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Double Dutch? How do children pick up accents? With help from Focus, Golden Earring and 1000 drummers in Rotterdam!!

Date posted: Thursday 9th January 2014

Yodelling for Holland? Thijs van Leer of Dutch band Focus

Yodelling for Holland? Thijs van Leer of Dutch band Focus

Most people from the UK didn’t travel abroad much in the early 1970s. It’s not like we stayed in our villages and only went into the town across the valley on market days (that was in the 1670s), but there wasn’t the opportunity to go on holidays to the other side of the world. Your family might spend a week in southern Spain or Majorca, but anything else was considered to be highly exotic. Certain of us hankered after taking the ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland. Naturally this was to see the Anne Frank Museum, the canals, and the galleries containing masterpieces by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer and the like. Obviously after all that you’d be a bit tired and would need to get refreshment from one of the legendary coffee shops, causing you to spend the rest of the day admiring the lovely colours of all the tulips, and marvelling at how slowly the sails on the windmills turned.

I’ve just totally stereotyped Amsterdam and Holland, which is both wrong and unfair. But we were only youngsters with very little experience of meeting people from other countries, and had to rely on geography lessons to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. Then in 1972 everyone was talking about Holland. For some it was the glory of Johan Cruyff and the fabulous Ajax Amsterdam, but for me and my friends Holland meant only one thing: Hocus Pocus by Focus. That song had everything: virtuoso drumming and lead guitar, some great bass and keyboard, but most of all it featured the most sensational singing that rock has ever known. It’s not every day you hear a Dutchman yodelling and then singing like a leprechaun who has just invested his crock of gold in a huge quantity of amphetamines. Even the band used to find it difficult to keep a straight face when playing this song live.

Yodelling, leprechauns and screaming: Focus in concert

We used to imagine what a Focus gig would be like: all prog rock and serious, until they played Hocus Pocus, when all hell would break loose as everyone starts leaping around like pixies and yodelling along at the tops of their voices. We used to fantasize about meeting Dutch girls too. But what would we say to them? It was obvious really- Yoi dudu doi dudu doi dudu doi dudu om bom ba! Most pop songs were about boy meets girl, so we guessed there had to be some romantic element to the lyrics.

I met my very first Dutch person in 1974, and I was amazed that she spoke perfect English; which was just as well as it saved me the embarrassment of talking to her like an elf on speed. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting quite a few Dutch people since then, and they invariably speak English very well. In fact I love the way that people from Holland speak English. They have a particular accent and lilt to their spoken English that is uniquely Dutch. What I hadn’t picked up on was the way that some Netherlanders have a bit of trouble with our ‘s’ sound, which tends to come out as ‘sh’.

This s/sh confusion was brought home to me one weekend in a windswept holiday resort on the Belgian North Sea coast. I was a delegate at a European Union conference on the education of children from families working in travelling fairgrounds and circuses. At mealtimes, as befits a mighty institution that spans the political and economic divide of a continent, all the different nationalities sat separately in large groups and studiously ignored each other. As someone who embraces all nationalities, I went and sat at the ‘Dutch’ table. In no time we were talking about Focus and Dutch football. One of the women even tried to teach me how to yodel.

The next morning at breakfast, one of my new friends, Pieter, approached me. He pointed to the empty chair next to me and asked, “Can I shit here?” Now I’m not one to question cultural norms, but in public places like hotel dining rooms there is a limit to what one can tolerate. However, being a typical Brit, I politely said, “Of course you can.” And wondered what was going to happen next.

Once the strong Belgian coffee had kicked in, I decided to ask Pieter what he had meant by his question, and found myself explaining the difference between sit and that word that he had used. Pieter burst out laughing, went over and grabbed all his Dutch colleagues, who all came over to our table to share the joke. What followed was a lesson in helping people change the way they speak. As Pieter’s boss, Wim, explained, “We jusht don’t hear the dfferensh between the shoundsh.” So we had a group listening session (not shession). I said two words and they had to tell me which was correct (sop/shop; see/she; Sue/shoe etc). As many of these words meant something, which was confusing everyone, I had to use a lot of mime. It was easy for me to mime see and she, and even shop. Dutch people, as I found out, are renowned for their wicked sense of humour, and many of my new friends pretended that they were very confused about the word sit, just to get me to do the mimes for that word and its counterpart. In no time the party from Holland were confident that they could ask the way to Marks and Spencer, and even order some sausages from Sainsbury’s, without sounding like Sean Connery.

The same principle applies when young children are learning to use the sounds of their language. No one needs to sit down and teach babies how to pronounce words: it just happens through listening to the people who talk and play with them. Some older children find certain sounds difficult to get their tongues round, and the best way to help them is to play lots of listening games. In the UK, many three-year-olds say tat for cat and dod instead of dog. Usually this sorts itself out, but if you want to help, then listening games are the first place to start.

A colleague of mine was working with a little girl who was making all sorts of sound confusions, and was so difficult to understand that the child was becoming very frustrated. Rather than focus on trying to help the little girl make various sounds (which is very difficult for young children) she made a recording of an adult reading words from a pre-school alphabet picture book. She gave the little girl the book, a set of headphones and the tape to listen to at home with her parents. The little girl loved the book so much that she happily sat and listened to the tape while looking at the book. Over time she automatically started repeating the words to herself as she listened, and gradually her pronunciation began to improve.

