Learning to speak Dutch was possibly one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve ever put myself through. It was a long, exasperating journey in which improvements felt very slow. But after around 2 years, when progress was finally visible, my self-confidence sky-rocketed in different areas of my life. My love story with the Dutch language has many layers. It started with a strong urge to belong.
The Dutch don’t make it easy for a foreigner to learn their language. They perceive it as a difficult one, especially Amsterdammers, who, living in a city where everyone is fluent in English, don’t see why anyone would bother to even try. Truth is, Amsterdam is a magnet for highly skilled expats, who work high-demanding, high-paying jobs, and have very little incentive to develop an interest in Dutch. People will reply back in English, anyway.
It happened to me countless times: addressing a person in Dutch and have them answer me in English, regardless of how correct my sentence was. Usually, when I insist that I want to speak Dutch it takes them a few seconds to reprogram and switch back to their native tongue, but eventually they do. I had instances, however, where I spoke Dutch to a Dutch person who kept replying back in English regardless, an absurd situation that culminates with an inflamed “Maar waaroom ga je door in het Engels?!” that makes them apologize profusely, and excuse themselves with how English is the default for them when interacting with internationals at school/work. Perhaps this helps explain the “oohs” and “aahs” when I tell fellow internationals that I’m Portuguese but fluent in Dutch.
“Oh wow. How did you do it?”
“I wish I spoke half the Dutch you do”
“Oh, I think I’ll never be able to learn it”
But you can, friends; you can. It’ll require commitment though. For more than a year learning this language was my main focus. I had a day-time job and I followed an evening Dutch course. I barely did anything else: I was not writing, I was not acting (I have a background in Theater and Writing.) I did not do much in terms of sports / movement either. Professionally I was feeling lost, so I was eager to be more settled. Local culture was fascinating to me, and I wanted to be a part of it on a deeper level. Speak people’s language and you’ll get close to them, I thought. And it proved right. I also hoped that learning Dutch would help me find my path again. And, indirectly, it did.
Looking back, I think my journey with the Dutch language gave me the opportunity to practice resilience. I was forced to manage both your motivation and my tolerance to frustration. Paradoxically, the higher your level of education, the trickier this can be (people who are used to be good at things tend to find it hard to go back to being beginners.) Learning a language from scratch puts you in a place of vulnerability. Being able to keep at it and move forward gave me the confidence to believe that if I had been successful once, perhaps I’d be capable to make other things happen too. Like this blog, for instance.
In a nutshell, language learning is repetition – repetition – repetition. Apart from understanding how grammar works, it is that unimaginative. So your focus should be in creating situations in which you can practice DAILY. Find ways to immerse yourself in Dutch.
This is the first of a series of highly requested blogposts on this topic. I hope it can give up the extra incentive to push through in your language learning journeys. Feel free to leave your two cents in the comments down below.
Don’t give up people – you got this!
Find the second part of this saga here.