I have to admit, I have only recently become mildly obsessed with learning Dutch. You have to be a little bit obsessed in order to make progress with a language. I am sure that fluency in Dutch will improve my experience of living in The Netherlands. I love this country and I love the Dutch people, so it is perfectly normal that I learn the language. Yes, you could get by for years just with English and many people do just that. I no longer want to be the person that lives here for ages and cannot assimilate properly. I don’t want to have to ask for an English menu anymore. The click happened when I was on a tour of the fabulous Jan Six house on the Amstel (stunning by the way). The whole group of visitors that day were Dutch except me, yet the guide then decided to do the tour in English. Can you imagine that happening in any other country? I felt grateful and ashamed in equal measure.
I listen to Dutch vocabulary audio files every day a little bit, when getting ready to go out or walking around. The repetition helps me. If you hear something once, you will probably forget it. If you hear it 50 times, your brain will automatically remember the sound for you. It works even better when you write it down too and test yourself. I say that because you will need to work to master a language. We do not (yet) have USB inputs on the back of our necks where we can buy a language and plug it into our brains, you know, like in that film…..
The second click I had for learning Dutch was a shift in my own attitude to the difficulty I am facing. I was sure it was going to be hard, so it was. Then, I heard a lady on an audio file explain that it is so much nearer to English than we think and gave examples. Then I became convinced it was easy and once that happened, it became easier. It’s a mindset thing. The process is a constant and daily one – to assimilate more vocabulary and to actually use it in situation. And it is certainly not enough just to be able to hear and understand Dutch. The true measure of progress for me is speaking a language with ease. Expressing myself and being understood. I can feel I am getting there. A little bit more every day.
So this got me wondering about the steps from starting the process to being fluent. So I asked Mirko from Taalboost. He was kind enough to take time our from his busy schedule to answer our Q+A.
So Mirko, I am interested in tips and drills us learners of the Dutch language can use to improve our Dutch and ultimately achieve fluency.
1. Some people are just naturally more confident than others and do not care about making mistakes if it helps them on the path to fluency. Should people learning Dutch just go for it with fearlessness? Like children do when learning to speak?
As a language teacher, you are likely to come across two types of students: one being the ‘talkative’ students who prioritise speaking over making mistakes, and the other being the ‘perfectionist’ students who need to know every single rule in the book before their first utterance. When it comes to language learning, one type is not necessarily better than the other, as they both have their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their own learning pathways.
For example, the talkative type might continue to make the same mistakes over and over again even at the later stages of learning – we call this fossilisation. For this type of learner, the best solution is to sit down and write as much as they can in the target language. When you write, you can not improvise the way you can when you speak, but you really need to think about what you want to express – the structure of the sentences and the words that you are using.
On the other hand, the perfectionist type would deliver marvellous and impeccable written assignments but would freeze at the local bakery when buying a loaf of bread in the target language if they hear a question they do not understand.
At TaalBoost, we are taking account of both types in our approach. During the lessons, we focus on the speaking and functional language structures that are useful for that certain topic and what you need to communicate. What our teachers basically do, is give you tools with the explanation how to work with them and use them in different situations. An important part of each of our courses is self study, where you will be asked to write one to two written assignments per week. The teacher gives individual feedback to each written assignment in turn.
This brings me to your last question. There are substantial differences in language learning between adults and children. It would be just too easy (and perfect) if we – the adults – could learn a language the way children do. There are a couple of reasons why this is not the case. A young child’s brain works in a different way and absorbs the grammar like a sponge. Moreover, a child has many years in their development to statistically pick out the exceptions to the already acquired words (think about a child learning from the input that the past tense of go is went and not goed).
As adults, we do not have the luxury of spending an indefinite amount of years on learning the language statistically. But unlike children, we can do it in a more focused way – with the right guidance or knowhow. And finally, we can think logically and use our previous experience and knowledge to work in our favour, and not against us.
2. One of the best tips I ever heard when learning a language was to learn by heart a certain number of useful idioms. Does that apply in Dutch too ? Can you please give us some examples ?
It is certainly helpful to learn idioms as they are always bound by language and culture. People just love the peculiarity of the often untranslatable Dutch sayings such as “nu komt de aap uit de mouw” – “now the monkey comes out of the sleeve”, for when you want to say that you can now see the actual truth. Even though learning this type of sayings at early stages of language learning might be fun, it will not deliver much in the long run as they are not always useful and as such quickly forgettable. For starters, it is important to define what we understand as idioms.
Let’s put it like this. If your main aim is to communicate in different daily situations, then you should learn the most common questions or reactions in those situations and be prepared for them in that way. To illustrate, let’s go back to our example from the bakery. When you want to buy a loaf of white bread in Dutch (Mag ik een witbrood van u?), then you can also expect the following question from the baker: Gesneden? If you do not know what the word means, then the whole conversation in Dutch may be disturbed. Both utterances above – Mag ik een witbrood van u? and Gesneden? – can be seen as idioms, as they are common, expected utterances that serve a purpose – for you to buy a loaf of bread and for the baker to know whether they should slice the bread for you or not.
The Dutch language is teeming with this kind of utterances and it would be impossible to list them all here, but a conversation at the bakery could easily go like this:
Baker: Wie is er aan de beurt?
You: Ik. Mag ik een witbrood van u?
You: Ja, graag. / Nee, bedankt.
Baker: Anders nog iets?
You: Ja, ik wil nog (insert name of product).
Baker: Dat was het zo?
You: Ja, dat was het. Hoeveel moet ik afrekenen?
Baker: Dat is dan (price).
You: Ik wil graag pinnen.
Baker (after typing the price in the card machine): Ga uw gang.
