Begrijpt u Duits?: Multilingualism in Amsterdam

Avery Trinidad
October 20, 2021

Ironically, I spent the first weekend after midterms— the very, very middle of my study abroad program in Berlin—in Amsterdam, capital of an entirely different country with a somewhat different language. It was actually a welcome change of pace. While I might live only a five minute walk away from the river in Berlin, I was missing the proximity of the ocean that I had back in Manhattan—something Amsterdam more than provided.

Of course, it’s totally awesome to explore a totally new city when you have some great friends coming with you. Some students from my program and I booked a cheap round trip flight together, made a reservation at a hotel not too far from the city center, and slapped together a plan that is nothing if not spontaneous. We, at most, had a rave tucked into our plans. There was a lot to see during our weekend stay, both day and night—and we played a lot of it by ear.

We often wandered aimlessly through Centrum, crossing bridges over canals and darting through corridors between slanted buildings. As someone from New York, a place once-upon-a-time christened New Amsterdam, my first time in Old Amsterdam felt eye-opening. Here was the other multicultural port city, where dreamers became artists and vices became fair play. We even hung out with some students from IES Abroad's own program in Amsterdam.

That all being said, Dutch, unlike German, was not something I’ve been taking classes in since my freshman year of high school. It, however, was kind of close enough. Dutch signage, when it didn’t outright include English, employed a generous amount of English and German cognates.

Apparently, my attempts at speaking Dutch, gleaned from a Dutch-German-English online phrasebook, made me sound like I came from Berlin. Not in a “oh, where are you traveling from” sort-of way— multiple Amsterdammers assumed I was born and raised in Germany.

I was speaking Dutch with a German accent.

Then again, it probably didn’t help that in my mouth, “dank u wel” (thank you very much) became “dank ü vel.” Dutch, to my untrained ears, felt filled to the brim with intermixed English, German, and French phonetics, with relatively guttural consonants laid on top. Even when I was asking about English, the “Engels” of “Begrijpt u Engels?” (Do you understand English?) went from a Dutch ˈɛŋəls to a German ˈɛŋl̩s.

The first time I had my Germanified Dutch pointed out to me was in line to a museum—keeping in line with Covid regulations, personnel scanned our vaccination QR codes (something they’re blessed to have in Europe) and digital tickets (something we’re blessed to have in general).

Wanting to be polite, I gave the man with the QR reader a quick “dank u wel” as he scanned my phone. His head picked up, and he smiled.

“Oh, do you speak Dutch?” he asked me. I shook my head, and he continued, “Ah, just a little?”

Cobbling together my sentence, I answered, “Ne, ik spreek Duits.” No, I speak German.
Deutsch!” he said, switching fully into German. “Ach so! Super! Na ja, genau!” Something or the other clicked in his head, it evidently making some kind of sense to him that I spoke it.

While clearly fluent in the language, the man clearly poked a little fun at the more distinct parts of German phraseology. German! I see! Super! Well, I’ll be, exactly!

Natuerlich,” I laughed, “Jawohl.” Of course. Yes sirree.

“Dann, also, kommen Sie aus Deutschland?” Then, ah, you’re all from Germany?
He peered over my shoulder at our motley little group of American students.

“Ne, wir sind Amerikaner.” Nah, we’re Americans.

I suppose he took me to have said so sarcastically, because he bode us a kind “Viel Spaß!” as we made our way inside. Much fun! When we exited, he recognized us, and sent us a fond farewell our way with a joking, “Bye, bye, Germany!”

Were that the only moment, I would just have written it off as a bit of multilingual humor. But on the same day, as we made a quick stop by a train station convenience store, it happened again.

Hi, goedeavond,” I murmured, setting a can of Dutch beer on the counter. Good evening. (In all honesty, it came out a lot more like a German guten abend.)

Goedeavond,” the clerk replied, nodding, “Twee euro.Good evening. Two euros for that.

As I placed the money down, I peeped a quick “dank u wel” to her. To this, she sent me off with a polite, “schoenen Tag” in German as I made my way off. Have a good day.

For the next two days we were in Amsterdam, I ended up speaking and being spoken to in German again and again—whether because I was blundering through Dutch, or because I was speaking to someone I had overhead speaking German.

