Learning the Language? Child’s Play

It suddenly dawned on me yesterday: I’m basically an eight-year-old trapped in an adult’s body.

Now I don’t mean that I’m immature. Although I’ll admit that I do have my moments.

Then again, who doesn’t?

And I’m not talking about being ‘young at heart’. At times I am very much so. Probably not as much as I’d like, but I do actively try to see the world anew each and every day.

It’s easy to do when you really are encountering something for the first time – which happens alot when you’re an expat living in another country.

No, what I’m referring to is the realization that my level of speaking Dutch is pegged somewhere at the 8 to 12 year old level, give or take a year.

It was late afternoon, the sun was shining, our little street was alive with the sights and sound of children playing, neighbors out strolling, people arriving home from work or wherever.

(And no rain, woohoo! See, that’s what I’m talking about – cultivate the wonder of your inner child, and you can usually find the positive in situations.)

As I approached the little gate in front of our house, I heard a child’s voice.

‘Hallo, Mevrouw Janssen, hoi!’ Catarina called out out gaily. I looked up and saw her skipping towards me.

Catarina is the adorable 8-year-old daughter of my neighbor and friend Anneke. Anneke is a warm, amiable woman who speaks fluent English and French in addition to her native Dutch. Anneke’s outgoing husband Braam speaks Italian and Spanish as well.

Catarina is a charming little girl with wide blue eyes and a ready smile. And as with many Dutch children her age, she’s already learned a fair amount of English from watching cartoons and kid shows on television.

Every bit as important is what she has learned from her parents.

She’s grown up watching them chat with people in a variety of languages. The messages she’s received are that communication is important, language skills are invaluable, being friendly builds relationships, and foreigners aren’t to be avoided.

Early on, Anneke introduced herself to me. When she would stop me on the sidewalk (often with Catarina in tow) to inquire how we were settling in, she was modeling neighborly concern for the newbie on the block.

When she learned that I was taking Dutch lessons, she’d ask how they were going. She offered to practice Dutch with me, and when she saw that I was serious in my intention, she began speaking to me primarily in Dutch.

Each time I saw her, she’d gently correct a mispronounciation or teach me a new word. Nothing overwhelming, but those little encounters helped give me the confidence to try engaging others in conversation.

Because Catarina has learned that I need her to speak Dutch with me, she does so willingly and unguardedly.

She’ll often tell me about some current activity – a tennis lesson or a friend’s birthday party, or she’ll ask how Oli is doing. (I’m telling you, he’s a big hit with the ladies.)

She also will politely ask me to save for her whatever ‘giveaway’ our local Albert Heijn grocery store is offering. (Recently voetbal kaartjes were a particularly big hit.)

What I’ve learned is that I enjoy these encounters precisely because they are low key and relaxed, generally consisting of vocabulary, grammar and phrases I’m familiar with. I’ve attained the same comfort level with Anneke and my other Dutch friend Kim, but I’m also keenly aware of trying to speak at a more adult level on more sophisticated topics with them.

With Catarina it’s just a simple conversation. Nothing more, but nothing less.

I can tell when I’m pronouncing something incorrectly or saying something in the wrong order because Catarina will wrinkle her little brow in confusion until I get to the end of the sentence. Then I’ll literally see the light bulb go on: the wrinkled brow shifts to the raised eyebrows of understanding as her response tumbles out.

If I ask her what a word means, she’ll explain in the simple terms of an 8-year-old. And like her mother, she’s learned to gently correct any egregious mispronounciation and then keep the conversation going.

Often one or two of the neighborhood children will be playing with Catarina, and she never thinks twice of running up and chatting with me. They, too, have learned from her that you have to speak in Dutch to Mevrouw Janssen, she’s a very nice neighbor and she’s learning the language but her Nederlands is getting better all the time.

I know. I’ve heard her say it. In Dutch. And I understood.

What wonderful little gifts these encounters with Catarina are. I treasure them just as I learn from them.



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