One thing that is extremely common here in the Netherlands is that many American expats don’t speak Dutch. I’m talking about people who’ve lived here for ten years and can barely string two Dutch words together. What’s up with that? The Dutch people I talk to about this say that they find this annoying, and yet, they understand.
They understand because their language is not widely spoken, and they understand the commitment that goes into learning a new language. This makes sense to me. But they also say that Americans simply aren’t used to learning a new language, and that’s why it would be unreasonable for the Dutch to expect Americans to develop this totally new skill! For those of you who don’t speak Dutch, let me translate that Dutch-English (Dutchlish) for you. They’re saying we’re… now, how do I put this lightly? “Een beetje dom” (a little too dumb for it). For those of you who aren’t familiar with the popularity of “een beetje dom” in the Netherlands, here’s a clip of the infamous time that Queen Maxima of the Netherlands called the King “a bit dumb.” Just like us Americans apparently!
But against all odds, in the past few months that I’ve lived in the Netherlands, my Dutch has gone from a lower (barely) intermediate level to advance in spite of the fact that I work at a company where everyone only speaks English. I use English at work, and I even speak English with my Dutch partner. So how the hell did I manage to pull it off?
The Dutch are quite surprised by this. Okay, I say quite surprised, but they’re actually more amazed than anything and I can’t have one conversation where my Dutch abilities don’t come up. And, you know, my accent isn’t great and I definitely still make a ton of mistakes, but they are nevertheless impressed. Which works well for me— hey, don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. But it is funny to see that happening. I’ve heard comments like, well, in the Netherlands, each of us speaks like 2.4 languages (this is actually the number someone once said to me; she was being awfully specific), so it’s not surprising for Dutch people to speak English. But Americans only speak English.
I would like to take this opportunity to tell every non-American person reading this post that it’s not true that Americans only speak English. Some Americans come from immigrant families, and they do have an additional language they speak at home. We are on the continent of the Americas, with many Spanish-speaking countries not too far away. Often you’ll find that Americans speak “un poco español” (a little Spanish). Not great, but enough to get by. And on top of it, we are required to go through some foreign language classes in school. It’s just that somehow, time and time again, it seems that Americans fall short of their language learning abilities.
Fun fact: I am a linguist by training, and my speciality is language learning. Not learning the languages myself per se, although I do find that fun, but I know what goes into it, what works, what doesn’t, and what people need to do to improve their language skills. And I use this knowledge to help me become conversational in Dutch six months after I moved here.
When I started dating Sara (my Dutch partner), I knew we would move to the Netherlands some day. I visited the country, and I had absolutely loved it. My whole adult life I had wanted to move to Europe, and this was the moment when it became real. As a linguist and as someone who really does love learning about new cultures and new languages, I signed up for my first Dutch class as soon as I could. This was three and a half years ago.
As you can imagine, Dutch isn’t a popular language to study back in the States. The only class option that was available was intermediate Dutch, and when I joined the class, I knew how to say exactly three things “Heyy lekkerding” (Hey, sexy-thaang), “Kom je met me mee naar huis” (Will you go home with me?), and “lekker kontje” (nice ass). I think this says a lot about who I am as a person, and it isn’t looking great for me, is it?
The first year of this intermediate class was fun, but a language learner’s nightmare. Many people I talked to told me that it would hopefully replace language immersion. They weren’t completely wrong about that. I was of course able to learn several new words, and master some grammar rules, but I was spending too much time catching up on the basics. Because, although language immersion works, for adults, there is a right time and place for that and this wasn’t it. The biggest reason for things being so difficult was that I simply lacked the time needed to improve quickly. And that’s one of the reasons why adults take such a long time to learn a new language. We don’t have the time.
Many of us start taking a language course either in person or on a language app in hopes that putting in a few hours a week will be enough. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Back then, I was in a Ph.D. program taking a full load of classes along with teaching and writing papers. This Dutch course was a hobby, and the only time I actually had to give to it were the 3 hours a week I spent in class. If this sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. But you have to remember, you aren’t actively learning throughout this time. Some of the time is spent talking about Dutch culture, on explanations on what we’re learning, and of course, sometimes it’s just hard to pay attention.
I took six Dutch courses at the beginner and intermediate level in this way, and I still wasn’t conversational. I could understand parts of conversations, and I could order at restaurants and go to the store, but I couldn’t do much else. Everyone else who had taken these courses with me were also not very advanced in their skills— in fact, my language skills were probably better than theirs for one important reason. And this is extremely useful to understand when trying to figure out how language learning can work for you.
So, what was the difference?
After my first year of intermediate courses, which were waayyyy too difficult, I started spending about 30 mins a week outside of class to learn more Dutch. I made vocabulary lists, and I would write out sentences in a notebook to practice. Just 30 mins a week, and I did that for about six months, until I had to write my dissertation, which made me absolutely unmotivated to do anything fun. But just making those lists and practicing in this way made a huuuugee difference. I was suddenly not only able to learn more words, but I was also able to retain the words I was learning. By writing out sentences, I was able to practice putting those words together. I accredit most of my language abilities from before I moved to the Netherlands to this practice of 30 mins a week for six months. Some quick math will tell you that that’s less than 15 hours of work. Does that really work? YES!
Language courses are meant to help show you what you need to learn, but you need to do the learning outside of class. I didn’t have much time for the learning, so the classes were a fun hobby, yes. And I did learn some things, but very, very sloooowwwwlly. That is why Americans can spend hours in class, but if they don’t have any way to practice what they’ve learned, they are never going to get better. What’s more, you begin to forget the things you learned before! Europeans have access to more languages in their surroundings. By default, they will hear French, German, Spanish, and yes, a lot of English, around them. They go on holiday to these places from a young age, and very quickly, they can gain some mastery of the language they’re studying.
You also probably know of some people who have gone on study abroad in college. And they say that their language skills hugely improved during that time. Is that strange? It’s not. Your brain is able to absorb the sounds of the language, and some commonly used words and phrases around you. This is not strange. BUT, if you were to start learning a language by taking an intermediate class, it would not have the same result. Speaking from experience, I found that when most words in a sentence are unfamiliar to you, you will ignore that sentence entirely. This will stop you from paying attention and learning new words.
But how is it different when you’re abroad and you don’t speak the language at all? Great question. The answer is simple. When you live somewhere, you also go through the everyday activities where you often say the same thing. You go to the store, you hear things that are often said in the store. You call a taxi, you learn how to call a taxi in that language. On top of that, you get to see many words in places like the pharmacy or the supermarket that you just learn, one at a time. These activities actually replace the learning and practice time you need outside of the classroom if you were to study the language in your home country.
When I moved to the Netherlands, I knew that my barely intermediate Dutch wasn’t going to be good enough. My personal goal was to become fluent, and while many people say that I have basically become fluent in the past few months, I would say that I’m conversational. I was not there yet, and this time, I had a very real deadline. Every day that I wasn’t learning Dutch, was a day when I was less integrated into my environment. So I took an intensive intermediate language course, and this time, spent an additional three hours a week outside of class learning vocabulary. For some time, I was uncomfortable speaking Dutch in places, and in a place like Amsterdam with many tourists, waitstaff or people working in stores would see that I was uncomfortable and immediately switch to English. That had to change. Three months ago, I decided to speak Dutch to any Dutch person I would meet. I would tell them I knew their English was better than my Dutch, but I needed to practice. Before I knew it, the waitstaff weren’t just asking me if I spoke Dutch, they were asking me if I was Dutch.