I find myself in a peak learning position. I live in a foreign country. I signed myself up for three Dutch lessons per week. Maybe, most interestingly of all (to me, and only me): I work in a school where I try to help Dutch and Frisian kids pick up the basics of my language, whilst simultaneously trying to pick up theirs. We have some weird inter-lingual conversations, we do.
In my pubescent years, I sat through hours of German and French lessons, which were, weirdly, now i think of it, taught in English. Let me tell you this now. The knowledge and comfort of your own language is your biggest factor in sucking at your second language. That’s my opinion, but I’m pretty sure it’s a fact. I didn’t suck at French or German at the time per se, but if a French person walked up to me right now, I’d only be able to tell them the names of a few pieces of food at the buffet table (which is where I am usually found at a party). If a German person walked up to me, I’d be able to give them a taste of Rammstein’s lyrics, but not much else.
I get it. A pubescent stripling finds little joy in a foreign language. “I have my own language, and it’s better than yours ‘cuz I know how to speak it already”, sums up many teenagers thought process. Back in my day I was much more bothered about learning how to apply eyeliner and dying my hair funky colours in the bathroom whilst my parents were out so I wouldn’t get shouted at for splattering hair dye up the white walls than I was about having a second language. Sacre bleu: I didn’t need French to do that.
In any case, French people just talk English back at you, even when you do try.
Wait, I need to defend myself for a second, I enjoyed the thought of being able to speak another language, I just didn’t spend the right amount of time caring to study. I was 15 ok. I had better things to do.
It’s time to put in the work, girl
Fast forward to my 27th year on Earth, and I find myself in a new land, with a new language. What’s a girl to do? Face her fear and get cracking that’s what.
Before I moved, I set myself up the way anyone embarking on a new set of grammar rules and vocabulary does without fully understanding the weight of what’s in front of them. I bought myself a little Dutch phrasebook and downloaded the DuoLingo app. I thought it was the beginning and end of my journey. Code cracked. I felt a little spark. Enthusiasm. Butterflies. Indigestion?
Combined, these two intricate encyclopedias of knowledge gave me a good grasp on the basics within about 6 months. My Dutch skills went from zero to something, which is better than nothing. Obviously, I can’t give an accurate representation of how good I was after using the app and the book, but let’s just say that I could understand basic questions and conversations and order myself something to eat in a cafe. See, code cracked.
From there, I furthered my learning by investing in the Michel Thomas method. This was a guide of 6 CDs, with a real Dutch woman and two complete novices. I digested these CDs on my way to and from work every day. I think a good indication of knowing how well you’re grasping a language comes from how awful the beginners remain. Or rather, I should say, how little they progress. I always felt oddly proud when I outsmarted the man or woman who was still tripping over the basics, even though I wasn’t much further myself.
After that point, I decided to take the plunge into full on Dutch immersion -or at least my version of it- and I started searching for podcasts and YouTube videos. Here I came across gems such as Echt Gebeurt, a podcast of stories that really happened, told by normal, every day Jan’s and Femke’s, as well as YouTube vloggers Vera Camilla, Beauty Gloss, Diesna Loomans and Dit Gebeurt Als. Quite frankly, I didn’t understand a jot of what they were saying, and I began to feel disheartened. Unaware of how far I’d actually come, I felt like I wasn’t progressing, or even worse, receeding, which was bonkers. We’re like that, aren’t we, many of us. We find and nurture our own drawbacks instead of celebrating our victories. In any case, I maintained some motivation amongst the self-deprication, and wandered through the abyss of the language that eventually began to become more and more familiar to me by the day.
My final step was full immersion. By the end of December 2017, I headed to the Netherlands armed with a messily packaged bundle of words and badly structured sentences inside my head. It still took me a number of months to start speaking to people solely in Dutch, though. I lacked confidence, and the constant barrage of vocabulary was a lot for my brain. I tired easily (or is that just adulthood?), and would often leave social situations earlier than everyone else (oh, it is just adulthood). Sometimes to shed a few tears in the bathroom because I really didn’t understand anyone and I didn’t fit in. Other times to fall asleep immediately in a foreign-word-induced-coma. Immersing yourself in someone elses language is not easy. But it does get easier. Slowly. So very slowly. But so very surely. I have a great support system of people around me, who push me out of my comfort zone to better me. People who constantly remind me that it’s ok to mess up a sentence, because people still understand you anyway. People who want me to master their language one day.
Freeze frame on today. It’s February, and I’ve lived here now for one year and one month. I have Dutch lessons three days a week, where I confidently converse with people in the same boat. I have a job in a real Dutch school, where I have to talk to real life teenagers. I can get myself to the city without any tears being shed. I can answer strangers on the street when they throw questions that I’m completely unprepared for my way. I can spend a little longer at parties. I’ve even started replacing English words with Dutch ones when I do get to speak English. It’s getting easier.
The faster the better… because then I can start all over again with Frisian…
How do you feel about learning a new language? Does it feel like the second coming? Like everything could crash around your feet at any moment? Or are you sailing onward and upwards with minimal effort? I’d love to know.
Until next time,