Sunday, March 18, 2007

Learning Dinglish as a foreign language

One of the challenges of living in Holland is not just having to learn Dutch. On no, that would be too easy. You have to learn another language too, and it’s official. Dinglish is a requirement for anyone coming to live in the Netherlands. It’s taken me a few years to pick it up, as it’s quite difficult and rather confusing. Indeed, much of the time it does sound rather like English, but don’t be fooled – it genuinely is a different language, and the rules, pitfalls and traps are many. However, nearly everyone speaks Dinglish as a standard form of communication in business, and it really is very handy because it replaces the need to learn any other language properly.

The trouble is, though, I’ve become so good at it now that I even speak it on occasions when I should definitely be using standard English. After all, that is what I’m paid to do when I’m teaching….

My first encounter with Dinglish was when a friend approached me and asked with total innocence if I could fill in her backside. I paused, took a deep breath and was about to utter some scathing response when I realised with a flash of insight that she was referring to the reverse side of a form she was clutching in her hands. Relieved that I had escaped a serious breach of courtesy, I burst out laughing.

This was, of course, the wrong thing to do.

My friend looked wounded. What, she wanted to know, was wrong with her question? Nothing, I soothed. It was just that I thought she had been speaking English, and that we don’t talk about the backside in such a context.

Another example of Dinglish that had me rooted to the floor was when a student said proudly to me one day “Oh yes, miss, when it comes to boys, I always get my sin.” My eyebrows lifted only a fraction, I swear, but I couldn’t help the “ Oh …really..!” that popped out before I could stop it. Fortunately, I had the restraint to ask her exactly what she meant before I put my other foot in my mouth too. You can imagine the chuckles when I found out that mijn zin in Dutch means ‘my way’, and that in Dinglish she had just been telling me what a determined lass she was.

Without writing my own text book on the subject, there are so many of these tricky translation problems it would be impossible to list them all, but another of my favourites came up in a conversation with a fellow dog lover. We were talking about training our canine friends one day when she told me earnestly “Yes, Val, you must be very consequently with your dog”. It took me some time to realise that the meaning of this was ‘consistent’ which is consequent in Dutch, but the extra ‘ly’ is Dinglish. Bearing in mind that in Nederlands , there is no separate form to distinguish an adjective from an adverb, ending both in Dinglish with ‘ly’ is a safe bet and solves the problem of having to decide which form to use. Simple, but rather mystifying for the beginner. As a result, you often hear things like “the economically situation” and “a fully automatically machine”, not to mention “he had a highly regard for her”!

But, as with all good stories, the best has to come last, and here I refer to a little book on quotable Dinglish quotes, written by a former Dutch diplomat who has spent his life collecting exceptional Dinglish faux pas. He describes his absolute favourite as the phrase issued from the lips of a newly appointed MP who said in a speech at a glittering dinner for intermational guests: “I am the first minister for the inside and I am having my first period”. The poor woman never did understand why all the guests promptly choked on their drinks and had to be treated for shock. If, on the other hand, she had known that binnen in Dutch can be translated as ‘interior’ and ‘internal’ as well as ‘inside’, and that the English word for periode is in fact ‘term’, then she may have saved herself and her audience quite some distress, not to mention hospital bills.

Needless to say, though, another minister went one better. In response to a particularly generous gesture or gift (I forget which), he boomed: “I thank you all from the bottom of my heart....... and from my wife’s bottom too!”


  1. VallyP, you are taking blogdom to the next higher level, and I am immensely proud of you.

  2. Thanks for my early morning laugh Val! From the bottom of my bottom, of course.

    Frankly, I am amazed anyone who learns English as a second language ever gets anything right - it's beastly difficult, with all its rules, exceptions and weird pronunciations.

