Zaanse Schans During Tulips Season

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75 x 115 cm acrylic on canvas painting


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Learning a new language in 1 year – From nothing to fluent

I started learning Dutch a year ago and I never looked at being able to speak fluently, after only 12 months, as a big accomplishment, but after talking to more and more people about my experience with learning a new language, I came to realize it’s actually quite a big deal.

Every time I meet a new Dutch person and tell them: ‘I only started with Dutch about a year ago’ they are quite shocked and complement me on my language skills. Even better is when people can’t actually tell if I’m Dutch or not!

Their reactions inspired me to inspire other people who are struggling with learning a new language, by sharing all the things I did in the past year, which make me come this far. According to everyone, a year it’s quite a short time for someone to reach the level when they actually read books in Dutch, interact with other people and be able to keep up with conversations or explanations in Dutch.

How did I do it? By pushing myself with every step of the way. I went, every few days, for a year, from think I can do it, to crying, to feeling hopeless, to feeling down, to feeling like quitting, to starting to take joy in the little steps I took, until all paid off and I stated seeing more visible progress. And no, it doesn’t happen overnight, but you do get there eventually, if you keep at it.

In the beginning I started home, alone, with books from the internet or from the library. I learned a few basic words, not always with the right pronunciation but enough to get a beginner though the day. After not having much interaction with Dutch people, I thought about finding a way to practice a bit with locals, so at least I can know how Dutch is supposed to sound like. After doing a bit of research, I ended up at the library, for a language cafe, where other people like me, struggling with Dutch, gather, and helped by Dutch volunteers, practice the language once per week.

In the first 3 weeks I felt completely embarrassed with myself. I was good at reading in Dutch, because the books kept me company, but I couldn’t say any word at all. Being a perfectionist, I also didn’t wanted to sound like an idiot by saying bad things, so I decided to just go through it, by listening to others talk, and say as little as possible.

After figuring out which type of questions you usually get when meeting a new person, I went home and wrote a silly little list, which sounded a bit like: ‘Hello, my name is … and I come from … and I am here for … long, and I studied this …  and my job used to be this …  and I want to stay in the Netherlands and do this …‘. I rehearsed it I don’t know how many times, before I actually remembered all the words, and when I decided I was good enough, I started talking for the first time, after around the 3rd meeting.

After a few more meetings, I caught up on the fact that some of the words are used in other contexts as well, so I managed to learn more words, by always discussing about the same things, like my house, my dream job, my friends, my travels, my hobbies. Making quick progress, I started looking into other options as well, which included studying a bit of grammar at home, and learning more vocabulary by practicing the few phrases I could speak, with as many other students as possible.

Now when it comes to practicing outside the language cafe, it was pretty much an uphill battle. Learning Dutch, in an environment where everyone speaks perfect English it’s quite hard if not close to impossible in the beginning. When you try to practice the only few words you know, and it sounds horrible, people simply switch to English, and you take it, because it’s the easier way out of it, especially when you really need to get your message across, like in a store.

The worse for me is the phrase: ‘Sorry, wat?’. These words brought me down a few times, especially when I practiced in my head all the way to the store/restaurant/cafe and to me it sounded so good, and when I finally opened my mouth they replied with those magic words, which used to erase Dutch from my brain. Sure, it’s not ideal, and it’s annoying because you can’t just get your message across, even if in your head it sounds perfect, but I learned in time to repeat once again, in Dutch, even if they reply in English, and if that also doesn’t do the trick, simply ask them to speak Dutch or say I don’t speak English, which forces them to speak Dutch to you 🙂 Not nice but effective for the sake of practicing.

Besides practicing with people, I took a challenge to read a few children’s books. Now this was no easy tasks, because what I was doing was called anything else but reading. It was more like translating every second word and writing it down, in the hope that it will actually stick. They rarely did, but it did expose me to a large range of vocabulary, which I couldn’t get access to in other way.

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Reading children’s books, spending time around Dutch people by doing volunteer work in the area, just to listen to them speaking, watching cartoons in Dutch and going to the language cafe, did the trick, but not at a level at which I could say: ‘I will achieve this eventually’.

