Yes, friends, you read that right: I speak a little bit of Dutch.
Last week marked the end of our first Dutch course. We did a 5-week program that met twice a week for 2.5 hours per class. I’m not going to lie: it was a lot. And when you add in a full-time job and a few social activities and just your basic life administration stuff (you know, like managing to eat dinner before class), that doesn’t leave much time for focused language learning. Still, we both passed Level 1, and we’ve gotten a good foundation in what is said to be “the second hardest language in the world”. Oddly, no one seems to know what the first hardest is…
It has been a long time since I attempted to learn something as an absolute beginner. When I started studying French more seriously a few years ago, I had my high-school French and a little Haitian Creole and some intermittent private study to fall back on. My conjugations were bad but there were words and rules rattling around my head – they just needed to be dusted off and re-ordered and put to work.
With Dutch, I was literally starting at zero. Dutch pronunciation is difficult. The “g” makes a phlegmy, throaty sound we don’t have in English. The “ui” combination is said like the “o” in “out”, and those double vowels, in words like “stroopwaffel”, don’t get pronounced the way you think they do. The words are difficult and try as I might, I just couldn’t commit them to memory. It took me weeks to remember the word for please. (If you’re interested, it’s “alstublieft”.) I had to keep reminding myself that I actually LIKE languages and that I’m pretty good at them. My performance in class did not reflect that.
Midway through the course we had a weekend field trip, in which we did a scavenger hunt. Finding answers to questions about the meaning of Dutch expressions forced us to talk to (gasp!) actual Dutch people! And I found that all of the Dutch words I spoke that day I remembered days later. Once I said them out loud, I owned them. They were just, boom, in my head.
It was an important reminder about the different ways we learn, and how I need to diversify the approaches I take to language learning. The brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has been studying French for several years, shared this thought about managing emotional health when it comes to intellectual challenges,
Part of that long-term management—beyond French—is giving myself an opportunity to get better at difficult things. There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it. Everyone should do it every ten years or so.
Well, I guess I was due for that feeling of “sucking at something”. I haven’t yet gotten to the “improving at it” part, but since I’m just at the start of the process of Nederlands leren, I’m hoping that will come, someday.