There are many myths about language learning that I’m trying to dispel as nothing more than lazy excuses on this blog.
The fact that you are too old, your destiny (genes, background etc.) is against you, you can’t afford to travel and there are no opportunities to speak where you live or systems to speak with natives online, you can’t roll your Rs, you already spent years learning and got nowhere, and many many other excuses.
But there will always be more excuses. Lazy people are imaginative in that way!
Today I want to tackle one that isn’t quite unique to Northern Europe, since English speakers will be lazy everywhere despite the advantages of English-free travel, but it is especially prominent here: “Northern Europeans will only ever speak English to you. Why bother even learning their language?”
While I will be focusing on my Dutch experience, I have been talking to other successful language learners living in Scandinavia who confirm that these observations work there just as well.
Yes, it’s true that you can live mostly by English here
The first major reason to not even try is that they all speak English anyway.
Although I have barely used any English at all, I can confirm from seeing tourists using it with them that their level is generally excellent.
Pretty much all of them still make mistakes, many of which I recognise as Dutch-influenced (such as I am sitting here/in school etc. instead of simply I am here/in school , since “to be” is used way less in Dutch) and if they haven’t lived abroad they still have an accent, but this will never hinder conversations. So yes, you could live your life entirely through English here.
And many do; I have met a staggering number of foreigners who have maintained the most impressive collective English-bubble I’ve seen anywhere. I met a man in Prague who had lived there for a decade without learning Czech, but here that actually seems to be more the norm than the exception!
The reasons for this working so well (apart from people’s downright laziness to learn the language of the country they live in), are actually an interesting long-term aspect of Dutch culture that I’d like to discuss in another post; basically they are very welcoming and open minded about world cultures, but leave them to do their own thing with no pressure or encouragement to integrate.
The philosophy of living apart together seems to be huge here, so people not learning their language is not just tolerated, it’s accepted as almost the obvious thing to do, by the locals themselves.
Because of this I met very few foreigners seriously learning Dutch (mostly Germans, Eastern Europeans etc.). It’s no wonder locals were shocked when I started speaking to them in their own language.
Once you try, there is no resistance
Yes, they were surprised, yes some of them were confused at why I’d want to learn Dutch, and yes they were amazed at how quickly I could speak at the level I was.
But you know what? Despite hearing the excuse for years, and people warning me many times in advance when I announced plans to come here, if I spoke Dutch to someone they NEVER replied in English. Not once. Not even a SINGLE time!!
I’ve heard this excuse for years about Northern Europeans. I didn’t get it my first week in Berlin either.
After 8 entire weeks here, there’s no way this can be pure luck. The 25 people I met in one night, those I’ve talked to in the street and in restaurants and bars, the many people I’ve met in parties and various social events, and even the few friends I’ve somehow managed to convince to squeeze me into their agendas on a more regular basis; they’ve all spoken just in Dutch with me.
There are exceptions, but these were when I didn’t begin in Dutch. For example, after a quick intro with some English, I only spoke Dutch with one flatmate who was away for my first week. However, with the other flatmate, I started speaking in English with him and continued for the first and second week and found it incredibly hard to get out of that routine with him for the whole stay.
I also met up with a good Dutch friend of mine from Esperanto meetings shortly after I had arrived, as well as another language blogger who is Dutch and didn’t even try to speak Dutch to the two of them. I was used to using other languages with them in the past.
But this just proves that if the learner is lazy, they will get no results. It is also incredibly hard to break a routine with someone once you have set it and “what language our relationship will be in” is an incredibly important decision to make from the start! So I’m really glad that I got into the routine from the start with the vast majority of people.
The only other times I spoke in English with the Dutch was at Couchsurfing meetings, while other foreigners (who know no Dutch) were present. To speak Dutch in this case, even when there are five Dutch speakers and one foreigner, would be very un-Dutch-like.
Why some people MAY get answered in English, and what to do differently
I didn’t get answered back in English (apart from the examples above where I wasn’t even speaking in Dutch) because of a few factors that are entirely up to the learner. Do not blame the local culture for this!
There are many good ways to learn to speak quickly and it’s up to you to be convincing. The following points are especially what I did differently to many other foreigners here:
I’d say this is a priority; way more than when you should study grammar. I spoke terrible Dutch from the start, and slightly less terrible Dutch after a few weeks, but I did it with no strong accent.
People here simply associate an English-accent with laziness or unwillingness to learn and may make the switch even if you are genuinely trying, because they have met so many others with your accent in the past who simply were not really interested in learning.
