Opinion: Language woes

POSTED: 02/11/13 2:47 PM

We know that language is a bit of a bottleneck for our students overseas. Their Dutch is not good enough to get the best out of their studies and because they do not speak the language very well, they also become the butt of jokes among their fellow-students. Problem? Probably. But there is also abundant anecdotal evidence that it is possible to become a minister and then blunder your way through the world –even though your English is way below par.

Dutch politicians have a record in this field that would make a grown man cry. The latest example comes from Lilianne Ploumen, the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development. During a visit to Congo she offered the following statement:  “There is no such thing as a Dutch product in terms of quality. So buy this stuff.”

We’re not sure how good the English of her hosts out there in Africa is, but at least some of them must have wondered about this message that basically says that the Netherlands does not have any quality products to offer. Ploumen should have said: “There is nothing like a Dutch quality product. So buy this stuff.”

History offers more examples of Dutch politicians with a questionable mastery of the English language. What about this one: “We are a country of undertakers,” Prime Minister Joop den Uyl said in the seventies in an attempt to position the Netherlands as a country of entrepreneurs.

Wim van de Camp, a member of the European Parliament for the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) told the Volkskrant last week that of the 26 Dutch members of this parliament there are only two who are able to speak decent English.

The politicians that represent the Netherlands in Europe use expressions like throwing away the child with the badwater when they mean to say that a proposal is an exaggeration or that it sacrifices something that is good to get rid of something that is considered bad.

Pulling on a dead horse is also popular but wrong, even though it comes close. The correct English expression is flogging a dead horse. A third expression Dutch Euro-MPs recently used during the budget debate was stop throwing money over the balk. They meant to say, of course: stop wasting money.

And these are not even the worst examples. The late Joseph Luns, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, is credited with this line: “I fok horses.” This was his answer to a question by the American President John F. Kennedy who asked about his hobbies.

The president reacted in shock and said: “Excuse me?”

Luns reacted enthusiastically: “Yes, horses.”

Small miracle that he did not get arrested.

Another Former Prime Minister, Pieter Gerbrandy said during his first meeting with his British counterpart Winston Churchill: “Goodbye.”

Churchill’s reaction: “This is the shortest meeting I have ever had.”

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