I'm exactly five weeks into my mission to speak Dutch. While there are major advantages of my German and my English giving me a head start thanks to many linguistic similarities, I have had a major set-back in this mission that has been slowing me down tremendously; simply finding opportunities to converse!
Dutch culture is different to others I am used to; everyone has been very nice and polite to me, and nobody speaks English to me, but after a brief first conversation they tend to disappear, and there is little hope of seeing them again due to their always packed schedules. They are a bit too organised.
Luckily I am finally getting through to some people and starting to socialise properly, hanging out for hours or even almost an entire day, speaking just in Dutch. But for the most part, when I meet people I tend to have a similar first introduction conversation over and over again. This is a terrible way to make progress to be able to discuss many different topics required to be fluent in a language.
While I continue to meet people that I can converse more deeply with, I decided to tackle the problem in a unique different way; I need my brief first conversations (which are easy to find) to be unique so I'm discussing something different and improving my language skills in different ways. So I had a crazy idea:
Speed dating as a tool for language learning!
Speed dating is a relatively new concept, apparently started by Jewish communities in the late 90s to help shy people pair-off. I had only ever seen it on some American TV shows, and not really thought much about it.
I wasn't interested in actually finding a date though. I just wanted to get some Dutch practice because they had been notoriously hard to hang out with as friends!
You generally don't meet someone up this week for coffee or lunch; you have to propose a time long in advance and understand the Dutch need to be organised; something which contrasts with my preference for spontaneity. Also, Dutch people have their set network of friends and it's turning out to be incredibly hard to break into that.
If the majority of my conversations with the Dutch are going to be brief, then I decided to think of a better way to take advantage of these conversations. Speed dating just hit me as the obvious way to test it out, and I found a place that organises it and had a session for 20-35 year olds last night!
It turns out the website (Edit: it's not available anymore) I got it through only accept Dutch bank payments (€32), so I knew it was unlikely I'd find other foreigners there, confirming how useful it would be to get to know locals. I got my flatmate to pay for me, and signed up for what I considered simply an excellent and unique opportunity to practice Dutch with 25 people!
To make it more interesting though, I gave myself the challenge that each of my mini dates (lasting only 3-5 minutes) must involve talking about something completely different. (And of course they must be in Dutch). I can't just rattle off the same introduction and ask the same questions or I won't learn anything.
I actually had little interest in finding the girl of my dreams (I'm leaving in 3 weeks!) – the idea of experiencing this speed-dating phenomenon is something I had to try once. I don't have a bucket list (and don't like the idea of listing things months or years in advance to tick off in my life), but speed dating was certainly on my spontaneous fuck-it (why not) list! Doing it in a language I'm not yet fully comfortable in just made it all the more interesting 🙂
25 ways to not talk about the weather
I find it incredible when people tell me that they have “nothing to talk about” when they find an opportunity to practice a language, and suggest that all you can do is discuss the weather. So, I'll actually tell you exactly what I remember talking about last night.
So I arrived, asked the hotel receptionist where the speed-dating was going down and found the hostess explaining how it works. She checked my name against the bookings and gave me my booklet of girls' names. As you can imagine, she was certainly not speaking slowly for the benefit of foreigners! But I managed to understand most of it. She pointed out the tables, shown in the photo above, and said that the girls will stay in the same place they are assigned and each time the bell rings, the guys will move up a table. You can tick off “Ja” or “Nee” for if you'd like to see that person again.
People were still arriving so she said to wait in the bar and get a complimentary drink. I got myself an O.J. and stood there wondering what-the-hell I was I doing, when I decided to simply approach a group of guys and girls waiting for us to start and said hi! I actually had a good 20 minute conversation with them before the event even started! I told them why I was in Amsterdam, mentioned my travels, and the blog, got to know them too a bit and then the hostess called us all in.
Only… there was a problem! Even though the speed-dating hadn't really begun yet, I had talked about my blog and travels, so I wasn't allowed to discuss that any more for the rest of the night! Remember the rule?
The only thing I could repeat were basic things like my name, the fact that I've been in Amsterdam a month, and a casual mention that I'm a writer, without necessarily expanding on it. For more interesting conversations I needed to find common ground, or talk more about her obviously.
I sat down to my assigned table, said that my name was Benny and she said she couldn't see me on her sheet. “Oh, um… actually my name is Brendan sorry!” (I put my actual name in the application rather than the nickname I always go by, in case the speed-date organisers asked to see my ID). Being confused about my own name was hardly the best start 😛 I'd make this mistake several times in a row actually!
In later mini-dates, I just started mid-conversation and skipped the boring “Hello, my name is Brendan” intro. They'd ask my name at the end so that they knew precisely where to mark that nee 😛
In the first conversation, we talked about how she has to get the train back to Rotterdam so she probably won't be staying too late. Someone trying to get a date would have found it to be a bust, but I found it to be excellent travel vocabulary practice!
Onward, and in the second date I started with a merry “So… [read her name tag] – Why did you decide to go on a speed-date today then?”
Such strange first openers perhaps weren't helping my Ja-quota, but I had nothing to lose! She told me about how hard it is meeting a man in Amsterdam, and I said that it's hard meeting people in general in this country, told her about my own difficulties in doing so and said I was seriously thinking of befriending all the canal ducks in the city instead. She got a great laugh out of that and asked me the same question.
“Why, I signed up to this speed-dating for some Dutch practice of course! €32 for 25 intensive chats in the language with a drink included! That's much cheaper than the going rate for private conversation lessons!”
