Dutch lessons, take 2

Hoi allemaal!

Yes, that’s right, more than a year after my first attempt at Dutch, I am back in the classroom. Today was day 2 of a five-day intensive program, with classes from 9am-4pm. As tiring as it is, I think it’s a better format for me than the twice-a-week evening classes we tried last year. It also helps that I’m not working, so I can focus all of my attention on the class and the homework. (Except, of course, for small breaks like this…!)

I’ve written several times before about Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of my favorite writers, and his beautiful, true reflections on the difficulty of learning another language. He and I have been pursuing our adult study of French for about the same amount of time, and I have seen my own experiences mirrored in his. Progress, then setbacks. Mistakes, then breakthroughs. The joy of having a real conversation, and thus a deeper interaction, in another language. Never feeling quite at home, but getting more comfortable.

French, however, was easier in comparison, since I at least had some old, cob-webby memories of vocabulary and grammar from my high school days. But with Dutch, I have no frame of reference, nothing I can dust off. Everything is new, and much of it is difficult. Being in a level 2 class means that the other students have various experience with and exposure to the language. Those with Dutch partners or spouses have an extra advantage. Ditto the South African student who speaks some Afrikaans. Sometimes I feel like the slowest person in the class, struggling to remember a simple word or the correct sentence structure.

In those moments, I remind myself, again, of one of Ta-Nehisi’s many truths:

“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.”

The class ends on Friday and then it’s back to work on Monday, ready or not, where I will be held to account by many Dutch coworkers who are anxious to judge my progress (and correct my mistakes). Here’s hoping I can show some improvement by then…!


Mother tongue

I live in a place where I don’t speak the language, at least not beyond the basics. I live comfortably and easily here because almost everyone speaks English. Still, as the months pass, I’m increasingly aware of my deficiencies in Dutch. The introductory class we took back in April is a distant memory, so I decided that it was time to get back into some kind of language study. A free 3-week on-line class seemed like the right way to ease back into things. And then, in the middle of week two, I also resumed weekly French lessons with a tutor, after a break of about 8 months. Two foreign languages. Same time.

I had originally stopped my French lessons when I started the Dutch class, convinced that if I attempted to study two languages simultaneously, my head would explode. This time around, I had a different theory. I thought that learning two languages night somehow crack wide open the language center in my brain, and rules and grammar and structure would suddenly all make sense. In short, I hoped that my head would explode.


I am fascinated by bilingual or multilingual people. I always want to know when and why people code-switch, or what language they use at home, or what language they dream in. In my eyes, you polyglots basically have super powers. (You’re smarter than the rest of us! You could delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease!)

In reality, I know that language acquisition is actually something that mere mortals can do. It’s likely that my French will never be fluent or un-accented, since I’ve acquired it as an adult. But it can be good. It can certainly be better, if I’m willing to put in the work.

And the other truth is that we’re all multilingual, even within the confines of our mother tongue.

If you speak English, if you have ever been to a ballet or seen an alligator. If you’ve ever talked about your angst or ennui, played a guitar, smoked marijuana, sipped champagne on a yacht or studied algebra in the boondocks, you have already been speaking the language of the other.

-Ana Menéndez, “Are We Different People in Different Languages?”

My current language-learning hero is writer Lydia Davis. While I have yet to read her work, I read an interview in which she discusses both the reasoning and the process of teaching herself Norwegian. Davis says:

“It all started with a resolution. After my books started coming out in various countries, I made a decision: Any language or culture that translates my work, I want to repay by translating something from that language into English, no matter how small. It might end up being just one poem or one story, but I would always translate something in return.”

Imagine: to invest the time and labor of teaching oneself another language – and doing so well enough to make a faithful translation –  as a way to return the gift of your own translator. The curiosity, respect, and playfulness that Davis brings to her learning is inspiring. She is a language detective, a decoder. And she is a reminder to me of the rich rewards that come from study and exploration of a language not (yet) our own.

The Ballad of the Keukenrolhouder


This is the story of a paper towel holder. Or, as it’s known here in the Netherlands, a keukenrolhouder (literally, a “kitchen towel holder”). We have spent the past three months searching for this simple, humble item. We hit up every home goods or cooking store we’ve stumbled across, not just in Amsterdam but in Haarlem, Maastricht, and Utrecht. We scoured every corner of IKEA: nothing. We even considered trying to make one ourselves. And all that time, our sad, untethered roll of paper towels skitted and slid across our counter-top, sometimes falling over, or messily unrolling itself.

Then, finally, we discovered bol.com, the local equivalent of Amazon. And even though the site is only in Dutch or Belgian, we managed to search, locate, order, and arrange shipment of the keukenrolhouder! It arrived today. I am disproportionately happy about the appearance of this item in my kitchen.

It hasn’t been too hard to function here without a working knowledge of Dutch. I’m sure that if we were living in France, for example, our days would be filled with frustrating miscommunications and embarrassing mistakes. And I actually DO have a working knowledge of French. In general, the level of English spoken in Amsterdam is so high that we’re able to get whatever we need. Coupled with very helpful colleagues, who I often ask to translate tax bills or internet contracts, we more than get by.

But every once in a while, maybe just to keep us grounded, we come up against a minor challenge like the keukenrolhouder, and we need to be a little more creative, a little more resourceful, in order to get what we need. It’s hardly a life-or-death matter, I know, but there’s satisfaction to be found even in the little victories. And every time I neatly tear a paper towel off of the now-stationary roll, I will think of our long – but ultimately successful – quest, and know that we’ll be ready for the next challenge…