Even if I still had all the doubts in the world, I went to the language practice once a week or twice per week, for a few months and I eventually grew out of it, because I was making quicker progress than others. This is how I ended up being referred to a teacher in the area. I didn’t actually go to classes at first, but I did go for walks and talks, for playing games in Dutch with other students, for cooking while following a recipe in Dutch, for learning a new sport while listening to instructions in Dutch, for watching movies in Dutch, for doing shopping at a store, and simply getting myself exposed to the language, in a funny, happy, cheerful way, which made words stick to me, without them actually being shoved in my brain by force.

After a few months, I gave it a go, with reading my first book for young adults, in Dutch. And … success! I managed to read a book of over 100 pages, not understanding everything, but enough for me to follow the story.

After a while, I got help from my lovely teacher (which became also one of my closest friends) also with grammar and correcting my ‘learned from books’ pronunciation, which was totally off, regarding some sounds, which I still find difficult in Dutch up to today.

I went for my first class at a school, just to fix some grammar problems, when I was already at level B1. I was completely shocked that I managed to achieve it, without actually going to school, like most people do.

My first big accomplishment was to actually go to fix my glasses, which I dropped while reading a book in Dutch, of course. I was shocked to be able to talk to an optician only in Dutch, for the first time ever. I left home saying that I can do it, and I did do it! And it did work, and I did got my own glasses back, with the proper repairs being done. Silly accomplishment, but enough to get me through the down moments.

Not that long ago, I got to an amazing level, in which I managed to make one of my dreams come true. It was SO hard for me to start alone and fight with my quitting instinct, so I wanted, once my Dutch gets better, to help others as well, which go though the same battles I did. Because I know how hard it is, I wanted to give something back, to thank the amazing persons who helped me so much in the beginning. So I started assisting other students from lower levels than myself, and I was amazed to be ale to help them with their vocabulary issues and to guide them through a simple conversation.

Besides helping them, I saw a lot of unhealthy attitudes towards learning a new language. Some of them include: ‘I don’t want to go there because It’s frustrating to listen to something I don’t understand’, ‘It’s annoying to spend time with his/her family because they try to teach me stuff in Dutch and it’s overwhelming’, ‘ I don’t understand anything anyway, so why would I try to read or listen to this?’ and so on.

All I can say it’s: exposure DOES work. You can’t see it at first, but simply listening to stuff or reading stuff in the language you want to learn, even if you don’t understand them, does some good. Your brain hears, even if you don’t. Your brain understand, even if you don’t. Look at it as at a toddler learning to speak for the first time. They don’t get what you say at all. They just listen and listen and one day they start associating small words like ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ to persons, until whole phrases make sense and speaking becomes possible.

Of course, learning a language later in life, is different, but we need about the same amount of time to get our brains and ears used to the new sounds and accents. It comes in time, but not without effort.

If you were hoping to read about a shortcut of some sort, or to hear that it was so easy, I’m very sorry to disappoint. It’s was very very hard and it still is. You have to constantly, on a daily basis, practice, expose yourself to the language, and try to stick to speaking the language. If you can practice in a way which makes it fun, always choose fun over boring school. Fun makes your brain learn while you focus on the pleasant aspects. Like that, you learn without realizing it.

A year later, I have a few friends I only speak in Dutch to, I talk to neighbors in Dutch, I meet people on the street and I can understand small talk! For me simply these, are a huge accomplishment. Do I write all perfectly and make no mistakes? Of course I don’t. I will stick to making mistakes most likely for the longest time, but lately I started working on level C1, and I am improving my grammar one baby step at a time. It will take a few more years to get it where I want to, but it’s getting there and I’m proud of it!

I hope my story inspired you to push forward every time you want to quit. It all comes from your own mindset. You have to turn the ‘I can’t do this’, into ‘I CAN do this but it will take me a while’. Once you understand that it will take a while, you stop being so hard on yourself, and you give yourself the time you need in order to get there.