This is even true when they know you are an English speaker! I pretty much always told people I was Irish, but the accent told them otherwise and that’s what helped keep them from switching. I’d say this is more of a subconscious tendency than a conscious decision.
The Dutch R that is rolled at the back of the throat is quite unique, and I didn’t put in the work to learn it this time. But I found my rolled R from Spanish/Italian to be a useful substitute, especially since they do use this R in some dialects of Dutch. I’ve been told that my accent sounded Icelandic or Italian or Eastern European, and since the tendency is to not speak English with these groups (at least the latter ones), they didn’t with me.
2. Speak in Dutch from the start!
There are many reasons I suggest a “speak from day one” approach. Efficiency in learning quickest is the obvious, but one I don’t mention as an important reason that really needs to be emphasised in this case is that it is very hard to change the language you are used to speaking with someone. As shown in the very rare examples above, I am as prone to this issue as anyone else, and I’m really glad I was very restricted in who I did use English with.
Yes, it will be frustrating – to be honest my time in Amsterdam has indeed been quite frustrating because I know that a huge amount of the city is partying in other languages and I could have simply joined them, and it was a challenge to make friends with the Dutch (more on that in a later post).
Not speaking Dutch would have been the easy road, but then I would not have made genuine cultural discoveries. If I was living here long term, the sacrifice of a few months of intensively learning Dutch would enhance years living here dramatically. It’s worth the sacrifice. I made it before in my first foreign language and the pay-offs have lasted me almost a decade so far!
Start as you mean to go on; speak in Dutch (or whatever the language may be) with everyone you meet! And one way to do this is:
3. Give yourself a head-start
If you are already in the country, then you have to make the tough switch as soon as you can, but if you aren’t, you have a HUGE advantage of time to be able to prepare yourself!
While I like to move to a new country with zero preparation (I’m doing it again mid-June!) this is one aspect of my language learning that I highly discourage others to copy. I do it for the adventure and for the challenge, (it’s fun) but it is definitely not helping me learn the language. You will never see me advise people to wait until you get there before you start. When people email me and say “I’m moving to Spain etc. in six months” I always reply to say, then why haven’t you started speaking already now??
While I didn’t do it with Dutch, I had an interesting head-start anyway thanks to my German, which I could use as a crutch to get me into the flow of a similar language (I won’t have this advantage with my next language). That was my head-start; although I certainly wouldn’t suggest you learn German in order to learn Dutch The point is that you need a head-start. If you are going to these countries, try and study the right basic materials, and then when you have some ground-work, after a few hours or a few days, look for online or in-person spoken opportunities immediately to get you into the flow of using it with a native.
The secret is to hit the ground running when you get to the country. As a polyglot, I have a different head-start in that I’ve done this before in general so I have no hang-ups about the whole experience, but you will find it incredibly hard to arrive in a country and just switch to a foreign language with no experience in doing so already. If you have time to prepare, use it. Do not squander months before moving; use them to speak now.
4. Be convincing and confident
Even in my first days speaking Dutch, I could still keep people interested in following me as I desperately tried to think of simple words to use. My strategy is to inject a lot of personality into my conversations. In my first weeks I generally don’t have a clue how to say so many things, but I say the little I do know with incredible confidence.
Hesitating, umming, second guessing yourself, thinking too much, squirming and generally showing through your body language that you are having a terribly uncomfortable time speaking their language, will mean that since they are nice people they will speak English to you! It’s them being generous to save you from this torture.
Don’t torture yourself, think of something quickly that may have some mistakes in it and spit it out. The only people I find that grammar mistakes in natural conversations truly annoy are some language teachers or pedantic other learners. The vast majority of the population you will meet are happy with hearing you try hard and don’t mind if you make mistakes as long as you do it well enough to get the message across.
When you start well and keep up this flow, within a few months you’ll be making dramatic progress towards fluency!
My time in Amsterdam is coming to an end! I still have a few other observations to share though, about the Dutch and their language. Hopefully this point about how they will NOT reply to you in English if you do it right will be taken into account by other learners; if you try a little harder you can speak in their language to them all the time!
When you do this, you will open doors to many cultural discoveries that are simply not possible through English alone. I hope more try; despite frustration in trying to get to know Dutch, who tend to be more closed off than other cultures I am used to, I am very glad I stuck to it. I’ve learned so much in the last 8 weeks, and will share some of that with you in more posts soon.
Your thoughts on this appreciated in the comments below!
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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