Bland, Laura

Name: Laura Bland
Location of Study: Leuven, Belgium
Program of Study: Katholiecke Universitat Leuven-Summer Dutch Course ‘Joos Florquin’
Sponsors: J. Patrick Rogers & Joe Loughrey

A brief personal bio:

I study the relationships between science, magic, and religion in the early modern world as a part of the History and Philosophy of Science graduate program here at Notre Dame. As an undergraduate, I studied biochemistry and Medieval history at Beloit College in Wisconsin, which has more Belgians than just about anywhere outside Belgium and the beer to prove it. I taught English in Cairo, Egypt before I ended up in South Bend. I’ve never had the opportunity to study Dutch in school, so I’m excited to just dive right in.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

My main interest is the Spanish world, but digging into the story of science Spain has overturned a lot of Dutch names–and Dutch documents. The relationship between Spain and the Dutch-speaking areas was close in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but strained: the split between Catholic Belgium and the Protestant Netherlands, which still exists, happened because the modern Netherlands revolted against Spain, which ruled the whole area. Leuven, as an old University town in the “Spanish Netherlands”, was and is a center of science in its own right, and I hope to do a bit of Dutch practice with some of the fascinating documents in the University’s collection.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

Before I actually started to study Dutch, I would’ve said I’d be happy to leave with a good enough foundation to allow me to slog through archival documents and scholarly books with a dictionary. After all, most Dutch-speakers speak English better than I do, so why learn to speak it? But even after a few weeks of very basic 101-level study to prepare for the trip, I have to say I’m addicted to the spoken language. I’d hope to leave with a high beginner’s fluency in conversation–after only four weeks of study from absolutely no knowledge of Dutch, anything higher would be fantastic–a big enough vocabulary to tackle the books I need to read, a much better understanding of the modern culture, and a sizable network of friends in the city and in the University.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

1. At the end of the summer, I will be able to communicate in Dutch with native speakers on concrete topics and some political and historical subjects.
2. At the end of the summer, I will be able to describe, in basic vocabulary, the contemporary culture and customs of the Dutch-speaking regions, and understand Northern and Southern accents.
3. At the end of the summer, I will not be afraid to speak up in a Dutch conversation because I might make a mistake.
4. At the end of the summer, I will have a strong grasp of the Belgian and Dutch educational systems and archival arrangements in preparation for returning to do archival research.

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

My first task after arriving in Leuven is to go through the apartment listings, find likely suspects, talk to the occupants, and sign a contract for a room. In Dutch. If that’s not hitting the ground running, I don’t know what is. If at all possible, I’ll be living with native speakers my own age, who will, I hope, introduce me to people in the city willing to tolerate my stilted Dutch without switching to English. I also plan to contact the University’s volunteer office about opportunities to work with seniors, something I like to do in any language, and join volunteer groups who operate mostly in Dutch.

Reflective Journal Entry 1: Pre-Arrival

Maybe it’s a bit gauche to start a blog about Belgium with the only thing most people know about Belgium: the food. But the stories you hear about this little country–the waffles, the fries, the beer–are true. There are some fine eats to be had here, and the locals are very proud of it. Since I flew in a bit early on a cheaper flight, I don’t officially start my language training for a few days, but I’ve already picked up a few phrases. First up: “waffle met slagroom, alsublieft” (waffle with whipped cream, please) and “frites met samurai” (fries with ‘samurai’ sauce, a jalapeno-flavored pink goo that tastes too good to ask questions about).

It’s already obvious that keeping away from English-speakers is going to be nearly impossible. I’m staying in Antwerp, the cultural capital of Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium. Antwerp is, according to my pre-arrival research, the epicenter of Flemish nationalism and pride in the Dutch language. Yet so far, my conversations with Dutch-speakers go something like this:

Belgian: So, why are you here?

Me: I’m learning Dutch.

Belgian: Why would you want to do that? We all speak English.

And so forth. This should be interesting.

