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Learning Dutch – getting started

New country, new language. Here we go…

Starting off

My starting position is English, plus 3 years of German, 7 years of French, and 4 years of Latin at school, with a decade or so of learning sanskrit/pali terms through Buddhism. And a keen interest in languages!

You might think that the most important thing that all this gives me is grammar, a technical understanding of language. But that’s the second-most important thing. The most important thing this gives me is flexibility.

Words in some languages can’t be directly translated into other languages – you have to be flexible in understanding meanings.

The word order is different in some languages compared with other languages – you need flexibility in language structure.

Letters in one language are pronounced differently in another. You need flexibility in matching sounds and letters. (English is sometimes an advantage, since there are an interminable number of irregular pronunciations. And don”t get me started on regional accents!)

Sounds in some languages don’t even exist in others. You need flexibility to expand the range of sounds you make.

Some images just don”t translate. In French, being a little fish is a good, cute thing. In English, it”s not. Result? You need flexibility in metaphor and cultural context.

So, with a smattering of tongues and some linguistic flexibility, off we go…

Audio course
Before leaving England for the Netherlands, I got hold of a copy of Michel Thomas” Dutch course – foundation and advanced. The audio takes you through the basic structure of Dutch and some vocabulary. With this course, you know how to say sentences, put verbs into the I/you/he/we/they forms, use helping verbs (I want to…, I have to…, I must…, I shall…, I can…) and ask questions. You also learn the word orders for certain words (because, when, how, etc.). There are a couple of past tenses too.

The audio encourages you to think things through and to create sentences for yourself. This is a good mental workout, so you need to allow for short learning intervals over at least a couple of weeks- whatever suits your style – rather than dedicate a single weekend to it.

While audio suits a lot of people, I’m highly visual so I”m distracted easily when listening to things. This means I end up not following and then rewinding. Argh, frustrating! To keep myself on track, I knit. Knitting needs focused visual and tactile attention, whilst leaving your audio channels free for input. You might find that sketching, doodling, or a colouring-in book works well.

After the course, I felt great that I’d completed it and could make complicated sentences. Hitting the real world was a different story. The course gives you a sentence or question in English and asks “How do you say …. ?” You already have a sentence provided and it’s your job to translate. Unfortunately, in the real Dutch world you don’t get given sentences to translate. You have to create them yourself. And this is where I came unstuck. Creating your own sentences requires a certain amount of gusto, an energetic impulse, and relying on the Michel Thomas “how do you say…?” approach doesn’t allow for any practice in creating your own sentences.

Secondly, the course gives great structure, but not a rich vocabulary. At only 12 hours, this is understandable, but frustrating. You have lots of nice structures: “I must wait two hours, because she is coming here this afternoon” (yes, this *is* complicated to put into Dutch if you have a mostly-English mind!) but few words to put into them.

Finally, reading the free newspapers became easier, because I had a little more vocab, and a little more structure. But it was nowhere near enough for operational purposes.

So while I’d recommend the whole audio course (both foundation and “advanced”) as a foundational step to become familiar with pronunciation, some vocab, and some structure, be aware that you’ll need a lot more than this to really get by in Dutch conversation.

Book study
The local bibliotheek in Den Haag has a rich section of books and audio courses for Dutch as a second language. I hauled out the foundational course that looked most interesting to me: Dutch for self study by Prisma.

In chapter 1, I noticed immediately that without the prior knowledge from the Michel Thomas course, I wouldn’t have understood the verbs or the sentence structure. I was glad to have that higher starting point, but saw that for a complete newbie this book would be off-putting from the first chapter.

The book has two CDs of audios and transcripts of the dialogues in the text. This was great for extra listening practice. But the audios were so fast! Even though I”d already been through an audio course and got my ear in to the Dutch sounds, I found these audios challenging. And these would be more off-putting for newbies – the target audience for the book – than I found them.

In the course of 17 chapters, the book covers various topics: numbers, alphabet, time, asking and giving directions, plus various scenarios. These were great sources of information about general etiquette – for example the way of introducing yourself over the phone is “Met Sue” if you’re called Sue, and you say it almost immediately – perhaps after “hallo” but certainly before going further in the conversation.

There’s the usual mixture of audio, reading and writing exercises. As a self-study course, there’s no space for a speaking component other than exercises to “Listen and repeat”. I found the writing exercises fairly mundane but useful. These were all of the fill-the-gap variety, with new vocabulary repeated a couple of times in each chapter. Later on the different ways of writing verbs were covered, and changing spellings, so the writing exercises also included a requirement to change the form of the word. This was useful practice, with answers at the back of the book to check progress.

I found the course helpful for increasing my grammar and vocab, and for its introductions to a few aspects of Dutch etiquette. After the Michel Thomas course, I valued the opportunity to practice writing Dutch as this helps it to sink in via different channels (visual and kinaesthetic). On the downside, I would find it hard to recommend this course as a first port of call for learning Dutch – it starts at too high a level and doesn’t explain certain structures until too late.

Free lessons
Living in the Netherlands, there are plenty of opportunities for free lessons. Trams and trains are a good source of free reading material – the Metro and Sp!ts free newspapers. These contain the usual lightweight news stories, some with pictures which can help with understanding. There’s also the advantage of just reading the words and getting familiar with the structures and patterns through exposure to them. Dutch is largely phonetic, so once you know how the letters link to the sounds, you can have a good guess at how to pronounce stuff. So reading also helps with your listening, if you can imagine the words being said in your head, or reading out loud to yourself.

Setting up home means you have to talk to a lot of people. Some officials speak English, some don’t, and some can’t because they have to speak in Dutch for reasons of the job. Spelling out your surname over the phone gives you plenty of opportunities to practice a useful section of the alphabet. Viewing houses and apartments you pick up vocabulary for the rooms, household equipment, contracts, and so forth. A couple of useful questions are “wat betekent het/dat?” and “wat zegt u?” – what does it/that mean? and what did you say?

Of course, a big motivation for learning the language is to connect with people – and people can help with the process too. I used Conversation Exchange to find willing local Dutch people who would be happy to meet up over a coffee and speak some Dutch in return for speaking English too. This has been great fun – learning about politics (the European elections were on when I first started this), culture, history – and making friends in the process. Bear in mind that it’s a select few who know their own language from a foreigner’s perspective – what seems second nature to a Dutch person is completely topsy-turvy to a Brit. So be patient in this.

SchoolTV is also a fun resource. I watched a few episodes of Huisje Boomje Beestje and soaked up words and ways of saying things, the melody of the language, useful little words meaning “great!” and “what a shame” – the kinds of words that get you beyond “ja”, “goed” and “nee” with your opinions and feelings about things. Watching TV also got me more accustomed to the sounds in Dutch, some of which don’t occur in English. It’s a process of tuning your ears in to a different type of listening. And kids TV is fun. Spend 15 minutes watching an episode, soak in a few new words, enjoy some kid-friendly silliness, and it’s really not a bad way to get to know the language and some of the culture too.

About three months in, I stalled. I’d found a higher-level language course book in the library but I didn’t click with it. It sat for three, then six weeks on my shelf, mostly unread (and resented!). I did a self-test online and came out round A2 in the European standard levels. But in conversation, in reading and listening, I felt uncomfortable. I was missing the easy, everyday connections with people. Random mini-conversations with people at tram stops, or in the shops. Not able to fully join in with conversations – either to follow them completely, or to chip in with something. Disconnected. And Google Translate is still too often my friend.

I’ve come a long way, and I’m pleased with how far I’ve come, how much I can now understand. There’s more to be done, but how?

What are your tips for learning languages?

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