By Madison Block
I was fourteen when my family moved to the Netherlands. Though most Dutch people speak English (Dutch children start learning English in school at a young age), my siblings and I were still determined to learn the language of the flat, windmill-dotted country we now called home. We weren’t going to be the arrogant Americans who expected the entire world to speak English. When I began learning Dutch, the words felt like marbles in my mouth that I might choke on if I forgot how to conjugate a verb or pronounced gemeentehuis incorrectly. I had already taken two years of Spanish in school prior to moving to the Netherlands, and I loved the way Spanish flowed rhythmically off my tongue. Even the word for “beautiful” in Spanish, hermosa, sounds beautiful. I thought it was a very sexy language—or maybe that was all the Enrique Iglesias music I listened to at the time.
Dutch, on the other hand, sounded like a harsh, throaty language. I thought at any moment, I might be sprayed with phlegm when a Dutch speaker declared they were having a gezellig avond, which roughly translates to “a nice evening.” Compared to Spanish, Dutch sounded far less romantic. (Perhaps that’s the reason Enrique Iglesias became an international pop sensation and no one outside of the Netherlands has ever heard of Gers Pardoel. Look up the song “Ik Neem Je Mee” and tell me how romantic it sounds next to literally any Enrique song.)
I took a year of Dutch classes at the international school I attended in Eindhoven, but I also picked up several words outside the classroom. When my family and I went to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at the theater in Uden, the movie had Dutch subtitles, so I learned that heks is “witch” and tovenaar is “wizard.” At restaurants and grocery stores, I learned different food words—aardappel is potato, havermout is oatmeal, boerenkool is kale, sinaasappelsap is orange juice. Every week in Dutch class, I understood a little more, got a little better at the verb conjugations and the pronunciation of difficult words. Sometimes I would listen to conversations in cafes just to see if I could pick out any words that I knew. Twee koffie en een appeltaart alstublieft. Ja, dank je wel! Tot ziens!
Beginning to understand a new language feels like magic. What once sounded foreign now sounds familiar. What used to look like an unintelligible mishmash of bold letters is now a headline on a newspaper you can actually read and understand. Now you know that there’s a big event happening next week in your town, a sale coming up at your favorite store, or a scandal with a Dutch politician.
Though initially, I hadn’t been happy moving to the Netherlands (what 14-year-old would be happy to leave their friends and their old school behind?), as the months passed, I fell in love with the Dutch landscape, the people, and yes, even the language. I couldn’t imagine life without the vibrant tulip fields in the spring or doing homework at my Dutch friends’ houses after school on a rainy autumn evening.
I finally understood the word gezellig that the Dutch people used so much. If you type gezellig into Google Translate, it says that the English translation is “cozy.” But it’s more than that. There’s no direct English translation, because we don’t have a word that encompasses everything that gezellig means. Gezellig is a daytrip to Amsterdam and taking a boat tour of the canals with your family. Gezellig is a night out at a bar, just having a few Heinekens and laughing with your friends. Gezellig is the snow falling on the cobblestone sidewalk as the shops turn on their Christmas lights.
By the time I was nineteen and had lived in the Netherlands for a few years, I could understand almost everything when I was out and about. Speaking Dutch was a different story—I still struggled with the grammar and pronunciation and was shy while talking to Dutch people in their own language for fear of making a mistake. At a party with a mix of Dutch and international students, we all spoke English. After most of the international students left, the Dutch students in the group reverted back to Dutch, forgetting that I was not a native speaker like them. When they spoke to me, I responded in English, but I was proud of myself for being able to understand everything that was said in the first place.
A few months later, I moved back to the States. Albuquerque was a world away from Amsterdam. There was a Dutch TA in the journalism department at UNM where I was finishing my bachelor’s degree, and I enjoyed talking to him in the hallways and hearing his Dutch accent. After my first semester in New Mexico, he moved back to the Netherlands, and I had no other connection to the country that had felt so much like home to me. I somewhat lost touch with many of my Dutch friends and classmates, only sending sporadic Facebook or Instagram messages. Between the eight-hour time difference and being busy with school, work, and family, it was hard to keep any meaningful connections when we were now so far away from each other.
I have now been back in the States longer than I lived in the Netherlands, and regrettably, I’ve let my Dutch language skills fall to the wayside. I recently watched The Forgotten Battle on Netflix, or De Slag om de Schelde in Dutch. The World War II movie takes place in the Dutch province of Zeeland, and the main characters speak Dutch and German. I was disappointed to find that I could not understand any of the Dutch dialogue without subtitles. If understanding a new language is like learning to do magic, then forgetting that language is like losing your power.
Of course, I am not Dutch at all, not by ethnicity or nationality. In fact, more than once, I was reminded that I was a foreigner there when I was stopped on the street and asked where I was really from—they didn’t believe that a half Korean woman was really from the U.S. Rude, racially-charged questions aside, I enjoyed my time in the Netherlands learning about the culture and history, and I will forever be grateful for my Dutch teacher who was patient with my dismal Dutch skills in the beginning. Realizing that I’ve lost the ability to understand Dutch is devastating, but the language was never “mine.”
