(Celebrating my citizenship in a very Dutch way – mainly with apple tart!)
A few weeks ago I celebrated becoming Dutch, much to my own surprise. It happened almost by accident.
But I wouldn’t have gotten there without learning Dutch, and in the process of learning Dutch, it proved to me that I could do the impossible. And that’s what I want to share today. Oh, and some insight into the learning techniques and attitude/change of perspective that I found really beneficial.
I arrived in the Netherlands in 2017. Learning Dutch was not the priority as I qualified for a resident’s permit anyway.
I had already read that many Dutch people spoke English to an extremely high standard, so I knew that I could “make do” for a certain amount of time; the Dutch government even had a large number of English-language resources to help those thinking about making the move.
Priorities included: Finding a job, permanent housing and making friends.
After a while, however, of course I wanted to be able to engage and participate even more in Dutch society. Be able to participate in the conversation – be that news, culture, or even – of course – some of the Dutch-language breakout conversations at the Amsterdam (Salesforce) User Group.
Dutch Attempt 1
After 15 months (April 2018), I felt I was sufficiently settled to start learning Dutch. It wasn’t to gain citizenship, although a certain level is a prerequisite, but more to get the best out of the city and country I now called “home”.
Supportive husband happily engaged in researching the market. We knew I had learning difficulties of some description, particularly around memory retention, so he found me a 5* rated online/skype-based tutor.
Opening conversation went something like this:
Me: “Hi there, I find it hard to learn languages, I’m a bit of a slow learner”
Him: “That’s ok, I can teach s l o w l y”
This was possibly one of the most painful hours of my life. To be clear, being a slow learner does not mean changing the pace of your speaking voice to slow speed! I should have cut the conversation after 3 minutes, instead I was far too polite – see it can happen sometimes! I suffered through the whole hour. Simply put, I knew this 5* rated tutor wouldn’t be suitable for my needs.
Dutch Attempt 2
This recommendation came from a friend. She said to me “I’ve heard of this Dutch teacher, who’s taught my friend, understood her issues, and done amazing things!”
This was around six months after my previous attempt. It had left me bruised and disheartened and I hadn’t really felt like trying again, but I knew I was (somewhat) intelligent so a personal recommendation, based on someone that had also struggled, was more liable to succeed. Even more so, as I now can articulate far more strongly: what’s the worst that could happen? Dragons falling from the sky and coming to eat me if I have a one-off session trying to learn Dutch, and it doesn’t work out? Unlikely. And it would be sort-of cool anyway if it did happen!
Side note: I keep on recommending this, and I’m not going to stop. If you suffer fear or have anxiety about anything, give the Uncertainty Experts a try. It’s a 3 hour online course over 3 weeks. What have you got to lose? It’s been truly life changing for me.
I had had a phone call with my tutor and explained that I had learning difficulties. I felt happy enough with that call to make the 90 minute trip to Arnhem and my tutor’s home to have my first session. Apparently one of the goals I explained was to count up to 10 in Dutch. So, really basic stuff.
I turned up. My teacher (Gysanne) opened the front door and, as with all foreign language teachers, started talking Dutch at me. Before the end of the first sentence, Gysanne, had swapped to English. I wish I had a photo of my face. It must have looked so pained!
But this interaction was all I needed to know. My teacher, whom I have come to love dearly, had a session plan in mind, started using it, saw the reaction and threw it out the window. She read the room/my face, realised it wasn’t working and instead set about re-evaluating the situation to work out what could work. Having a plan is great, being able to adapt it to reality is even better.
Perhaps she didn’t actually throw it out the window, but she certainly restructured it, and changed the method of delivery.
We sat down and Gysanne asked me what my learning style was.
This is what I genuinely said, for I had given it much thought: “I don’t know. I’ve clearly been successful as I have a well paying job, but I don’t know how I’ve learned. I struggled towards the end of school. In fact I think I actually lost language ability between the ages of 14 and 16; that my primary school language ability was higher. I also quit uni after one year. But clearly I’ve managed to learn some things, I just don’t know how. I’ve got no idea what my learning techniques are.”
And the response:
“That’s ok, we’ll learn what they are together.”
Whether it was by pointing at playing cards on the dining room table and getting me to read the numbers which were in Dutch underneath, or by giving me orders to open and close various doors, drawers and windows, Gysanne engaged my active senses. Various parts of her cutlery drawer were rearranged and I suspect some spoons were moved – on her orders – never to be found again!
I found myself lying on her living room floor, staring up at the ceiling trying to describe what I saw, and on occasion we would both stick our heads out of the front and back windows, describing the cars going past, or the flowers and birds and other happenings in the garden.
(sofa and clothing – restaged!)