You (after the payment has been successful): Bedankt. Tot ziens!
3. What are your top tips so that people feel progress at the early stages of learning Dutch?
Although learning the structures of the Dutch language (read: grammar) is important, there is nothing more important than the vocabulary. At the same time, learning and retaining (new) words is the most difficult part of language learning, so it would be smart to tackle that challenge in the best and most economic way. 1. Choose the words that are most frequent and most relevant for your situation. 2. Categorise those words by situations that you are most likely to encounter daily, such as introducing yourself, talking about your family and describing someone’s appearance, inviting a friend or a colleague to go to the cinema or grab a drink, doing groceries, complaining about the weather, to name a few. 3. Cluster the words together in useful and frequent idioms or sentences as described in the baker example above.
There are many phrases to use across the board in different situations with minimal adjustments, which leads us to the next step. 4. Be creative. Try not only to think in phrases but to also play with the language outside of the box. Use flashcards to write down the words.
Translate the words but also try to associate each one with a visual representation, a sound, a colour, a smell or even a taste (you don’t forget the word pizza easily once you’ve learned and associated it). 5. Think of the language and expand it. When you hear and learn a question in Dutch, think about all the possible answers to that question, not just the one that is applicable in a certain situation. It is better to learn your vocabulary limitations that way than when you are in the actual situation. The actual situation will then be your moment to shine.
4. It would be easy enough not to learn Dutch and to just get by in English. In your opinion, what are the major advantages of learning the Dutch language?
Speaking of advantages, I can’t think of any disadvantages when it comes to living and working in the Netherlands, and learning and knowing the Dutch language, irrespective of how international your workplace and/or your network are. A couple of days ago, I came across a thread in one of the Facebook groups discussing what expats in the Netherlands are lacking the most. The vast majority of replies boiled down to two things: being fluent in the Dutch language and feeling less lonely as a (single) expat in the Netherlands. I think that there might be a correlation or even a causal relationship between the two.
Not knowing the language of the majority culture can sometimes lead to not understanding the culture or even misinterpreting the differences, which can in turn lead to the creation of a “us-them” discourse. I am certain that this can stimulate the stereotypes and lead to an alienating feeling. And that’s definitely the last thing you want to have as an expat. Being a non-native myself who is fluent in Dutch language and has a network within the expat and the Dutch community, I can understand where this frustration is coming from. Looking back, I can not be more grateful for the fact that I can use Dutch with all the Dutchies around me: the teachers and colleagues at TaalBoost, my friends, and finally my partner and in-laws. Those experiences are invaluable and I am guessing that the whole thing would’ve been much much different if I hadn’t spoken the language.
That’s also the reason why I’ve chosen to start a Dutch language school and pour everything I previously learned in TaalBoost, with the hope to help others in bridging the gap between ‘them’ and ‘us’. So yes, my best piece of advice when living in the Netherlands would be to invest your time here in learning Dutch. It takes time and effort – like mastering any other skill – but the payoff is absolutely worth it.
5. Lastly, tell us more about your school and methods.
At TaalBoost Dutch language courses in Amsterdam, we combine the latest theories in foreign language acquisition and teaching with the specificities of Dutch language and culture, in order to make the Dutch language learning journey for expats, professionals and internationals living in Amsterdam and the Netherlands as motivating, logical and enjoyable as possible.
The TaalBoost approach is functional, meaning that everything that is taught and learned serves its previously thought-through purpose. That way, the lesson time can be used in the most optimal and effective way. The learning trajectory involves 3 phases: A. the input phase, B. the activation phase and C. the consolidation phase. Phase A would involve the receptive skills of listening and reading, phases B and C the productive skills of speaking and writing, respectively. The input phase is done at home, as a preparation for the lesson – that way, you will be familiar with the topic, the words and the routines.
Phase B is done at the lesson – the input is broken down for you, explained, and then exercised in pairs or in groups, with close guidance and feedback by the teacher. The activation phase is also the most fun, as it compiles series of engaging, focused, and practical exercises. It feels like a fun game and there is never a dull moment. The consolidation phase is done after the lesson, when you need to sit down, write a text and think about the Dutch language and the materials previously learned. All written assignments that are handed get
We also aim to use the resources that our students already have, such as previous experiences and knowledge of languages, or simply put – common sense. For example, if you want to go and grab a cup of coffee with a friend, what would you need in order to communicate that? 1. You will need to be able to form a question; 2. you will need to be able to use the words such as shall, may, can, must in your question or answer; 3. you will need to be able to give a positive or a negative answer; 4. you will need to be able to use a negation in your negative answer; and 5. you will optionally need to be able to give a reason for your negative answer.
All those steps are logically explained and exercised separately during the lesson – they are the tools that you will need for this situation but can freely use in tons of other situations than the one described above. The idea is of course to use this language learning kit when you leave the classroom.
At the beginners levels – Level 1 and Level 2 – most basic grammar and everyday situations are covered. These levels are offered as 6-week evening courses twice per week, 10-week Saturday courses once per week, or 1-week intensive courses. As a bridge between the two, we offer an optional recap conversational Level 1.5 course, once per week in the evening. Following the beginners courses, the intermediate and the advanced courses focus primarily on broadening and deepening the vocabulary, again by working on all four skills as previously mentioned.
The next session of TaalBoost Dutch language courses is starting January 6th 2020. The registration period is open and you can easily sign up through our website www.taalboost.nl. You should come to the trial lesson for complete beginners during the Open Day on Saturday January 4th at 2pm and see for yourself!
Thanks again to Mirko for giving us some great insights.
1015 VX Amsterdam
Tel : 020 341 80 38