Reflective Journal Entry 2: July 27

I arrived at the Catholic University of Leuven for my language-program orientation today. They gave us a goodie-bag full of brochures about life in Flanders. The two largest ones? A thick, glossy introduction to Belgian beer, all in Dutch, and a pamphlet from the university that begins: “Belgians are among the least patriotic peoples in the world. If you would like to complain about life here, you will find plenty of locals happy to join in.”

Good start.

Oddly enough, though, I’ve seen nothing but pride in people so far. Unlike in Antwerp, people in Leuven seem to be genuinely flattered when I try out my almost-non-existent Dutch, even if they get to the end of my abilities pretty fast and switch to flawless English. I’m pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to fumble in a new language—I was expecting to be more embarrassed by my lack of ability, but when I speak, even badly, waitstaff and shop workers either ignore my mistakes and speak more slowly, or smile and ask why I’m learning Dutch. Since “confidence” is one of my primary goals for this beginning course, I’m relieved that the people here are so accommodating to beginners.

Reflective Journal Entry 3: August 2

Since, as I said, beer is front and center in the culture here, I decided to start my first journaling task there. Because I’m just a beginner, I’ll be doing most of these tasks in English, at least for the first two weeks.

I went with some other girls on the language course to the Grand Market (Grotemarkt) of Leuven, home of the “Longest Bar in Europe,” which is actually 30-odd pubs crammed in next to each other and wrapped all the way around a huge square. Every bar seemed to have at least 25 beers, so we picked the cheapest bar and sat at an outside table. I asked the waiter which beer I should try if I could only try one. He got impatient and asked what kind of beer I liked. A man at the table next to us yelled out a name, which I later found out was the name of a Trappist ale. He turned out to be from Mechelen, not far from Leuven, and was more than willing to talk about the Belgian beer. When I asked why it was so important, he said it was just part of being Belgian. You work a lot—he said he worked 60 hours a week and that was fairly normal—and you go out and relax with your friends, especially when the rain lets up in the summer. The girls I was with are from Spain, and they said they do the same thing. It was interesting watching the two groups talk, actually, because there seemed to be a lot of cultural similarity between the Belgians, who defined themselves as being more laid back, but also more conservative, than the Dutch, and the Spanish, who said the same thing about the French.

The man ended the sermon on beer by telling me that J.R.R. Tolkien got the idea for the hobbits—small people who love to garden, eat fatty foods, and drink beer—from his time in Belgium during the First World War. That explains a lot.

Reflective Journal Entry 4:

Yesterday we didn’t have Dutch class because it was the Feast of the Assumption. Since one of our journaling tasks is to ask about a holiday, I went down to the tourist office this morning (it was closed yesterday) and asked about the feastday. The woman there just said it was a Catholic holiday, and, when I asked more, said it had something to do with the Virgin Mary. I asked about Catholicism in Belgium, since, after all, Leuven is home to the Catholic University of Leuven, and she said most people were still Catholic but not very many went to Church anymore.

When I asked a couple of Flemish girls staying at our guesthouse about the feastday, they had no idea what it was. “Something Christian.” I asked the baker (at an honest to goodness bakery!) about it, and he said the same thing, even though he went to mass every Sunday. I’m not really surprised that no one knew what it was—I doubt you’d get a better response if you asked about labor day or memorial day in the USA—but I was surprised that there was so little difference between the “official” and “lay” versions, and the sense of embarrassment surrounding the religious holiday.