This eventually came to a head when we went to a Cantonese restaurant, Full Moon Garden.

Amsterdam, as a city lying directly on the sea, had plenty of immigrants from other coastal cities. And, as the capital of a former European colonial power, many of those immigrants came from colonized, (usually) former Dutch territories. Many of them were Indonesian, and in turn, since Indonesia had always had a long history of southern Chinese migration, many of these immigrants were speakers of Cantonese or Hokkien—or sometimes even both.

As we sat down at our table, waiters came and went, every so often gesturing to a utensil or a spice in Dutch, and most of the time I could translate what they were saying into English or German in my head. As someone came up to us to take actual orders, I knew I would have no idea how to do in Dutch.

Begrijpt u Engels?” I asked our server. Do you understand English, please? He tilted his head, seeming a bit confused. “Engels?” I repeated. He nodded.

“Ah, Engels,” he answered, “Okay, yes. What would you like?”

As I began reviewing options from their Dim Sum menu, he suddenly asked—

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?Do you speak German?

“Ja, ich kenne Deustch gut.” Yeah, I know German well.

“Ach so, dann können Sie einfach bestellen.” Ah, I see, so you can simply order, then.

“Ah, aber, ich kenne nicht die Namen des Essens auf Deutsch.” Oh, but I, uhm, don’t really know the names of these in German. The menu was full of strangely direct English translations I understood even less than the Chinese I had passingly picked up in childhood.

Verstehen Sie Vietnamesich?” he asked, probably a little puzzled by my mixed Asian features. Do you understand Vietnamese?

“Nein, aber verstehen Sie Kantonesisch?” I asked. No, but do you understand Cantonese? All the names I knew of Dim Sum dishes remained in Cantonese in my brain—a language I just barely understood through a thin vocabulary in Hokkien, in turn an ancestral language I only really spoke when wedging it in-between Tagalog and English.

Cantonese?” he echoed, this time in Dutch. “Ja, ich verstehe.” Yes, I understand.

Pointing at the menu, I began ordering a collection of shrimp-filled dishes, just as another student at the table had requested. “蝦腸粉,” I began, imitating a Hong Kong Cantonese accent to the best of my ability. Ha cheung fan. Shrimp rice noodles. “叉燒包.” Cha siu bao. Pork buns.

As he marked the Dim Sum ordering sheet, he verbally confirmed every order—almost ironically, his own accent was Indonesian Hokkien. Taking another look at the menu, it seemed like the majority of the people running the restaurant found origins in Singapore.

Craning his neck up, he politely asked (returning to German) if any of the other students had any requests of their own. I tried not to laugh, gesturing at the others, “Sie sind Amerikaner, sie verstehen fast kein Deutsch.” They’re Americans, they understand almost no German.

“Ah, okay,” he explained, making a swift return to English. “Then, erm, just mark the sheet with what they want.”
He passed the pen and paper onto me, and I thanked him with a short, “唔該.” M goi. Thank you.

“唔使,” he replied. M sai. You’re welcome.

Understandably bewildered, the other American students puzzled over what I ordered from the menu. “You went between, like,” one mentioned, “Four languages there.” I jotted down little crosses on our ordering card. “You know too many languages,” another joked.

I shrugged. “Yeah, maybe I do.”

But, then again, it seemed like everyone in this corner of Europe did. A little too many languages to communicate just in one—and a little too much culture to just sit quietly in one’s mouth. And, hey, if I really sound all that German—looks like I’m learning something in Berlin.

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Avery Trinidad

Hey there! I'm Avery Trinidad, a junior majoring in Sociology and concentrating in Global Studies over at Williams College! I think long walks by the beach are an unironic fun time, have made a hobby of writing songs with ukulele accompaniment, and have an apparent talent for making eggs. I'm a big ol' New York native, with a booming voice and headstrong attitude to boot. Though born and raised in Manhattan, I've had the opportunity to take German as a third language since my freshman year of high school. I'm looking forward to documenting my experiences in Berlin, especially after it emerges from such a tumultuous time in not only its own history, but the world's! Bis bald!

2021 Fall
Home University:
Williams College
New York, NY
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