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…!



Je l’ai fini!



Finalement, j’ai fini le livre français que je commençais en France.  Oui, c’est un livre pour les ados, et oui, ce n’est pas Camus ou Voltaire. Mais je l’ai lu, je l’ai compris, et il m’a amusé bien. Donc, il est une sucess!

Learning to read. Again.

I started reading at a very young age.  In elementary school, I would go to the library and pick out books that the librarian thought were too difficult for someone my age.  From time to time she would ask me to read the first few paragraphs to prove that I could actually read and comprehend the text.  I was a painfully shy child and being asked to read aloud, even just to the librarian, was difficult.

On at least one occasion, (although it may have happened more frequently) my sister was in the school library at the same time. I’ve never known if she just happened to be there or if she had been asked to go.  But I remember her coming over to me, just as I was about to cry with anger and embarrassment and frustration, and saying, “Katie, just read me a little bit, like you do at home.”  Reading to my big sister was something I could easily do, so I did, and proved to the librarian’s satisfaction that I could handle books meant for older kids.

I thought of this childhood experience yesterday as I stood in a bookstore in Nice, surrounded by French books.  A few of us had made the pilgrimage to FNAC, a sort of Best Buy-meets-Barnes and Noble-meets-Starbucks in the center of the city.  (Although, in the US at least, Barnes and Noble and Starbucks have already met…)  Some people had reading lists provided by one of the instructors, but I was just wandering around, picking up whatever looked interesting.  I spent most of my time in the Young Adult section, as I figured that about matched up with my ability.  Thankfully, no one asked me to read anything aloud, but I did test myself: if I could read the blurb on the back and the first few paragraphs, it was a keeper.

Last night I started reading one of the YA novels I bought.  Miracle of miracles, I could read it!  And I mean really read it, without having to first translate every word into English in my head.  I recognized some idiomatic expressions I had learned, and I could identify le gérondif, something I didn’t know existed as of a few days ago.

I don’t remember the experience of learning to read the first time; of how or when the shapes on the page resolved themselves into words, and those words took on meaning.  But sitting on my couch last night in this little apartment, it happened again.  And this time I was paying attention.  And will remember.

When someone else just says it better…


Pere Lachaise Cemetery, November 2012

“Hearing a foreign language is like seeing a postcard from some other land, even when you are actually in that other land.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes for The Atlantic, covering topics as diverse as hip-hop, Civil War history, gaming, pop culture, politics and, in this beautiful piece, his recent experiences learning French as an adult.

My own “sprawling periods of incomprehension” are set to begin in just a few days – here’s hoping I can bring the same wonder and openness to my language study that he’s brought to his.