Lifelong language learning

We breathe in our first language and swim in our second.

-Adam Gopnik

About 25% of non-Hispanic American adults speak a language other than English well enough to have a conversation. The figures here in the Netherlands tell a very different story: 90-93% of Dutch people speak English, 71% speak German, and 25% are conversant in French. Do the math, and you’ll realize that proficiency in a 2nd and 3rd language is as Dutch as bicycles or bitterballen. It is a reflection of the size of the country (small), its location (surrounded by Germany and Belgium), and its history (global commerce). While I can’t comment on the German skills of Dutch people, I can say that their English is quite good, something that many attribute to television. In neighboring European countries, English-language programs are dubbed in the local language. Here, TV and films have Dutch ondertitels, which means that people hear a lot of English, and that the English spoken by many Dutchies is peppered with British or American slang.

If you grow up in the U.S., a second language is an academic exercise, not a necessity. Many students stumble through high-school level French or Spanish, learning just enough to pass the required test, never really understanding the use or benefit of a second language. In contrast to the modern English spoken by the Dutch, the French I learned in school always seemed from another era: formal, stuffy, a bit archaic. The things we really needed to know – the idioms and everyday expressions that give real-world confidence – were never taught.

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Language apps only teach the most useful phrases, right?

(That said, I will never forget that during my first visit to Paris I was approached by a woman on the street who asked, “Où est la bibliothèque?” It was a text-book question, pulled from one of the endless, useless dialogues we practiced in class, right up there with, “Est-ce que vous voulez jouer au tennis avec moi?” I swear I looked around for my French teacher Madame Clines…it had to be a joke, right? Never in my life have I been so prepared to answer a question.)

For me, language learning has become a life-long pursuit. I’ve shared a lot about my experiences learning French, including the immersion program that I did several years ago. French remains both my favorite language and a constant challenge. I don’t do as much as I should to keep it up. I progress and forget, I have periods of more intense practice and study, and then I’ll go weeks or months without using it at all.

Then there’s Dutch. To be honest, I’m embarrassed that my Dutch is as poor as it is. We don’t plan to stay here forever, and we don’t technically need to speak Dutch, especially in Amsterdam. But after 2 years, I feel like I should know more, or at least try harder. My comprehension has improved a lot, in part because my co-workers often just speak Dutch in front of me. And I know enough to get by. I can introduce myself and read a menu and order a drink and probably ask for directions. But as with my early French lessons, I often feel that the little Dutch I do know is formal and not very useful. It’s the practical, every-day things I miss. Those small expressions and pleasantries that act as social and conversational lubricant. Maybe with a few of those in my pocket I’d be more likely to chat with a neighbor in Dutch, or finally agree to “Nederlands vrijdag” in the office.

In the meantime, at least I’m prepared if anyone in Amsterdam ever asks me about grandparents and farm animals…

Looking back on Sicily

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The view from Erice’s medieval fortress.

It’s been about a month since our long weekend trip to Sicily. I’ve started to post about it a few times, never with much enthusiasm. We didn’t love Sicily, to be honest, and it’s been hard to write about it without feeling like I’m being too hard on it, somehow. It’s not as if anything went wrong. We survived our first experience of renting a car (driving in Italy is serious business), had nice weather and some good meals. From Palermo, we drove to Trapani and made our way to Erice, where we toured a medieval fortress and savored the views earned by the sometimes-harrowing route up the mountain.

Sometimes I wonder if we’ve been spoiled by the travel experiences we’ve had since we’ve been in Amsterdam. We’ve eaten meals in Tuscany that we’re still talking about two years later, had conversations with 7th-generation winemakers in the Beaujolais region of France, and made friends in Berlin over beer and curry wurst. So when we travel, the bar is a bit high…we’re expecting a magical moment or two, or a great story to look back on.

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The Cathedral in Palermo

 

On the surface, Sicily didn’t provide those moments. Everything was…fine. But “fine”  doesn’t, at first glance, make for much to write about. In the weeks since our trip, I’ve been thinking more about our experience, trying to be more balanced about my impressions. But the truth is that not every place is going to “wow” you, right? Maybe due to weather or language or food or expectations, you connect with some places more than others. It’s not entirely fair, but that’s the reality of travel. I shouldn’t be too hard on Sicily, or on myself.

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Trapani’s coastline

Looking back, we did, actually, have one memorable moment. (Most of the other good memories involve cannoli.) Mid-February is not high season for tourists in Erice, and at times we seemed to have the little town to ourselves. Walking down a side street, we stopped and stood still for a moment and just listened.  Complete silence. Not a dog barking, or a car horn, or a human voice. Just silence, and a little wind. Magic.