Reflective Journal Entry 5: August 12

Today we had a lecture, first in Dutch and then in English, about Belgian history and politics. I was able to chat with the speaker, a journalist for a Flemish newspaper, a bit about hot-button issues in Belgium right now and for his personal views on nationalism and the language question in Belgium. Of course the main political question in Belgium is always the relationship between French-speaking and Dutch-speaking Belgians. The latter are the majority now, but the former have, until about 30 years ago, been politically dominant since the Napoleonic invasions. Both the Dutch-speaking Flemish people and the French-speaking Walloons have a nationalist movement, and the French-speaking people of Brussels, which forms a sort of French island in the middle of Flanders. Right now, the prime minister is a French-speaker who doesn’t know any Dutch. I asked what he thought of the nationalist situation, and he said he supported the continued vitality of the Dutch language and thought they were doing very well—even though almost everyone knows English and French, everyone also knows Dutch, and there is a thriving pop culture in Dutch. When I asked two younger Belgians about it, one male and one female, they both said they didn’t really understand why Belgium had two language groups, and why they didn’t just split into two countries. Neither of them had studied anything more than basic history at school—they didn’t even know about the Dutch Golden Age, other than “Rubens and Vermeer,” and were surprised anyone would want to study it, much less an American.

Reflective Journal Entry 6: August 19

For the last task, I interviewed three Belgians about the United States. The level of familiarity the Belgians, and the Dutch, have with American culture is uncanny. They know Family Guy, Robot Chicken, Archer, Jersey Shore, Honey Boo Boo—not exactly our best exports, but definitely popular. Friends is still extremely popular, at least among the people I talked to, who tended to be women between 23 and 25. For this task, though, I talked to one man in his 60s, a woman in her 30s, and another woman in her 20s. None of them had ever visited America; all of them wanted to go to New York and California. All supported Barack Obama and were very anxious about the possibility of another “bully” (as the older gentleman put it) government. The younger woman knew very little American politics, while the two others knew quite a bit, but didn’t understand the political spectrum here. In Belgium, there are far-left socialist groups and far-right nationalist groups, and anti-immigration debates are strong, but religious and womens’ issues are almost non-existent, with the (American) liberal position taken for granted by all parties, as is true throughout most of Europe.

When I asked about American stereotypes, they all mentioned “loud,” and found the American mixture of extreme outgoing personalities and lonely lifestyles—no cafe or pub culture, no nightly drinks with friends, no college students going home on the weekends to have lunch with the parents—very strange, and two people said Americans could be “cold.” All three also said we were very self-centered and ignorant about the outside world, but when I asked about the education system in Belgium and what they studied, we discovered that, in general, Americans seem to study a lot more geography and history than Belgians do.

Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

I met my goals, though I had more difficulty learning the language than I had anticipated. The chief problem was the unwillingness of my fellow program participants to use the target language outside of class, and the fluency of native Dutch speakers in English. I think this problem was aggravated by our status as introductory-level students–if we wanted to have a conversation about anything substantive, we had to rely on English (or Spanish or French). Unfortunately, given the lack of introductory Dutch instruction at Notre Dame and in the United States in general, it would be very difficult to overcome this problem by postponing international study until I had reached a higher level of competence. Having said that, I feel that I more than fulfilled my goals for competence and confidence in a new language.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

I would advise anyone considering language study, particularly in a country with high levels of English fluency, to go out of their way to live with native speakers. At Leuven, this was logistically impossible because of the unwillingness of local students to let rooms for the month of August, though the process of trying to find an apartment yielded some of my longest all-Dutch conversations. This was a special situation, however, and in most other programs I suspect it wouldn’t be the case.

More broadly, I feel that my time in Belgium deepened my appreciation for its culture and politics as well as the language. Spending time with the Flemish, and with my fellow international students, gave me ample opportunity to learn about their own ways of life.

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

I hope to maintain and improve my language skills by cultivating contacts among the small group of Dutch-speaking faculty here at Notre Dame. My friends at Leuven have kept in touch online and we routinely chat back and forth in Dutch. Many of them are remaining in Belgium or the Netherlands for the academic year and continuing to study the language–I hope that, as we study separately, we can practice our conversation and writing skills online or via Skype. I’ve also expanded my dissertation into a comparative effort, in which Dutch sources will, I hope, play a major role, so I’ll have an excuse both to read Dutch every day and, hopefully, return to beautiful Belgium!