I pretty much bark on about how hard I think it is to learn Dutch on a daily basis. Everyone says I am good. That I needn’t worry. That I speak really well for someone who’s been here this long. I love all of these compliments. They keep me going on the days where it sounds like I’m chewing cotton wool rather than ordering my dinner in a restaurant. They keep me going on the days where I’m so tired or full of cold or battling a mind-numbing migraine that I don’t even understand half of the conversation anymore. It’s a little cheer from the side-lines from my friends and family. Woo-hoo, you’re really doing it, keep going!
Since May last year, I’ve been working towards getting my first Dutch language diploma. It’s a little (or a lot, actually) like getting your French GCSE, as in, you work from textbooks and do the necessary reading, writing, speaking and listening tests at the end of the year.
I really enjoy going to my lessons. It’s because I’m a nerd. And a teacher. So being in a classroom is I suppose, the best place for me. I spend three mornings per week ‘learning’ Dutch. Why is it in quotation marks? Because, if I’m brutally honest, I don’t always learn something. But, I feel that by attending these lessons, I achieve some sort of subconscious exposure to so much of the language that it just kind of sinks in every so often, leaving me on the good days with a slightly larger brain.
I should also reveal the fact that I’m shit at revising though. I always have been. Whilst that may come across as a paradox, but it just is. I just can’t sit there and re-read from a text book that I’ve looked at before. That’s so b-o-r-i-n-g, I could cry. It’s definitely the reason that I didn’t score straight A’s at school. I was a pretty average student at the best of times, and at 28 years old, there probably wasn’t much chance of me changing the fact.
In any case, this week I took my final exams.
I started off the year completing my listening and reading exams, which were, on the scale of most difficult exam to easiest exam, at the latter end of said scale. I knew, not to sound like a complete narcissist, that I would pass these two exams. I did. Fantastic. After all, passive learning is the easiest to most.
This week though, things were different. Without trying to create a sombre turning point… things became darker.
I received an invitation to complete my writing and speaking exams at the end of March. The writing part seemed a breeze in comparison to the speaking. My throat tightened just thinking about it.
‘I think that I’m not ready’, I explained to my Dutch teacher, in, unsurprisingly, disappointing Dutch.
She wafted her hand as if she had suddenly inhaled something toxic. ‘Nonsense,’ she responded, matter-of-factly. ‘You can it.’
I nodded and walked off, tail between my legs; defeated by someone with much more faith in my skill at concocting sentences off the top of my head. Now was not the time to disappoint my teacher further whilst she was clearly complimenting me. That was it. The date was set. I couldn’t get out of it.
A few days prior to my speaking exam, I start to feel a little off. Headaches are steaming up the space between my eyes and my brain, and I’m feeling pretty tired and sluggish. Just my luck to start to get ill when I should be practicing. As the days progress, I feel no better: Worse, in fact. I know that this is stress. My body’s way of telling me I suck and will not pass this exam.
The day of the exam is the worst. Not only do I have to physically drag myself from my bed, but I feel sick. Physically sick. I ride the bus to school in a bit of a daze. I’m so nervous that my knees are weak and my arms are heavy. Thankfully there’s no vomit on my sweater, and there luckily won’t be at any point during the day. Needless to say, I feel terrible, and quite frankly I don’t want to go through with this. I flash back now and then to my French oral exam, where I accidentally came down too hard and fast on the ‘t’ at the end of the word ‘chat’ and got a look of pure horror from my French teacher as I basically swore at her and wonder if there are any words I could say today that would offend my examiner. I think I’m in the clear, but the horrors of mispronunciation are always niggling away in some corner of my brain, and I feel like today’s the day they’ll spill over.
As our exams don’t begin until after noon, we sit through an entire lesson. One by one we practice our performances on a topic chosen by our teacher. I watch my classmates as they present their voices to the class. We are broken today. Nerves are taking over. Even my teacher is looking a little guilty in the corner. She smiles at us dutifully and reminds us that ‘you can it’, but even she doesn’t look convinced. I wrack my brains further for accidentally offensive Dutch to English translations. I’m still drawing blanks, which either means that I’m I the clear or my brain has stopped functioning completely.
1pm draws upon us. By now the sickness feeling has reached a peak and I can feel that dry lump in my throat where words are usually formed and spewed out. I try to walk with purpose towards the exam room. I assume rather crudely that this is how it feels being led to the executioner’s block.
I peek inside and see my examiner inside. He’s… my age? I don’t know whether this is a pro or a con. My head is empty enough as it is right now, so I can’t really put everything into perspective.
We introduce ourselves and exchange pleasantries and get down to the task in hand. He explains, very clearly what I must do. First we have a conversation. I have recently bought an item which needs to be taken back to the shop. We have to come to some conclusion, and he’s the shop assistant.
Ok. It’s doable.
I have a few minutes to prepare with pen, paper and a dictionary. My hands won’t stop shaking and I feel his eyes boring into my trembling hands. What must he be thinking. He’s kind enough to completely ignore the fact, and he looks away with what I assume is embarrassment for me. My time is up and the conversation happens. Except I don’t get anywhere near the amount of time I should have met. I have to speak for 5 minutes but I’ve managed 2 minutes and 49 seconds. It is not enough and I know I will be punished accordingly. Visions of the executioners block swim back to the surface.
We move on.
Now I must do a presentation about my dream job. I am allowed the pen, paper and dictionary again, and I give another rendition of shaking hands and how my handwriting looked when I was 5 years old. I can practically feel the embarrassment he feels for me permeating my very skull. Oh my, I feel quite ill. If this was a better story, I’d throw up all over the examiner and get a few laughs, but instead the presentation passes by in a blur. When I end I don’t even remember what I’ve just said. I lit-er-a-lly have no idea if I just did ok or not. The kind examiner remains kind and tells me I did well. His face doesn’t move too much, so I can’t tell if he’s lying, telling the truth or just being, well, kind.
I exit the room, still feeling sick and now, on top of that, confused and a little inadequate.
Even now, a few days later, it’s still a bit of a blur, and I don’t get my results for another two weeks, by which time I’ll have probably forgotten how I felt and think it’s an ok idea to take another shot at it should I happen to have failed.
At least the rest of my exams are out of the way.