Discovering Suriname thanks to an EU project? Yes, please!
Europe meets Suriname
Before 2012, I never imagined that I’d travel to Suriname. I knew that it’s a small country in South America and a former Dutch colony. Being a linguist, I was aware that Dutch is the official language, which is for instance being used by the government and for education. But to what extent do people really use this language in an everyday context? Is Surinamese Dutch very different from my mother tongue? Are speakers in Suriname at all familiar with Belgian Dutch? These and so many further questions I was unable to answer – until I joined an international research project which was funded by the European Commission’s Lifelong Learning Programme.
Our project Dutch++, which ran from 2012-2014, focused on models for learning and teaching varieties of Dutch and it was special for various reasons. First of all it enabled professional and cultural exchange between linguistic researchers and Dutch language teachers from Belgium and the Netherlands as well as Germany and Austria. In addition to these European partners, however, researchers from Suriname were involved in the project. We were all very excited about this exceptional international cooperation. In Europe we knew so little about Surinamese Dutch and there was barely any literature available on this linguistic variety.
Snow in Vienna, sun in Paramaribo
The project became an incredible journey – literally. In February 2012, all partners flew to Vienna for our very first project meeting and it was snowing like crazy. Our colleagues from Suriname, who are used to 28 degrees Celsius all year long, were not properly dressed for this kind of weather. One of them had never even seen that much snow at once. One year after, it was the other way around: when my German colleague and I got out of the plane in Paramaribo, the tropical heat fell upon us like a heavy blanket. We’d been told that most buildings in the capital have airconditioning. They do, but it doesn’t always work!
When we visited a school to join a Dutch class, the airconditioning in the room was broken. All of us, including the pupils and the Dutch teacher, were sweating like pigs. At some point, the teacher complained about a headache and left the classroom. She didn’t return. My colleague from the Netherlands and I were quite stunned, but we knew what to do: we got up from our seats and took over. A few minutes later the pupils were telling us about their multicultural backgrounds and their home languages, about speaking Sranantongo on the streets and learning Dutch at school. The broken airconditioning was soon forgotten. We found out that Suriname is all about improvising and that this leads to the most valuable experiences.
Food for thought
During our study visit in Paramaribo we were assisted by a friendly German student who was doing an internship as a teacher and preparing his thesis. He accompanied us to the Dutch department of Suriname’s university in Paramaribo where we were to hold a workshop on varieties of Dutch. In the lecture room the airconditioning did work and it was very noisy, too. I had to speak very loudly so that the students – all of them women, by the way – would be able to hear me. When my Belgian colleague read a literary text aloud a few students started to giggle. It was the first time they were confronted with Belgian Dutch! They were quick to notice the differences in pronunciation, vocabulary and syntax. In turn they were proud to explain typical Surinamese words and constructions to us. Nearly all of them had relatives in the Netherlands and some shared anecdotes about misunderstandings or attitudes they’d been confronted with when visiting the Netherlands. This was the kind of stuff you’ll never read in an academic journal!
After an inspiring workshop me and my colleagues were longing for a nice dinner. The German student presented us to a local friend who wanted us to have a taste of Surinamese cuisine. With four of us in the back of his tiny car he drove to his favourite Javanese restaurant, where we had roast chicken wrapped in banana leaves. The food was way too spicy for my European stomach and I still had a sore throat from the workshop, so instead I focused on listening to the stories of our Surinamese driver. Even in your free time you can keep learning and this is what makes international exchange so precious.
Encouraging international exchange
Now – a couple of years later – it is even more clear to me how much the meetings and conversations we had during our study visit in Suriname have influenced my linguistic research. I had experienced with my own ears and eyes how communication in a multilingual context can work and I was able to see Dutch linguistic variation from a more global perspective. Sometimes you have to leave Europe to understand it better and to discover new aspects of your language or variety! I’m very grateful that the Lifelong Learning Programme made that possible.
Thanks to our international exchange, the Dutch++ research group was able to develop an extraordinary model for learning and teaching varieties of Dutch – including Surinamese Dutch. The helpful German student in Paramaribo got so inspired that he started doing research of his own on a Namibian variety of German, which he combines succesfully with his job as a teacher of German in Amsterdam. I hope that our international experiences will motivate many students and colleagues in Europe to look beyond the borders!