For me, the big glacé cherry on top of the holiday cake is seizing the opportunity to say something in the local language. There is nothing – nothing! – more dispiriting than shying away from an opportunity to test your language skills, forcing someone else to speak your language instead.
When I went to Ghent this month, I was determined to speak as much Flemish as I could. Not that you really need to speak Flemish in Ghent: every single person I met seemed not only to be comfortable with the official languages of French, Dutch and German, but also able to flip between English and Spanish too. But most people started the conversation in Flemish, giving the perfect opportunity to respond in kind.
I downloaded uTalk Flemish a few weeks in advance and planned to work through a little bit every day. Of course, this turned out to be a bit over-ambitious, but by the time I got to the Eurostar I was fairly sure I had the basics under control. Even if I wasn’t planning to have long conversations in the language, I felt much more confident about exploring the city than if I hadn’t known any Flemish, mostly because I felt I was showing some respect to the local language and culture, rather than ignoring it and charging into conversations in my native English.
Of course, there were some down-points: at the very first bar I entered, the waitress’s torrent of Flemish was so incomprehensible to me that I utterly forgot every Flemish word and experienced total linguistic paralysis, unable to form a reply in any language. My brother stepped in with rusty French, which got the desired result (a very cold glass of Belgium’s delicious Jupiler beer), but made me feel something of a failure.
Still, it could only get better, and as we wandered around the city in the afternoon, dipping into chocolate shops and sampling the famous rode neuzen sweets (gummy red cones sold at every street corner), I had plenty of chances to eavesdrop on Flemish conversations. Having run through a lot of vocabulary in the app but not necessarily having spent enough time to fully memorise it all, I now had the pleasant experience of picking out words I had skimmed across, and recognising them from the back of my memory. With Flemish being somewhat similar to English, there was also the thrill of occasionally recognising a word I hadn’t learnt, but could easily guess – just look at how similar some words are between the two languages:
one, two, three : één, twee, drie
Thank you : Dank u
milk : de melk
Excuse me : Excuseer
cup of coffee : de kop koffie
There’s no question that I’ll be going back to Ghent; unlike its chocolate-box neighbour Bruges, it has the feel of a real, working town with lots of interesting things to see, and I loved everything about it, including the wonderfully friendly people. AND I felt fantastic at having managed to get us a table and order three different beers of different sizes – all in Flemish! Here was the happy result:
We want to hear your language success stories! If you’ve got a tale to share, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.