How I'm learning Dutch

A personal note

If you learn as I learn -- by making mistakes, lots of them -- you might be interested to hear how I am learning Dutch.

I love learning, but I don't like being taught. A formal course with class sessions and a teacher's syllabus and final exams is not for me. Class sessions are too short and too seldom. A teacher's syllabus is too rational; learning a language is emotional and benefits enormously from just-in-time learning. And the idea with a test is to not make mistakes. Is that worth measuring? In my experience, the best way to learn a language is to make all the mistakes I can. When I stop making mistakes, I'll stop learning.

I am learning Dutch:

  • by listening to it

Podcasts through headphones or online video for an hour every day. For months, it was all noise. But I don't know how else to train my ear. Headphones are helpful because I hear the voices without ambient sounds in my environment -- like when I'm riding my bike.

What I watch and listen to

My favorites: SchoolTV.nl and 3 op Reis

When I am in the Netherlands, I keep my headphones off and my ears open. I avoid English-only speakers. I nurture friendships with people who seem to enjoy helping me learn. I go to lectures. I hang out where everyone is speaking Dutch. I eavesdrop, sometime embarrassing myself.

  • by speaking it

I was living in the Netherlands when I began, so I just opened my mouth and started to make mistakes. I still make mistakes all the time, but they're smarter mistakes now.

The moment I began trying to speak the language, the Dutch people (for the most part) were eager to help and quick with encouragement. Yes, everyone here speaks English, but that doesn't mean they want to speak it all the time. As soon as Dutch people began to be able to talk to me in Dutch only, doors began opening, literally, that wouldn't have opened otherwise.

The closest I got to anything formal was through the organization of volunteers at Gilde SamenSpraak Leiden. The resourceful Madelon Smit-den Blanken asked Constant Kool, a native Dutch speaker, to be my taalmaatje, language buddy. We met once a week for an hour and talked, mostly about Dutch culture and the current events I heard about on the news. At first, our conversation was awkward, and we had to switch to English often. But Constant is very patient. Gradually, the sessions became more and more Dutch.

The most important thing I did with Constant was to read aloud from novels for ten minutes at the end of every hour. He kept re-pronoucing words, and I'd try it his way. Again, it was very slow at first, and there are still half a dozen sounds I butcher, but it was very helpful.

  • by reading it

Linguistically, the languages closest to English are Dutch and Frisian. Once I figured out where to find the verbs, I could start to piece together sentences. I don't try for full comprehension, ever. I get what I can and move on. I read Google Nieuws and the web sites of the TV and radio stations I listen to. I sign up for Dutch language newsletters so there's always Dutch to read in my mailbox. While watching newscasts, I read the subtitles and the on-screen graphics that have words.

Most of my reading has something to do with Leeuwenhoek. Again, instead of trying for full comprehension the first time, I re-read and re-read, especially the Schierbeek biography and a handful of informative articles. Each time through, I get more and more out of it.

And then there are Leeuwenhoek's letters. The print version of Alles de Brieven / The Complete Letters has the Dutch on the left-hand page and the English on the right-hand page. More often, I use the online version of the letters. I have two browser windows side-by-side, one in each language. I have learned a lot of Dutch by comparing the two versions. In addition, the earlier volumes have many helpful notes.

  • by studying it

The resources I use for studying Dutch

When I'm working with 17th century Dutch, the three dictionaries at the top of that page are indispensible: Hexham's, Sewell's, and the Historische woordenboeken op internet (Historical dictionaries on the Internet), an invaluable resource provided by the Instituut voor Nederlandse Lexicologie (Dutch Institute for Lexicology).

When I began to take Dutch seriously, I got the Van Dale dictionary for my laptop. It is always open on my desktop. I consult it all day long. I also got the best English-language comprehensive Dutch grammer book, Donaldson's, and read it cover-to-cover. Unfortunately, it is available only in a paper version, so I scanned it as searchable .pdf files.

When I'm writing Dutch, I use the online grammar book more than Donaldson because it is easier to use. I also use an online verb conjugator, usually Verbix.com.