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.


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…

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…!



Mon Dieu! My French tutor has left me.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: you live in the Netherlands and you have a French tutor? I do. Well…I did. And finding him was one of the first things I did when I arrived here. I invested so much into learning French two years ago that I want to be sure to keep it up. Plus, everyone in Amsterdam speaks at least three languages fluently, which usually leaves me feeling like the dumb, mono-lingual American. Hence, the French tutor.

Alors, my tutor is moving back to France next month to start a PhD program. And I am left, once again, on my own. Back to misusing the subjunctive and failing to remember the proper concordance des temps. This surprise departure of my tutor has literally come on the eve of a trip to Paris…we leave tomorrow for a weekend visit, our first since we moved to Europe. I was hoping one more lesson would get my confidence up, and help me remember all those marvelous little phrases that make social interactions in France – asking for directions, ordering in a restaurant – more pleasant. (Readers from the Institut de Francais…where is Julian when I need him most??)

So I send my apologies in advance to the good, language-proud people of Paris. I’m coming, and I’m speaking French. I’m not going to let myself be embarrassed by my mistakes. I’m not going to be intimidated if you roll your eyes or start to switch to English. I will persist. Because I love your language, and the ferocity-bordering-on-arrogance with which you defend and promote it. You think it’s worth protecting. I think it’s worth learning. Let’s help each other out. À bientôt!



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.

Cinq heures de français

Oui, that’s five hours of French, for my English-only readers.  That was my Friday, and it was great!  Yesterday marked two weeks to the day since the end of my course at the Institut, and while I’ve been reading, watching movies, and doing my grammar exercises, there’s no substitute for speaking French. I was fortunate to find some willing Francophones to spend time chatting with me (and correcting me!).

Victim #1 is a lovely Swiss woman who I met through mutual friends.  I see her and her husband every year at our friends’ 4th of July party, and this year, since I had just returned from France, she offered to meet up for some conversation. We spent a lovely afternoon at the Museum of Fine Arts, talking about the Samurai exhibit, her travels in Asia, my experience in France, and her sweet 3-month old son, who joined us for the afternoon.

(For Boston-area folks, the Highland Street Foundation is providing Free Fun Fridays all summer, with free admission to 6 different museums and cultural centers throughout Massachusetts every week.  Check out the schedule and go!)

After the MFA, it was on to Cambridge, to meet an Iranian-Canadian MIT student who I had found on Conversation Exchange. I recommend checking out the site to find conversation partners near you. You can meet in person or via Skype.  If you’re feeling retro, or just need to work on your writing skills, you can even find a pen-pal and write letters.  It’s a global site, it’s free, and it’s easy to set up a profile, so you’ve got no excuse.

Both of my conversation partners were helpful, patient, and very supportive. My most frequent error (and my fellow Institut-goers will sympathize) was continuing to “vouvoyez” after I should have started to “tutoyer”.  I chalk that up to the Institut’s insistence that we use only the “vous” form. And better to be too formal than to run the risk of insulting someone by being too familiar, right?

There were a few of those deer-in-headlight moments where I had to puzzle out what had been said and respond appropriately, but those moments keep me on my toes and keep my listening skills sharp. Overall, it was great to hear and speak French again, and for a sustained amount of time. Like I said, there’s no substitute for live and spontaneous conversation. And it’s easier to find than you might think, so get out there and keep talking!