    Here's one for you; A few years back Colin did some business teaching in Hanoi. In one of his lectures, one of the students asked a question in halting English, including the single syllable "f" word, completely out of context. responding to Colin's puzzled look, the student repeated the word. Trying to keep a straight face, Colin looked dsperately over to the interpreter, who explained "In Vietnamese, it mean "happy". Colin smiled back at the student and said "Oh. Same in our language".

  3. aha! val you are so funny and clever...infact you should write stand up have the ability to talk about real situations and turn it into something hillarious..brilliant!..
    "pitfalls and traps"...genius..

  4. Hilarious post, Val. We have our own version here, and I call it Franglish. Many of my French Immersion students live in a country I happily call la Frangleterre.

    One of my teacher friends, who is from Quebec, used the French word "douche" for shower until she was gently told that it had a whole new meaning in English.

    Likewise, my German cousins have on occasion made the remark that I have my very own dialect, which they affectionately dub Annemariedeutsch.

  5. ROFL!
    A friend of mine (tall strawberry blond guy) told me a story about when he was living in India. He was standing on the corner waiting to cross the street, when he noticed the very eager looking man standing directly beside him and smiling at him. Bill smiled, and the man said jovially, "I am standing here beside myself hoping you will talk to me" with his musical East Indian accent.
    He wanted to practice his Engish with the very non-Indian looking gentleman.

  6. Anne-Marie, did you ever see the weekly column in Punch magazine (English) called "Let's Parlez Franglais?" It was sheer comedy genius. It would use such settings as "Dans la Cinema" (or is that "le"?, and then have an exchange between two people in Franglais (or Franglish or Frangleterre as you have it). You only had to have a little schoolgirl French to find it hilarious. It might well be googleable, and is worth looking up.

    Oh, and for what it's worth, "douche" is now used by my 15-year old and her friends as a form of contemptuous abuse, as in a muttered "douche!" when someone exhibits daggy (that's Australian vernacular for twit or uncool idiot, sorry), pathetic or otherwise useless behaviour. The fact that it may also have been a term to denote a form of, um, personal irrigation, is bizarre to them.

    Each generation appropriates the language for its own use. Remember "sick" for "cool?" Remember when "gay" meant bright and jolly? And I'm told by my musician daughter that "cool jazz" is now a completely different type of music than the one I'd have thought that term embraced. Well, it keeps us on our toes. doesn't it?

  7. Margie - that's beautiful! And very quick of Colin too...Great story!

    Bless you Gypsy, it's made me laugh so often too, though.

    Oh yes, Anne Marie! The famous douche... not something we really talk about in polite company is it ? ;-) Annemariedeutch sounds like a language your family are rather fond of!

    Stevie, that's lovely! Was he really so beside!

  8. Wow, never knew "douche" is such a shocking word in English. In dutch we actually use the very same word for "shower", just like the French.

    But there are a lot of words used in the Dutch language, which are actually taken from the French of English language.

    It's funny, Dinglish, but I find it quite disturbing too. For heaven's sake, just speak Dutch!
    "managen, downloaden, checken, etc"

    Mark my words, in a few years time the Dutch language will be history. There is no other country where there is such a strong corruption of the native language.


  9. Hey mum
    I just want to tell Renate quickly that she has yet to hear the absolute destruction of the english language that is South African English. We don't ever speak one language at a time, even our TV shows flip between about 4 languages in one scene, but I do love Dinglish it is a beautiful thing.
    Koos and you mum, must ask Kasper about the time we went to the Van Gogh Gallery in Amsterdam and he was telling me all about molesting things when he was younger...I found out that he meant "destroying" things (molesteren) but you can imagine my shock as the words came out of his mouth!

  10. I loved that he was "standing here beside myself!" I always laugh when I think of Bill telling the story, complete with excellent East Indian accent!

  11. I can relate to Anne-Marie's post, however, I always knew that language as Franglais.

    I find some of the expressions used in England strange in Canada. For example:

    knock someone up in Canada - usually it means a man beating a woman (often a wife, man beating another man up or a man brutally having "his way" with a woman. Not having someone knock at your door.

