Finding the Language Chip
I’ve been studying like crazy. I asked the Dutch government to give me some leeway on the length of my stays in the Netherlands, to take me out of the tourist class, and put me into the family class. I am, after all, married to a Dutch guy. Sure they said, but you have to learn the Dutch language, and learn about Dutch society, and take several exams to prove to us that you have done so. Groan. Easier said than done for this mono-language individual.
I am missing the language chip. As a new language dribbles into my brain, the old one flows out. My high school French faded into my thirty-something Spanish lessons, which in turn gave way to my now necessary Dutch. Here is a recent example of my language retention skills: I step into a village shop in France to ask for eggs. Me to shopkeeper: Uh, voulez-vous un ouef? (Uh, do you want an egg?) Shopkeeper gives me a very puzzled look. I search the inside of my head for my error. Nothing. I try not to panic, breathe, and slow down my speech. V o u l e z - v o u z u n o u e f… She tilts her head and furrows her brow. I lose my confidence. Eggs! I say brightly, do you have eggs! I make the egg shape with fingers and thumbs. Ahhhh – Avez-vous des ouefs! She says, correcting me with a chuckle. And then answers her own question. Non.
Most Europeans speak a few languages fluently and can have a simple conversation in many languages. Arthur’s daughter, at 13, was obliged to take language courses in Dutch, English, German, French, Latin, and Greek. I kid you not. It's a given that Europeans speak multiple languages. I've been hanging out with the Dutch for 12 years, and while I usually get the essence of a discussion, all too often I miss the punch line. Trying to find the right words to express myself can cause me to break into a cold sweat that leaves me silent and out of the loop. Not my happy place.
My desire to engage socially, along with being fed-up with having to exit the country every time the calendar ticks over 90 days, has spurred my study curve. I have enlisted my family and friends to adhere to Dutch when chatting with me. I've passed an online course for Dutch grammar and studied every aspect of society. I can now tell you if the GBA, the CDA or the AOW is a tax benefit a political party or an administration, and I can tell it to you in Dutch. Not perfect Dutch, but if you were Dutch, you would understand me.
So, ready or not, I signed myself into the Integration centre with 30 other folks of varying age and skin tone, and waited in a room for the exams to begin. I sat beside Ahmed and Khadija, whose three-year-old daughter was working the room, speaking to random folks in Dutch, and coming back to report to her parents in Syrian. Another kid with a language bundle. Khadija was waiting for her exams. Ahmed told me he had already passed, and his sparkly smile told me what an accomplishment that was.
The new Dutch Civic Integration system, introduced in 2013, is not going well. There is no official syllabus, and there are no set course books for either the language, or the society exam, and the information website is, get this, in Dutch! As you might expect, the pass rate is dismal. Immigrants not passing the exams within three years are subject to large fines. At the end of the first three years of the new system, 88% of immigrants had not passed the exams. Ahmed’s accomplishment is the exception.
A woman stepped up to the front of the room and spoke to us in slow and careful Dutch, directing us to place all of our belongings into a locker and then follow her to the exam room. Ahmed picked up his daughter and waved goodbye to Khadija. Succes! He called after her. (Dutch for Good Luck!)
I took cubicle number 13, donned my headset, and for the next 6 hours, worked my way through a variety of exams. I watched video clips, read letters and newspaper clippings, and answered questions; some multiple choice, some that requested me to speak my answer into a microphone, and some that required me to write my answer down.
The Society exam gave me a hint as to why there are issues with Dutch immigration. I’m sworn to secrecy on the contents of the exams, threatened with disqualification if I break the secrecy - heaven forbid! But I can certainly give you an example of a question from one of the publicly available practice exams. Here goes:
Joop and Mieke are Catholic. They place a statue of Mary in the yard. What can Ali best do?
A) Take the statue away during the night.
B) Nothing, the neighbours can choose for themselves
C) Ask the neighbours to take the statue away
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m guessing that if I were in Ahmed and Khadija's shoes, this question might not help me to integrate into Dutch society.
Have I passed my exams? I don’t know. I have eight weeks to wait before I find out if I can join the ranks of the integrated, or if I will find myself among the 88% back in the exam centre for another round with Joop and Mieke. But, here’s the great news. On the evening before the exams, I sat at a family dinner table with people of all ages. My 13-year-old nephew held the centre of attention, cracking jokes that had everyone around the table laughing out loud, including me, because, I got the punch line!