The next girl told me how she has always dreamed of going to Ireland so I gave her some travel tips and advised her to go to Galway rather than Dublin, and the next girl was shocked to see that I was speaking Dutch at my current level after just a month. Most of them were very impressed by this, but I tried to change the subject quickly to get the best out of the time I had. She was very curious though, so I said that I got to this stage by speaking as much as I could, every day if possible, from the very first day. I should actually be speaking better than this, but not meeting many people so frequently is slowing me down.
As a language teacher herself, she thought that I had to be full of sh*t to be speaking at this level so quickly.
I added that German and English are helping me, and that I was actually doing many things she wasn't taking into account. I told her to observe my body language and how comfortably I'm speaking, leaning back, nodding as she speaks to confirm I understand, cushioning my speech with normally irrelevant filler words (you know, like etc. in English and eens, maar, even in Dutch), and how this actually adds to an “illusion” of me speaking better than I actually am. Also, I'm not hesitating; when I don't know a word I'll use a workaround quickly, whereas most people at my current level will second-guess themselves and give out the impression that they know way less than they really do.
The bell rang and I had a feeling she'd probably come ask me more questions during the break – not for my dating potential, but so I could help her teach better!
The break is always the most interesting part
Something I find is that the best parts of many organised social events tend to be in the breaks between what the event is actually about. In recent conferences I've been to, I've found that the actual talks didn't teach me much that I didn't know already, but I made some amazing connections in the hallways on the way to some talk.
It was the same with speed-dating. The conversations being squeezed into just a few minutes feel a bit forced; I tried my best to start random and interesting discussions, but in the bar in the two breaks and at the end we were all just chatting normally and this was much more enjoyable. Simply bringing together lots of people with some interesting twist to it seems to be the smartest part of the whole thing.
I got to know a lot of people, including the other guys. One of the girls I had talked to announced to the small group I was in that my Dutch was at this level after a month (something I hadn't brought up) and this was sort of a mini-introduction to people I'd end up sitting with shortly after. Apparently this little linguistic parlour trick of mine had been the most interesting thing happening so far in the evening.
I tried to shrug it off as just a natural consequence of speaking somewhat intensively over a month and told them that I've met many people who have done similar things. They all agreed, but added that it was more impressive that I was an English speaker doing this. I had to give in and say that yes, generally, English speakers are the laziest language learners in the world, but that we have other redeeming qualities.
Back in, and I continued switching between a few different topics. Some of the times I stuck to discussing the other person's job, and others I talked about something completely random to really test myself (and likely, their patience). To help break the ice I related something I share about their jobs or interests.
The first girl did all the talking. For all she knew I was Dutch myself…
Another one worked in marketing, so I asked her about what kind of psychology is involved in that and shared a story I read once about changing the phrasing in a hotel's request to reuse your towel by emphasising how others do it too. Her face lit up as I was saying this; it seems like nobody else had anything clever to add about marketing.
Another girl told me that she would love to actually speak English with me, but her level is terrible. I've been meeting quite a few Dutch people who confirm that this myth that they all speak perfect English isn't true. I could have spoken English to her in our mini-date, but instead of losing my momentum I decided to “teach her to fish, rather than give her a fish” so to speak. I gave her a bunch of tips for how she could speak English pretty much all the time in Amsterdam, such as by hosting Couchsurfers and attending those meet-ups.
She told me that my level in Dutch was incredible for the time I've spend speaking it. The bell rang before I could retort to assure her there is nothing magical about what I'm doing, and it's just about applying the right techniques.
After the last pause and more chatting to people, I could already see some couples starting to pair off, going back to the tables to continue some intimate conversation. This speed-dating thing actually seemed to be working!
Not so well for me though! My first “date” in the last session was a girl who was totally uninterested in talking to me. I think she thought I was lying when I said I had been learning Dutch for just a month. The conversation was so dry that I actually had to resort to asking “So… any travel plans this summer?” out of the blue. As soon as I stood up, I could see her tick nee for me immediately. (Usually they'd wait until you were gone). Yikes!
I actually had to wait over a minute to sit down at the next table; the guy in front of me was still locked in some incredibly deep conversation with my next date. After several “ahem” fake coughs, the hostess actually had to come to break them up! When I sat down I said “Well, I know two people who are definitely giving one another a yes today!” I was so happy to see the system looked to have connected those two!
On to my last table, and it was with one of the girls who had paired off already. I could tell that her mind was elsewhere, so I asked her how she found the website for this speed dating thing. It was hard to engage with her in conversation – as soon as the bell rang, I almost saw a Warner Brother's style cloud left from her dashing off so quickly.
While there were some bumps, I actually managed to engage in good and unique conversations with almost everyone! My level of Dutch was complimented constantly and not even mentioned in many conversations as important. I don't remember having any difficulty understanding anything that was said to me or asking them to repeat it.
Sparks certainly didn't fly between me and any of the participants, but I left very happy since I got precisely what I wanted out of the night!
Obviously, speed dating is hardly a good universal solution for language practice, but the point is that this is just one of many random things I try and apply to make sure I get practice. It's important to be open to new experiences; I was sceptical about speed dating being full of weirdos, but it turns out most people there were level headed and very interesting. Then there are crazies like me of course 🙂
Hopefully this rather detailed account of a strange Monday night out shows you that there are many ways you can converse with people. Sometimes they will be up for it, sometimes they won't. Just go on to the next person and strike up an interesting conversation. I have yet to talk about the weather or other similar “conversation crutches” in any of my languages, even in the initial stages.