I’m sitting outside at the table at my brother-in-laws house with my husband and his family, enjoying the long summer days. We’ve just had a delicious barbecue with all sorts of different meat and sauce options; there was even Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue sauce. It’s been a lovely afternoon filled with good conversation, jokes, jumping on the trampoline, and even a little bit of swimming in the long-rather-than-wide-backyard of a typical Belgian home.
The faint aroma of charcoal lingers in the air as we wind down the evening by sipping coffee and tea with bowls of ice cream. My husband carries on a conversation with his parents and his brother, but my attention is focused on my wonderful niece and nephew. Because of my limited language ability, I often find myself relegating myself to the kids table.Z is sitting on my lap, while K sits in the chair next to us, and we three are huddled under a blanket. While the blanket does serve it’s main purpose of keeping us warm now that the sun has set, there is an extra bonus advantage to the blanket as it keeps the mosquitos from attacking. I have managed to leave a lot of things behind in America, but mosquitos does not seem to be one of them. I start asking the children random questions to practice my Dutch. They’re perfect to practice with because I find myself less self-conscious around them and they’re incredibly forgiving of my atrocious grammar. Typically, I only understand about half of what they’re saying, but they’re always willing to repeat what they’ve said and if all else fails we call on one of the adults to help translate. Eventually, the conversations turns to what we like to eat.
“Vind je warme chocolade lekker?” I ask, starting to run out of foods to list.
K looks at me puzzled and says, “Ik begrijp het niet.”
I am sort of taken aback. I have asked this same question at least twenty times now, just swapping out different food, and I am absolutely positive “warme chocolade” is the the right way to say “hot chocolate” in Dutch. I look up and catch my mother-in-law’s eye and she jumps in quickly to help.
“I said, ‘Vind je warme chocolade lekker?’ Is warme chocodate not hot chocolate in Dutch?”
My mother-in-law laughs a little. “No no, that’s right. But the way you say it makes it seem like you’re saying “maggot chocolate.” It’s warm, not warm,” she informs me gently, emphasizing the [a] in the first word over the [ɔ] in the second word.
We all get a good chuckle out of the innocent language mixup. Apparently my American is showing.
“[Warm] is [wɔrm] in Engels,” I explain to my niece, in hopes she’ll forgive my mispronunciations in the future. Despite all my efforts, the specificity of the vowels in Dutch seem to escape my command; I have a feeling no matter how long I am in Belgium, my American will always show.
Every day I understand a little more and every day I can say a little more, and for now, that’ll have to be good enough.