The Unintentional Dutch Question Effect

The Unintentional Dutch Question Effect

I have recently noticed a strange phenomenon that happens during the early stages of an expat’s attempt to learn the language of their host country. I have decided to call this phenomenon, ‘The Unintentional Question Effect’ since it happens when an expat unintentionally adds a rising inflection to the end of a sentence, thus making everything they say sound like a question.

The rising inflection is often added simply because we are questioning if we have said what ever we were trying to say correctly with out committing first degree language murder.

I will use a normal every day activity to better demonstrate this phenomenon:

Imagine that you enter a small café in Amsterdam with a desire to purchase a simple beverage, a coffee for example. You find a suitable seat, maybe one by the window over looking a pleasant view. The waiter approaches you with his order pad and a smile. He greets you in Dutch and you return he’s greeting. This establishes a simple relationship between you, that of customer and beverage supplier. He then asks you what you would like to drink.

“Wat wil je drinken?”

You wish to practise the Dutch you have learnt so you reply that you would like a coffee:

“Ik wil enn koffie?”

The rising inflection you unintentionally add to the end of the statement is simply displaying your unfamiliarity with the language and asking the un-spoken question:

“Did I say that right? Is that how you say that in Dutch?”

However, the waiter does not hear the unspoken question since it is unspoken. He hears a different question that does not make you sound like someone attempting to speak an unfamiliar language. Instead, it makes you sound like someone who has forgotten to take their medication:

“Do you think I would like coffee? Do I look like the kind of person who would like coffee? Do you think I would like tea instead of coffee?”

Shortly after you add that you would like milk? and sugar? the waiter starts to back away to call the local hospital and ask if they are missing any patients.

The same thing can happen in many other situations. Telling a cab driver that you would like to go to the train station might suddenly take on another meaning:

“I’d like to go to the train station? Do you think I will enjoy myself at the train station? Are there many fun activities for a thrill seeker such as myself to take part in at the train station?”

Even a simple statement like, “my name is Stuart,” said in another language by a confused expat can suddenly sound like a puzzled conundrum of confusion posed by a two year old suffering from concussion.

I’ve confused and (probably) scared a lot of Dutch people by introducing myself in such a way but at least all the waiters in Amsterdam seem to agree that I look like more of a tea person then a coffee person.

13 responses to “The Unintentional Dutch Question Effect”

  1. Aisling says:

    Oh yeah, I love it. I sound so inquisitive at the beginning of the day, because everything is a question. But once I get used to it, I sound a lot more normal.

    I remember one time though, I was in Quebec and hadn’t spoken French all day. So, I was at a cafe with friends, and one was francophone and she orders no problem. My next friend orders slowly, since his French is awwwfuuul. Meanwhile, I know exactly what I’m supposed to say (I a bilingual, technically, after all), I turn to the waitress, and ASK HER IN ENGLISH! My friends give me a weird look and go “Okay, you don’t even have an excuse! You SPEAK FRENCH FLUENTLY!!!”

    *Sighhhhh* I suck. My languages get way too mixed, way too often.

  2. Manictastic says:

    Dutch word for dog is hond.
    I haven’t met many foreigners who even attempt to learn Dutch, but it’s good to see you trying to question your way into it.

  3. ChickyBabe says:

    It’s true. I’ve noticed people doing that in other languages. I like your reasoning.

    “the waiter starts to back away to call the local hospital and ask if they are missing any patients.” – Brilliant! I’ll be thinking that next time!

  4. BlondebutBright says:

    Yep, sounds like you should stick with tea. ;)

  5. Rich says:

    Totally know what you’re talking about. And not only do I inflect up, for some reason when I try to speak nederlands my voice raises about 2 octaves. Any higher and I’d be in “baby talk” range.

  6. zed says:

    it’s telling the time in dutch that i ALWAYS get wrong – and hence never get to the place on time. d’oh me.

  7. Ana Luisa says:

    Haven’t began the “learning Dutch marathon” (yet) but I’ll be here for 6 months, so I should have enough time to ask plenty of questions, voluntarily or not… Right now I’m trying not to speak to my anglophone boss in Italian and to the francophone one in Japanese or something; and yes, our staff meeting are very confusing!

  8. VallyP says:

    Hahaha Stu, I love this..had another really good chortle, and yes, it’s so true! I think you and I must be at the same stage in our struggle to learn this thorny language, so everything we say needs confirmation, and everything in Dutch is loaded with problems for us to trip over. The question that is a question but not a Brill ;-)

  9. Tess says:

    I was a bit suspicious but now I’m sure, you do have a split personality :9

  10. Dragon Lady says:

    What happens when an Australian tries to speak Dutch. The ones I know seem to give a rising inflection at the end of every sentence and they speak (nearly) the same language as us. My appologise to any Australians that don’t do that but the ones I know do.

  11. Miss Evvil says:

    At least you’re trying to learn the language! Questions or no questions ;) Me on the other hand have been here for 3 years, and I still don’t speak dutch… Bad me! I can read it, I can understand a lot when I hear it, but still not speak it! I think the problem is that when I was growing up I was told that if I had to make sounds like “that” I should do it in private, in the bathroom… Do you have that mental barrier too, Stu? And how are you coming along with the grammar? I am curious!

  12. Keith says:

    I’ll say one thing about you? You certain spin a good yarn? Shit! Now you’ve got me at it?

  13. Invader Stu says:

    Aisling – I’ve done that so many times with out meaning to as well

    Manictastic – Thanks. I start a new Dutch course soon.

    ChickyBabe – My advice is never let them get to the phone :p

    BlondebutBright – I’ve never liked coffee anyway :p

    Rich – I know that feeling as well.

    zed – It’s more confusing then quantum physics to be fair. “Five past, quarter to the hour over midnight on the day after Tuesday.” :p

    Ana Luisa – Wow. How many languages are you trying to learn?

    VallyP – I know so many other people who do it as well.

    Tess – Was there really any doubt :p

    Dragon Lady – If Sarah is reading I’ll have to ask her :p

    Miss Evvil – I’ve been here for six years and I still don’t know as much as I should. I still have a mental barrier.

    Keith – It’s catching isn’t it? :p

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