    Run someone over in Canada - means being hit by a car. Not having someone drive you somewhere.

    Shag in Canada refers to a type of carpet.

    There are other words in Canada that have nothing to do with what they're referred to in England. I won't write them here because they have rude connotations in England - but one in Canada is either a woman's name or the derrier of a person.

  12. Hi brat, thanks for dropping by. Well, the Dinglish story is only around because everyone needs a common means of communication that isn't Dutch. So many foreigners come here for short periods to do business that it's just not practical, and after all, it isn't an international language unfortunately, but yes, it can go ridiculously and hilariously wrong!

    Momo, thanks pet, that's a brilliant one. Poor Kasper probably had no clue what he was saying.

    Stevie, I've always loved the way that asian people have a tendency to use the 'ing' verbs for everything. "I'm thinking and I'm hoping that you are being right Sah" Always makes me laugh and it sounds so friendly.

    Lannio, there are so many mixed phrases, and so many differences in the various English speaking countries, it's hard to keep up sometimes!

  13. I thought being knocked up here meant getting someone pregnant!

  14. Hey Anne pic! Knocked up means getting someone pregnant in England well as the others.

  15. Ha - great...I agree koos she is taking it to the next level!

  16. Hi Val LOL

    Yes a mixed second/first/third language has it's moments.

    Having grown up in Quebec where English is the official second (?) language, the French have had their way with it.

    Several (try 30) years back, I worked in the business of selling horses as Grand Prix jumpers.
    Most of the immediate customers were Quebecois francophone.

    Oh la la...c'est un goood jumperr...

    C'est un goood moooverr...


  17. Margie here "douche" is short for "douche bag"...a derogatory term for a woman one might otherwise call a b***ch...

    Phat and sick. LOL - snowboard lingo.

    Lannio I understand being knocked up as being pregnant...

    Here in Canada the same word can have different meanings!

  18. we call being pregnant..up the stick..i know awful isn't

  19. or...up the spout, hey Gypsy?

  20. Hi Val,
    I've never heard of Dinglish, but I can see why it's confusing. We have Spanglish, that's english and spanish mixed together.

    BTW, Good news! I'm OK! See my new post for the full story!

  21. Val, In Ireland, I distinctly remember being told that our hostess' son would "knock us up in the morning". We blanched and then all had a giggle when we realised she meant give us a wake-up.

  22. High Val,
    I find your story but partly funny ;-)
    N.B. Back from Vlaardingen...was quite boring! Good money though :-)

  23. Val, I wish I had posted this earlier as it is now March 21 on your continent so you'll be reading this a day late. However, I just wanted to let you know that I am thinking about you on March 20th, this significant day for you.



  24. hmm, dinglish sounds like it can be confusing and raise some eyebrows. Interesting.

  25. Well there have been so many great comments on my humble post that feel I haven't done everyone justice. so here goes.....

    Margie, you are so right about the difficulties for other people learning English. I actually sympathise with them immensely, and while this post is teasing everyone (myself included) who lapses into Dinglish, I very much appreciate firstly the effort that people here make, and also the difficulty it presents to many of them who are being forced to speak English at work when they never realised they would have to when they started. Many of my students are in their 50's and it's as hard for them to speak my language as it is for me to speak theirs. I love your Australenglish examples too!

    Dale, I've often heard of Franglais before but never known the Canadian version of it. You must have many very similar translation mix ups to the ones we have here. I've also been entertained by flemfrench, which is a cross over between Flemish and French as it is spoken in Belgium. Many of their expressions are just direct translations of the other's.

