When I set out on my Dutch language learning journey, I made sure I took advantage of every opportunity available to me.
- Pairing with a native speaker
- Setting aside three days each week during which my husband and I would only speak Dutch to each other
- Attending focus sessions for speaking and writing
- Taking several courses
But I gotta tell you, sometimes it’s the things you’d least expect that give you the biggest boost when learning another language. For instance, what helped me more than any of those other things was my time spent in an all-women’s vocal group. A Dutch all-women’s vocal group.
It was back in October 2009. I’d been living in the Netherlands all of 11 months, and I probably understood about 10 percent of what happened that first rehearsal. But in a matter of just a few months (we only rehearsed once a week) my Dutch improved dramatically.
And here’s why:
I put myself in a situation where I had to learn the language. Instructions were constantly given at breakneck speed and I was expected to keep up just like everyone else. Though the other members spoke excellent English and weren’t afraid to use it, it would have been ridiculous to expect them to translate everything for my benefit alone. When there’s that unspoken pressure to learn a language, you pick it up… fast!
There were loads of visual cues that made it easy to figure out what was going on. Those first few months, I was in monkey-see-monkey-do mode. Direction would be given and I’d have no clue what it meant. I’d watch to see what the others did and then followed suit. Eventually, my mind put the action together with the words. Not only was I in sync with everyone else but I’d added some new terms to my vocabulary too.
Music is, hands-down, one of the best ways to learn a language. The tunes are catchy and get stuck in your head. You sing them over and over and over (quite often against your will). It’s a great way to learn vocabulary and grammar without feeling like you’re learning vocabulary and grammar. Music also acts as a window into the culture and its people, which can be further motivation to learn the language. And nothing lights a fire under your bum to learn the lyrics than knowing you’ll be performing the song in front of a live audience.
You learn vocab you’re actually likely to use. Thanks to the instruction from Dutch language books and courses, I could talk about the polder model and name all the political parties and describe the myriad ways in which we could improve the environment. But when someone tried to engage me in general chit-chat, I was a sitting duck. Here, however, I was surrounded by like-minded people. They talked about friends and family, hobbies and food, and all the mundane things we’re faced with day after day. I learned slang that no text book in its right mind would teach. I learned nicknames for things and trendier words to replace the outdated ones I’d learned from my textbooks.
We were a team. And team members help each other out. When I truly didn’t understand something, someone was always there to explain or to point me in the right direction. If I was at a loss for words, they filled in the blanks. They corrected my mistakes and fed me the Dutch words when I only knew or could only think of the English equivalents. They were patient with me, helped me out when they could, and constantly made me feel good about my progress.
I learned that I don’t have to be perfect. If I switched to English for a bit – anything from one word to entire conversations – they followed along just fine and totally didn’t mind. They weren’t waiting with bated breath for me to screw up their language and I didn’t become a social pariah when I did. They didn’t care if I spoke vlekkeloos nederlands (perfect Dutch). And boy does that take a lot of the pressure off!
It was fun. When you make learning fun, there’s no limit to how much you can learn and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you pick things up.