I wonder if my mother, a Korean adoptee, felt a similar sense of loss when she visited Seoul a few years ago. It was her first time in Korea since she was adopted as an infant, and she couldn’t understand anything. She told me how she would simply shake her head and explain in English that she didn’t speak Korean when someone approached her to ask a question or tell her something. Dutch people were impressed that I could understand them though I didn’t look like them. For my mom, it was the exact opposite in Korea. For her, it wasn’t like losing magic powers she had spent time learning, as I had with Dutch—it was being denied the powers which were her birthright. She lost that magic before she even knew she had it.
Korean was supposed to be our native tongue. My mom jokes that she’s waiting for the “Korean language gene” to kick in every time she watches a K-drama or a cooking show about Korea. It’s strange to think that her birth parents—my grandparents—would have spoken a completely different language. They likely wouldn’t be able to understand us if we ever found them. As much as I love Korean food, K-dramas, and K-pop, the fact that I can’t speak Korean makes me feel painfully disconnected from the culture.
“Maybe one of these days, if I listen to it enough, it’ll just click,” my mom says.
I wish that were how that worked. I’ve watched enough K-dramas and listened to enough K-pop that if there were such a thing as a Korean language gene that turns on if you just listen to the language enough, I would be fluent by now. Of course, repeated exposure to a language is a good start to learning it. Hearing the cadence and flow of the words and sentences, even without understanding many (or any) of them, gives you a sense of how conversations in that language are supposed to sound.
I’ve made more of an effort in the last few years to learn Korean. I picked up Spanish and Dutch fairly easily in high school, but Spanish and Dutch use the same alphabet as English. There are also thousands of English/Spanish and English/Dutch cognates, so even when I struggled to read or understand a sentence, I could usually figure it out based on the words that sounded like English.
Korean is so much different. Before I started making a serious attempt to learn Korean, the characters looked like an indecipherable combination of lines, circles, and squares. I didn’t think there was any way I would be able to figure it out on my own, especially as I got older and finished college and started working a 9-5. I just didn’t have the time or energy or money to take a formal class or find a Korean tutor, which was partly why I turned to K-dramas and K-pop as a way to learn the language. I already enjoyed them anyway, so why not start paying attention to what they were saying? After all, Kim Namjoon of BTS famously learned English by watching Friends.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t picking up as much Korean as I would have liked. When I lived in the Netherlands, I was surrounded by the language every single day. Even if I wasn’t able to speak it myself, it was all around me. Sometimes I pause K-dramas and try to repeat the sentence they just said. I rewind it and do it again until I’m confident I’m pronouncing it correctly.
A character in a K-drama says “baegopa.” The subtitles say, “I’m hungry.”
“Pay-go-paw,” I repeat.
Every time a new BTS or Blackpink song is released, I listen to it multiple times while I pull up the lyrics on my laptop, both the Hangul (Korean letters) and Romanized (English letters) versions so I can see what the Korean characters look like and how to pronounce them. I found this to be a more effective way of learning since I was looking at the words written down while I was listening to them. Plus, learning through catchy music is both fun and educational since the songs get stuck in my head and I sing them to myself all day.
After a few months of using the K-drama/K-pop method, I finally decided to sit down and learn Hangul. It was surprisingly easy, and I was kicking myself for putting it off for so long. There are only 24 letters—14 consonants and 10 vowels—so compared to learning other Asian languages, like Mandarin, which has thousands of characters, Hangul can be learned in a matter of hours.
Now, I know that “I’m hungry” in Korean is pronounced baegopa, and in Hangul, it’s spelled 배고파. Of course, just because I can now read and sound out Korean words doesn’t mean that I understand them. I was watching a Korean show, and a phrase in Hangul appeared on the screen. The English subtitles said “blood, sweat, and tears” (which, by the way, is also the title of one of my favorite BTS songs). I paused the show so that I could get a look at the characters:
피 땀 눈물
I sounded out the words. Pi, ddam, nunmul. Pi must be “blood,” so ddam must be “sweat,” which means nunmul is “tears.” I looked it up to make sure I was reading and pronouncing the words correctly, and I was!
There was that familiar feeling again, that magic that comes with learning a new language. I’m still so far off from being fluent in Korean that it may seem premature to be celebrating this small feat of linguistic understanding, but in a way, it feels like an even bigger accomplishment than I felt when I began to understand Dutch all those years ago. Korean is my ancestors’ language. The magic of the Korean language was lost in my family the moment my mom was given up for adoption, but I feel as though I’ve found it again after years of searching. There may not be such a thing as a “Korean language gene” as my mom puts it, but I am Korean, or at least one step closer to feeling like I am.
About the author:
Madison Block has a BA in Communications & Journalism from the University of New Mexico. In 2018, she won the Albuquerque Authors Festival nonfiction writing contest. Her work has appeared in Korean American Story, Burnt Pine Magazine, Mom Egg Review, and The Nasiona. Madison currently lives in the Boston area and works in marketing. Twitter: @mblock507