    Lannio and Anne Marie, all these idioms we have in English that can have different meaning even in our own countries! It can be dangerous ground to walk on at times, can't it? Thanks for the input both of you! Anne Marie, I wish I spoke German so I could hear some of your own special version ;-)

    'Low Erik Jan ;-) And I find it only partly serious...;-)). As I said in my reply to Margie, I am of course teasing everyone, myself incuded, because you'd be surprised at how much Dinglish escapes my lips these days too. It's difficult when I speak to so few 'native' speakers, and I truly forget the correct way to say things these days. Have you seen that book at all? I forget the name of the guy who wrote it, but it's even called "I always get my sin". It was hugely popular last year, and is even funnier for Dutch poeple than it is for the English as many fo the expressions are unknown to us. Sorry you couldn't make it last night, but I'm glad your visit to Vlaardingen was lucrative ;-)

    String, thanks! Glad it gave you a smile...

    Grace! yes, it can be confusing and delightfully funny. Quite often I have to keep a straight face, though, so this was my way of enjoying it.

    Lannio, bless your sweet heart for thinking of me on the 20th.

    Stevie, I mentioned on Gypsy's blog about Mother's day that for me, this month is about my Dad whose birthday was on the 20th. He died just before Christmas last year. He was very old, very sick and very infirm so for him it was a happy release, but for me...well, he was my dad, and I was very close to him.

  26. I'm sorry you feel bad on Grandpa's birthday, I remember your blog on congradulating friends and family on another's birthday, perhaps the 20th will no longer be a day of congradulations for Grandpa, but we can always celebrate how he lived, with dignity and sensibility and a mischievious touch.
    BTW when is Mother's Day in Holland?

  27. Momo, I think it's the same day as it is in SA. I just don't know which day that is ;-)

  28. Didnt he thank you from the heart of his bottom?? Lol

  29. I'm so sorry Val... my stepdad, who in my heart is my true dad, died in November last year. He also had been very ill for a long time, so it was a release... but I know what you mean. He was dad, and it hurt so to know I would never talk to him again. I wish I could hug you. I am sending one out anyhow... ((())))....(did I get that cyberhug right Lesley?)
    It is funny how the universe brings people together sometimes...

  30. i was thinking of you that day a quiet moment..((((huddle))))

  31. Mothers day in holland...Hmmm.
    Don't know. As soon as I hear about it I'll post it. Somewhere this spring I presume....or next spring ;-)
    Whenever you like it will make the best Mothers Day, won't it?

  32. Hi Val,
    Should have been:

    Whenever you like, will make the best Mothers Day, won't it?

    So...that's better!

  33. Teeboy to be seen on my latest blog post

  34. I have that book too. It's great. I love the bit at the end of the book where he details way's to change English to make it more Dutch.

  35. Hi Val,

    I removed the link after reading something on an agent's blog.

  36. Gypsy Towers for all and sundrie! :)

  37. It's so interesting, Vallerie. I have to say that you light up my hope of learning better-English again. I encountered so many difference uses of English that I have never heard or seen before I came to this country. I was at first amazed how poor my English least,I've taken serious English course for quite a while and indeed talked with quite a few natives. I always thought it was my ignorance of the language as a non-native speaker and it even made me back to English course again, until I met you in our class...:)I realized that someone shared the same feelings as I did. Nice reading your stories. It's much more easier to understand and more vivid that I can't help but imagining the scenes (from the bottom of mine)that you've portraied...:)

  38. Ah!!!!Ah!!!! LOLOL
    This was my reaction to reading this post,understanding nods
    with periodic bits of laughter -
    this is fascinating to me, Val!
    Your whole life, your blog, the barge!
    Sounds like a fantasy come true for me. :)
    I came to mention that I've put a link up to Maria's youtube, she's put my 3rd piece there.
    My computer is doing something mischievous with my incoming video files. It's odd.I've been searching, but it's literally renaming them when they come in, and putting them somewhere that the computer isn't acknowledging when I do a search! Crazy!
    Anyway, I am going to learn more about your barge, which is what I'm doing after I post this...
    Happy Sunday to you and Koos and other loved ones :) xoxo

  39. Heheh, btw, it sounded like I knew what I was talking about with my
    computer! But in reality it took me most of yesterday to figure out that this was the problem ;)


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