My most repeated phrase of the last 18 months since living in the Netherlands, often felt like an apology rather than a statement to indicate my Dutch language skills were not quite up to the mark.
Despite my best intentions, learning a language during a pandemic is not easy. Various levels of lockdown, shops and amenities being closed, visits with other people disallowed – all these factors do not help to immerse oneself into a new culture.
My weekly language classes I had started at my son’s school were cancelled in the first lockdown and never reinstated. My son home-schooled for a large chunk of the last year and this, which changed the priorities at home, with well-being and outside exercise to break the day up becoming the priority, not more learning.
I tried an online class, which was good, and I made progress, but these were only available in the evenings, and after busy days running my business (which is entirely online and with UK clients) I found it hard to take it all in.
Frustrating too were the mouth-masks, or ‘mond-kapjes’ in Dutch. Any attempts at conversing in Dutch with shop-assistants through layers of masks and screens went awry. One trip to the orthodontist to discuss a sensitive matter around health insurance was a complete failure when she could not hear/understand me, and I had to go home and get my husband to telephone instead.
I tried to teach myself. I have text-books, story books, apps, audio-books and podcasts. I’ve tried them all. Teaching yourself isn’t easy. On my own I struggle to structure the learning and with no-one to be accountable to other than myself, I drift.
As I’m just a little over 18 months here, I feel I need a system that will work for me. I decided learning for me must be one on one, with a teacher to meet me at my level, giving me nowhere to hide.
I’ve set something up with family members. I speak to a sister-in-law two evenings a week for half an hour (or mostly she speaks to me). She lives in the US and is happy to get to speak Dutch. She’s great as she speaks slowly so I can follow and make out the words. And I can mostly get the gist of what she’s saying. Anytime there’s a word I don’t know she types it into the chat and I make a note of it. So, my vocabulary of ‘regular’ conversational words is growing. I’ve been floundering in putting sentences together in response, so I’ve asked another sister-in-law, trained as a primary school teacher, to help me out with some more structured sessions. So now two mornings a week, at 9am, we work through basic grammar.
From my arrival here to now I feel like I have forgotten more than I have learnt. I feel like I’m going round and round and not moving forwards. But learning a language is one of those things where there is no quick fix. There is no learning ‘hack’ that can take the place of hours of study and practice. Last year I read a lot of books about learning, how the brain takes in information, sorts it and recalls it. My ‘day-job’ for many years has been corporate learning & development. Knowing how learning works does not necessarily make learning easier. But I am aware that I will need structure and a system to learn, and then lots of repetition, and practice at recall. I’m also aware of the importance of ‘mindset’. Thinking that I can’t do it, being afraid to try, not wanting to look stupid and make mistakes – these are all self-limiting beliefs. I am fortunate enough to have people around me where I feel safe enough to try out my learning. It may just take me a little longer.
And in the meantime, I’ll have to keep saying, ‘Sorry, I’m English’.