January 18, 2011

Dutch for Beginners

I just got back from Day 2 of my Dutch exams.  I have a total of three exams this week, and it completes the first level of Dutch at the Instituut voor Levende Talen (ILT) on campus.  So far, I have to say I have found them (the exams) to be quite challenging and much more difficult than anything that we have done in class up until now. I think that the course moved very slowly in the beginning, and then moved quickly once the pace of the class had been established.  I think I fell behind somewhere and never managed to catch up with the new pace.  Learning another language as an adult has proven to be difficult.  I would have thought that I picked up some useful info from my previous class (I had enrolled and later dropped a Dutch course at UNC before moving here), and the exposure from living here would have helped.  

Honestly, I’m a bit embarrassed at how badly I think I have done so far.  Day 1 was holding a 15 minute conversation with a class partner (with cues from about a dozen note cards laid out on the table in front of us).  After this awkward conversation, the instructors asked us basic questions (e.g. how we like/dislike Belgium, how we liked/disliked characters on the class soap opera, etc).  It’s amazing that how much you read, write, speak, and try, that under stress and pressure your mind will draw a blank, and you’ll stutter, and your mind will think (wtf I need Google Translate right now).  Overall, the course really does help you in speaking, writing, and reading.

Today’s exam was broken into two parts. The first hour was listening, and the second hour was reading.  The listening part was fairly simple. The conversation was slow and simple. After listening to the segment twice, we got an hour to complete a 1-pager of questions.  Most of our class left after 20 minutes, but I took the whole hour!  I think I did well enough, and really tried to see if I got the correct sentence structures (since this is where I’ve had the most difficulty).  The reading part was much more difficult.  This was really upsetting to me because I feel like I’ve had the most exposure to reading (translating bills, emails, letters, bank statements, checking out Dutch books from the library, etc).  I have spent the past two weeks really learning and memorizing the rules (they have many, and none of them ever make sense), and today when it was time to write my answer, instead of drawing upon what I have spent months learning I freaked out and couldn’t think of the correct sentence structure to save my life.  Mostly, I just wanted to pound my head on the table and have it magically bounce the verb and subject into the correct positions.  

Thursday will be the final part of the exam, a 2-hour written test.  So far, I have been really stressing out, but even if I don’t pass this week-long exam I will have gained a new level of fluency.  The course at ILT (it has been 6 hours per week) has improved upon my fluency and literacy.  I am able to write in complete sentences, and can use conjunctions to link an independent clause with a dependent one.  When I go shopping, I rarely speak in English and am able to get by pretty well (this means that while speaking, I am spoken back to in Dutch/Flemish and the speaker doesn’t automatically flip to English).  That’s success, right? Yes, I make dozens of mistakes all the time, but I’ll never improve if I don’t take the risk of sounding like an idiot.

Learning a new language has made me think differently about English and Gujarati.  A native speaker of English (or any language) isn't going to be thinking of where verbs go, why adverbs are used, or what conjunctions and prepositions actually do in a sentence.  Now, I actually think about those rules that were long forgotten.  Naturally, these concepts are confusing in another language and it helps illustrate how much time and effort it takes to be fluent and literate (I write this as an adult-learner).

While fluent in Gujarati, I never cared enough to be literate. This may sound stupid, but this language was rarely used outside of the home, and when given the opportunity to learn how to read and write it, I always overlooked it.  Growing up, our family often operated in both languages and would switch back and forth quickly, but they never forced us to learn how to read and write.  I imagine that my parents thought it would delay our language learning abilities.  This is going to sound weird, but by learning another language, I have focused on how to say things correctly in Guju. I speak English much better than I speak Gujarati. Maybe in a year, I will speak Dutch as well as I speak Gujarati.  


  1. Hi Nilam! From reading this post, it sounds to me that you have learned a tremendous amount in this class, not only about Dutch, but about languages in general. Dutch (Vlaams?!) is not an easy language, esp. if you are not close to a similar language with the same type of constructs and rules. So, don't despair, it sounds like you're doing great! And, don't freak out, often you can say things correctly multiple ways in Flemish!

    Good luck!


  2. You're absolutely right on how learning one language can make you think differently about how you speak your other languages. Learning Sanskrit helped me understand Gujarati so much better. I studied French and German but have forgotten so much of what I learned but I remember that learning them helped me think of English differently too. I didn't appreciate that as much as I should have while in school.

    Regarding Dutch, have you tried the Rosetta stone language learning software? I hear that it's really good and makes it much easier to learn the language than normal classes. Just a thought.


  3. It's funny because I signed up for this class to learn something, and now I've grown to take it totally seriously. I really want to go on to the next level! Thanks for your thoughts.
    Jai, I did the Rosetta Stone for Spanish, while I really enjoyed it as a d-i-y tool, I am loving the intense language courses.

  4. I'm so proud of you, Nilam! Dutch is a really difficult language to learn. Not only are the grammar rules (and all those "exceptions" to the rules) foreign concepts, but many sounds are new too!

    Your exams sound just like how mine were. Exactly the same. And you're right, they're not easy! But it's obvious from your blogpost how much you care. You remind me of myself... each time I went to the summer intensive program I told myself that I'm there to "have fun and to learn." But all of a sudden, I'm completely consumed by it! If that's the case, you've put in the work and you're ready to move to Level 2.

    As far as Rosetta Stone is concerned, I think you're beyond it. For one, the Dutch Rosetta Stone is *really* Dutch - annoying accent and all. Second, when I finished Level 1, I went back and popped in my Rosetta Stone CDs to gauge how far I had come, and breezed through all 3 levels. Which is ridiculous! The best thing is to keep doing what you're doing - taking classes and immersing yourself in the culture.

    Be patient and stay motivated. Slowly but surely you'll focus less on the rules, and speak more without thinking.
    Veel success morgen. Ik zal aan jouw denken!