Adults learning a foreign language that has tricky pronunciation can do exactly the same thing: buy a CD that features a lot of vocabulary being spoken. If you listen to it regularly, the sounds will soon become familiar and you will be making them automatically. If you can hear speech sounds, and the differences between one sound and another, soon your tongue will automatically start moving to the right place in your mouth. For some sounds you might need some extra help and guidance about tongue position, like when I wanted to make the special ‘clicking’ sound that appears in the Xhosa language. Some guided listening will be important if you want to learn a tonal language with lots of vowels and relatively few consonants, like Vietnamese.

Someone once suggested to me that there could be a gap in the market for teaching our Dutch neighbours how to pronounce the English ‘s’ sound. We could produce a book with lots of pictures and a CD to go with it. This could help diplomatic relations, by avoiding nasty misunderstandings when the Dutch ambassador, for example, invites his UK counterpart to ‘Come and sit next to me.’

To help us lean Dutch, here’s a marvellous clip of Focus’ legendary yodelling keyboard player Thijs van Leer explaining how Hocus Pocus came into being, and how it was used for Nike’s 2010 World Cup advertising campaign. If you have time after that, then you can feast your eyes and ears on another legendary rock Dutch group, Golden Earring, bringing the whole of the centre of Rotterdam to a standstill in 1992, when they got 1000 Dutch drummers together to drum along to Radar Love!

The story of Hocus Pocus by Focus

It’s half past four and I’m shifting gear: Radar Love from Golden Earring and 1000 Dutch drummers in Rotterdam 1992

Take care out there.


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6 responses to “Double Dutch? How do children pick up accents? With help from Focus, Golden Earring and 1000 drummers in Rotterdam!!”

  1. Elly Foster says:

    Oh you wicked man Michael taking the pish out of us Dutch lot, only joking. Guess what, I’ve seen Focus performing Hocus Pocus live. It was the last band on stage in 1972 in Eindhoven and one of his guitar strings snapped. He managed to play throughout the tricky problem of fixing a new one, amazing! I have also seen Golden Earring live and danced the whole way through it in a large tent. I am reminded of my younger brother who used to sing along to Golden Earring, his favourite band. Of course his English wasn’t as good as mine, oh yes I was quite fluent in 1974, and he used to sing the most ridiculous stuff as he misunderstood so much. Now I do the same myself in Welsh. Lastly, would you believe it, the place where the 1000 drummers are playing is right opposite the flat where I used to live as a little girl. You can see my bedroom window. What a lovely surprise to see all this in one blog from you. Thanks.


    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Elly
      You may not realise it, but you are in fact that first Dutch person I ever met, on Guildford station in 1974 (or was it 1975?)
      That’s amazing about your apartment in Rotterdam featuring on the video of Golden Earring! I’ve never been to Holland, but hope to have a short break in Amsterdam soon
      Love from Michael

  2. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for this – your posts are always a delightful mix of amusement and learning for me, and obviously a trip down memory lane for you Elly! 🙂

    What a brilliant, yet simple way to look at learning sounds and you’re right, it’ll be useful for older young ‘uns with gaps as much as for initial sound learning.

    Hope you are well! 🙂


    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Amy!
      Thanks for your kind comments. Learning language is all about active listening and making connections. I am in contact with a researcher in Portugal who has been looking at talking with young bilingual children about the differing sounds in their home language and the new one they are learning. They pick up on this really quickly, and I think it is this type of awareness of different phonological systems that makes bilingual children find it easier to learn a third much faster than monolinguals. (Plus listening to bands from the 1970s will expand your mind!)
      Best wishes

  3. Elly Foster says:

    Hi Michael
    I did realise you were talking about me. Yes, it was 1975 and I remember it vividly. It most certainly was Guildford station.
    I have thought a lot about my struggles to learn Welsh. After 14 years of learning I can teach Maths through the medium of Welsh, I can read a whole load of it and write it reasonably well although I am aware that I make many grammatical errors. But, the one thing I cannot do is understand people when they speak it. They go too fast for me to’see’ the words in my brain. I cannot separate them so the whole things sounds like a blur. I realise than when we speak to babies and little children we do a lot of slow talking and repeating. Adults talking to adults don’t do that. If anything they have the stupid habit of shouting at you in a foreign language as if somehow miraculously the words become clearer. I sometimes listen to Welsh radio and let the sounds wash over me and I can pick out the odd word but, after 14 years, it is a disappointingly small amount. I have noticed that there lots of beginner classes around here but very few for the more experienced learner. It just goes to show that most people drop out. I wish language teachers would actually take note of these kind of experiences and change the way they teach foreign languages.

    I’m now going to enjoy your clips and sing alomng very loudly!


    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi again Elly!
      You are right: the biggest block to understanding is the speed that other people talk at.
      I was immersed in Spanish, in a situation where no one spoke English. There were definitely two types of communicators: those who spoke fast, and those who spoke at just the right speed so that I could understand (and could therefore join in with the conversation). Those who spoke slowly were, I’m afraid to say, mainly women, who seemed to know exactly how to get me involved. Some men who were what I regarded as ‘good communicators’ had either been abroad and therefore understood how it feels to be a beginner at another language. Others genuinely wanted to find out about what I thought, so made a real effort to draw me in through gesture and praising my efforts. With these people I learned to speak Spanish very quickly.
      I’m being immersed in French now, and I meet exactly the same types of people.
      Some people in Spain clearly wanted to exclude me and as someone who had to rely entirely on observing non-verbal communication, I picked this up very quickly .
      I always ask people to speak slowly, but if they don’t then I just switch off, because I reckon that they are not worth investing my effort into.
      It’s also very helpful when people speak French, but throw in any English words and phrases that they know.
      Don’t give up on the Welsh speaking: just try and find more people who can encourage you. Maybe engaging someone to give you Welsh conversation lessons?
      Take care now

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