One day I was instructed to pick up the red blouse from the living room sofa, for Gysanne had assembled a selection of her, and her husband’s, wardrobe for me to look at. In Dutch I said “but I know which one is the blouse because you’ve told me it’s red, and we did colours last week”, I said.
Gysanne nodded and winked (or something like that!). For Gysanne had worked out that layering knowledge, one careful layer at a time, would all build up within me, without adding too much pressure.
Rarely would I get a quizlet with more than 10 words to learn as homework, because we had come to understand together that that would stress me too much, panic me, and cause me to actively forget, rather than learn! Also whole sentences sometimes worked better for me than single works, because the context helped.
Everyone is different, everyone has different backgrounds, and the job of an educator/consultant is to work with the subject/client and provide information at an appropriate and sustainable level. Neurodiverse people even more so.
Gysanne and I didn’t even know I am neurodiverse – as is 15% to 30% of humanity. It specifically means my learning pathways need a more tailored approach. I would excitedly be explaining all this to her in Dutch, finding the nearest words that I knew, about 3 years into our lessons.
“Each morning he puts a bit of sugar in his tea.”
“Jessy runs hard because she is hungry, and wants to go home [for her food, obs!].”
“Yesterday evening I spoke with my friends and my mother about the animals in the park.”
But I’m jumping ahead of myself.
During our time together Covid happened. And lateral thinking was applied. I couldn’t visit, so instead we played hangman by screenshare; or played games (pictured above) where each of us would add a word in turn. Gysanne got me to do stretching exercises (with the instructions in Dutch, of course) when my brain couldn’t take in any more of the particular subject we were studying, and there was an all important mandarijn or two to eat, when my energy inevitably flagged towards the end of our session and I needed a pick-me-up.
Frequently I admitted to Gysanne that I used Google Translate to help me, with varying degrees of success, with my homework. It didn’t matter to Gysanne. The knowledge was still gently percolating through. Not 100%, but definitely greater than nil. And it all added up.
Gysanne also used textbooks to provide structure to our lessons. We started with A1 (the most basic level), completed the book, and then went to the start of A1 again with a different book. It turned out that I had no problem with this. It provided variety, proved to me I was learning things as I understood the exercises better and, on the 2nd time through the A1 course, I was able to pick up things I had missed the first time around.
After 4 years, it occurred to me that there was a possibility that I had reached the level A2 – the language standard that covers shopping and basic conversations, and Dutch citizenship. To my delight I took and passed the exams. Add another year for the Dutch system to process my paperwork and here I am, now Dutch! Gysanne came to the citizenship ceremony and then myself, Kathryn Chlosta (of this parish) and a neighbour had some appeltaart to celebrate! A very proud day out (as pictured at the top).
My Lessons Learnt
1. It’s best if you want to learn the topic and are realistic. I’m never going to be a professional grade Dutch translator, but I did go into this enthusiastically.
2. Self-care. Don’t be hard on yourself. There are limited hours in the day, but learning Dutch, from such a wise teacher, has taught me more about myself and my possibilities than perhaps anyone else ever has. I now know I can tackle the “impossible”, even if I have to go the long way round. It’s a different route from others, but equally I get to see different things!
And being very blunt about it: Perhaps I took 4x as long as a typical student to get to my current level of Dutch. So be it. Better, for me, to have got there, than not got there at all.
3. Just because a learning style works for someone else, it doesn’t mean that it will work for you. I have a theory that most language teachers use the teaching style that worked for them – that’s great, but it may not be your style. This is particularly true if you are neurodiverse in any way (such as having ADHD, autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, etc).
Reading, calling out and repetition, which you will probably be familiar with from your childhood, in fact have some of the lowest outcomes, in terms of knowledge retention. Kinaesthetic learning (movement) has far better results, but tends to be less practical in a school environment. That’s what makes on-the-job training and the more in depth Salesforce Trailhead modules so good.
4. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Some Dutch words, for me, have never sunk in, despite being part of the basic vocab. There are weird kinds of blocks in my mind. If I had stuck to my instincts and waited for me to conquer them, I might well have never proceeded past entry level.
5. “Stap voor stap”. Step by step. Walk the metres to make the kilometres. If you do a few metres every day (or every week), it does add up in the end! It’s now my motto in life.
6. Most things can be fun if we set our minds to it. I suspect that the ADHD coaching course I have just signed up for has influenced this point… but if you’re struggling to achieve this, find someone – a friend or professional – to help you access that different perspective.
With huge thanks to my friend Bev for pointing me in Gysanne’s direction, and also proof reading this article!, and also to Gysanne Alkema herself!
I’m now enjoying Bluesky for what it’s worth; seems to work better for my needs/preferences than Mastadon or other social media options, so feel free to connect/follow me there – I even have a couple of codes available if you send me a message. I’m also on LinkedIn of course.
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