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THIS is Learning a Language

[This post is for Patti in Leiden, and all the other nice folks I met last weekend at the I Am Not A Tourist International Fair in Amsterdam. She and her husband are new to The Netherlands. Welkom!]

Two Women Sitting on a Park Bench Talking on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

Lord knows my fellow Adventurers know that I’ve been trying to learn Dutch. I certainly have been harping on it enough.

From the moment I arrived here almost two and a half years ago, I have been doing my best to learn as much of the language as possible.

I took an intensive course when I first arrived, and a shorter follow-up course a few months later. That gave me a good base, and I’ve been building on it ever since. It is slow-going at times, but I keep plugging away.

I listen to Dutch radio while driving in my car. Whenever I hear a new word or want to know how to say a phrase that I use often in English, I look it up on Google Translate or Babble Fish or even in a – gasp! – Dutch-English dictionary. (You know, the old-fashioned kind that isn’t online. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?)

I’ll pick up one of the local Dutch newspapers and plow through a few paragraphs, sometimes an article, trying to glean as much information as I can. (Pictures do help.) Sometimes I’ll follow the Dutch subtitles if I’m watching a television show in English.

I’ve sought out Dutch friends who encourage me and are willing to speak with me at my lesser level. I live in a Dutch neighborhood where I make an effort to speak with my neighbors in their own langage. Okay, that probably is overstating it a bit. I should have said that I make an effort to exchange social pleasantries and as much conversational back and forth as I can muster before sputtering to a stop.

Thank heavens they are a patient lot. They truly are.

Over time, I’ve gotten better. Not great, just better.

I’ve definitely lowered my expectations over the years. When I first learned that we would be moving here, I vowed to myself that I would become fluent. Once I hit the ground and had some time and experience under my belt, I realized that I’d do well to become proficient.

Nowadays I’ll settle for moving from reasonably intermediate to solidly intermediate, with a side order of being able to converse longer with people talking a whole lot faster than I can right now.

I’ve gotten to the point that I can get around and function in most situations. I know which track my train is on, and that’s it’s running late. I understand that traffic on the A12 is backed up 3 kilometers because of an accident.

I get that the plumber will be coming Tuesday after four pm. I can make (most) appointments, seek simple directions, place an order in a restaurant, inquire about whether the store carries a particular item.

I can describe. Perhaps my descriptions include words at the pre-teen level, but you can get my drift. I ask questions. Lots of them.

Some days I fail spectacularly. (You may recall my giving the neighbors a bit of a shock with my mispronounciation in Home Work.) Others are just, well, meh. Most days I muddle through.

And every now and then, the stars align and the heavens open and I receive a sign that I’m doing something right.

This week I’ve had two (two!) such signs. Yesterday I took an oral survey at my Albert Heijn.

I know, I know. You’re thinking that I spend far too much time and get far too much of my social stimulation there. Right on both counts.

Granted, the survey was only 8 simple questions, and I was able to read along as the nice young man asked me the questions. I did have to ask him what a few words were. And it really helped having prior experience taking surveys because you get the hang of the types of questions being asked. But we had to do it all in Dutch. Truly mediocre Dutch on my part, but Nederlands nonetheless. Oh, and some pantomime thrown in for good measure.

The second ‘win’ of the week was the other day when Husband told me he’d just seen our next-door-neighbor; it seems the neighbor had complimented me on how well my Dutch was going, that my accent was very good. I started laughing, and had to tell Husband the truth.

The previous day our neighbor had been standing in front of our house talking on the phone. He was experiencing a bad connection, and called out to me as I approached. I had accepted a package of his from the delivery man, so I assumed he was stopping by to retrieve it. I greeted him and told him I had the package for him and would go and get it.

Just as he started to respond, his phone rang. He rapidly finished his sentence to me, apologized and turned to take the call. I thought he had said something like ‘yes I did come to pick up the package, I appreciate that you took it in for me’. I unlocked my door and stepped into our front hallway to grab the package, but it was gone. It was then that I realized he had actually said something along the lines of ‘yes and I’ve already picked up the package from your husband’.

See? I don’t speak very good Dutch. Not even when I’m pulling as many visual cues from the situation as possible. But what little I can understand and speak, I try to do so with a decent Dutch accent. That’s always a useful lesson to remember: if you can’t manage substance, at least go for style.

I’ll admit it. It’s hard. Much more difficult than I’d expected. It takes a lot more time and way more effort than I’d like.

May I just say, learning a language is a b!t&h.

Well, at least when you’re over forty thirty twenty.

Okay, the verdict is out as to exactly when it gets harder to learn a new language. But there does seem to be some consensus that the peak years in terms of speed and ease for learning to speak a new language is infancy to age seven. I haven’t seen those digits in, ummm, well, let’s just say a few years. Thank goodness English Café goes on to make the case for picking up a language at any age.

So why do I do it?

Why do I keep putting myself out there, subjecting myself to the long pauses, quizzical looks, odd stares and occasional outright laughter?

Everybody has their reasons as to why they may or may not attempt to learn the local language, or to what extent they are willing or able to go in that endeavor . Some are deeply personal, some are situational but all are unique to the individual.

This isn’t about judgment: thou shalt do this or that. Husband has learned a smattering of Dutch words and even took a beginner’s course at his workplace, but the truth is that he isn’t able to give it the time or effort required to improve considerably.

I’m not exactly swimming in free time either. But given that my schedule is more flexible and much of the work I do puts me on the front lines of interfacing with Dutch people on a daily basis, it benefits me to learn as much as my over-twenty brain can soak up and retain.

It’s the last part that’s the hardest part. With all the Dutch I’ve learned, I should be highly proficient. With all the Dutch I’ve retained? Eh, not so much.

For me there are a few simple reasons why I keep trying.

First, I don’t want to be the stereotypical expat living in a foreign country who, for whatever reasons, doesn’t pick up the local language.

It’s bad enough that I happen to have a common Dutch last name; not only do many people automatically assume I speak the language, but they also think they can slam the throttle all the way up to warp speed when they speak to me.

I just really don’t want to be ‘the American woman with the Dutch name down the street who can’t speak any Dutch’. It’s just not me. ‘The American woman with the Dutch name down the street who speaks a fair bit of Dutch’? I’ll take it.

Since I’ll admit to being in the aforementioned ‘over-twenty’ group, the second reason is that persevering in learning Dutch is great brain food. Don’t believe me? You might want to check out this recent article in The Guardian about the benefits of being bilingual: boost brain power, help with prioritization and multi-tasking, even possibly delay Alzheimer’s.

Oh, and there is one more reason I keep plugging away.

The final reason? Because this is what it takes.

My two little ‘victories’ I savored this week reminded me of that. They may not have been important or impressive, and they certainly weren’t pretty. Yet I couldn’t have done them a year ago. And they represent the ins-and-outs of everyday life.

This is what it takes.

Practice.

Day in and day out.

Learning words and phrases and verb conjugations and tenses. In my case it’s learning them over and over and over again and STILL having to ask ‘what is the word for…?’

But at least I now can ask in Dutch.

Image credit: dtcreations at morgueFile.com

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