they heard I was from South Africa. Mostly they find some of our words hilarious, and the grammar and spelling ‘wrong’!
The dilemma was the words with a different meaning in Dutch, like ‘almost’, which means the complete opposite. When I say, ”I almost had enough money”, it means exactly that in Afrikaans. But in Dutch, it means that you had ‘just enough’. When this phrase is used in the negative, I just give up.
Mostly when you learn a new language the damage you can do is limited, but if you already have some words at your disposal that mostly work, you put your foot in your mouth quite often.
I, for instance, saw someone’s eyes pop out when my husband said that “it was a lovely water play area for the kids to splash around in”. What he had actually said was that they could urinate there!
Last week our kids howled with laughter in the back of the car when my husband thought he politely told someone they were very kind and thanks for their help. According to them he’d told some old lady she was “very cool”.
Often I gulp as a severe swear word in my language just rolls over someone’s lips without anyone blinking. I quickly learnt to neutralize my expression as a stud farm was transformed into a ‘fokkerij’ and other things into other unmentionable words I still can’t use.
When my kids come home with something weird I don’t immediately freak out and demand “Where did you hear that?”, as my daughter once nonchalantly answered “My teacher”.
I quickly learnt not to trust dubbing on TV, as my son was horrified when I jokingly called him what I thought was an ‘idiot’ but turns out it was something well below the belt.
All I can say about my Flemish is that I understand fluently. People mostly understand me fluently, if I remember to articulate properly, conjugate verbs, avoid words I’m not sure of and smile broadly just in case…