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How I learned Dutch in a few days...

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

Lebanese girl learning Dutch

Being raised in Lebanon, you actually grow up with languages, they become your friends and you start playing with them as of kindergarten. But watch out, not all languages. Mainly popular languages like English, French (because Lebanon was a French mandate), Italian (trade and similarities with Italians), some Spanish, not much though. That's basically it. As a kid in Lebanon, I used to watch Dutch milk ads on Lebanese TV featuring green meadows with happy grazing cows and sheep, as well as milkmaids in their traditional dresses. That was the idea I formed of Holland. If someone had told me that one day, I will actually marry a Dutchman, that I will live in that country, that I will give birth to Dutch babies and speak the Dutch language, I would have laughed straight in their face and dismissed the thought as a ridiculous joke. Little did I know that this is exactly what would happen.

Anyway, let's fast-forward to 30 years later, skipping how I met and married a Dutchman, skipping how I moved to the Netherlands and pausing at me speaking fluent Dutch within a few months after the move. When we first moved here, my husband had a flat in Hilversum. At that time, Hilversum was a purely white village where most people hardly spoke any language other than Dutch. As for me, I couldn't utter a word of Dutch properly, especially the ones with the diphthong 'ui'. I had problems communicating in shops, I had trouble finding the right kind of products in the supermarkets, especially meat. Everything was written in Dutch! That's when I took two important decisions:

1. I have to move out of Hilversum and live in Amsterdam

2. I had to LEARN DUTCH!

My husband, still eager to please me back then (we were newly-weds), gave in and agreed to move to Amsterdam. Once settled there, I enrolled in a Dutch course for newcomers and sat in a class that resembled the English class in the 80s British series: 'Mind your Language'. My classmates, newcomers from Eritrea, Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey who have never learnt a second language before, suddenly had to pronounce difficult Dutch words like 'ui', 'verschrikkelijk', gracht, and understand grammar and conjugation. Needless to say, this didn't go well for me. I already mastered 3 languages and was eager to add a 4th one ASAP and get it over with. This was going to take too long.

My quest for a good school

I started searching for something more efficient and that's when I discovered a gem: the Regina Coeli school in the South of Holland, where they actually give, in my own words: "Dutch brainwashing". One problem though, that school was way beyond our budget, partly because it includes a stay-over at a hotel connected to the school. You basically have to stay there because the program was fully charged. Luckily enough, the consulting firm for which I used to work then agreed to finance one of the two-week course. I wanted to do it so badly, but even one week was unaffordable. So I decided to enrol for one week (half of the course) and do my very best to learn the whole program in one week instead of two. I packed my bags and left. I call it brainwashing now because that's what it felt like. The entire day, for 8 full hours, I was moving every hour from room to room, either having one-on-ones with a teacher for speaking and grammar, or listening to Dutch with a headphone and answering questions. When it was time for lunch, I thought, how nice, time for a break! Well guess what, lunch was no break at all. A teacher would join for lunch and force us to speak Dutch during lunch! It was really something. At night, I would go to my hotel and crash in bed and have lovely Dutch dreams, or nightmares :-). The next day it would start again.

After the full 5 days, on Friday evening, my husband came to pick me up from school. To his absolute astonishment, I was speaking decent Dutch! I was able to have complete conversations in Dutch. He couldn't believe his ears. It was only 5 days! After that, I was able to speak with his friends and family in Dutch, I was shopping and buying groceries in Dutch, I was even speaking Dutch on the phone.

I have to say that living in the home country of the language you are learning is key. My 5- day course at Regina C. did give me a big push: it gave me the confidence and enough basics to actually continue on my own in the real world. But what helped me the most was that I am daily confronted with the language. Everywhere I go, I had to use it. At this point, you can still fail if you don't dare to make mistakes. Being a perfectionist doesn't serve you well with learning a language, on the contrary. Use it, make mistakes, make sure you are understood, and you achieve your goal. Accept feedback and corrections with a good spirit and apply them. I am sure that this will allow you to speak, as we say in Arabic, "mitl el-bulbul', or 'like a nightingale'.

Looking back at my experience then, I remember this: every time I lacked the courage to speak in Dutch, fearing to make mistakes, I would think of my mom when we first moved to Canada. She would speak broken English, full of self-confidence, make tons of mistakes, and somehow manage to be understood and get what she wanted. This thought amused and motivated me.

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