Lessons in my struggles to learn Dutch

This is a post about my struggles to learn Dutch and assimilate to my new country (which I’ve endeavored to wrap back around to the arts). The past few weeks I’ve been studying rather intensely, preparing for my NT2 Staatsexamen I—the Dutch language exam that I must pass in order to be granted permanent residency status and the ability to stay in the Netherlands with my Dutch husband and his two daughters once my PhD position at the university ends in a couple years. It’s a two-day exam that tests reading, writing, speaking, and listening proficiency.

It seems highly likely that I’m not going to pass all four sections. I may squeak by on writing and reading but my listening and speaking skills are laughable. In fact it’s all I can do not to crack myself up when I’m trying to do these parts of the test they are so hard. I’m not being hyperbolic or fatalistic. I’m terrible. My tutor basically said the same thing. Fortunately I have a couple years and a few more chances to retake the sections I fail.

They say you need to know around 5,000 words to pass the exam. I’ve drilled vocabulary and completed all three levels of Rosetta Stone and done 15-20 hours of self study for most of the past year using the system that the government supports (until next year when the subsidized programs ends). I am weary of trying to learn this language. I was weary six months ago.

I mentioned that my husband, Jaap, has two daughters. Flora and Sarah are their names. They are amazing and the picture above is of the four of us the day after Jaap and I were married last year. They are the reason that I moved to the Netherlands and Jaap did not move to NYC. It’s worth noting that for the past 18 months I have been unable to really converse with the girls beyond a few niceties: “What do you want for lunch?” “That dress is pretty.” “Have a good day at school.”  For the most part, we’ve relied heavily on gesturing and Jaap’s translation services to communicate with one another.

The past two weeks have been spring break for the girls. The first week of their spring break (which the girls spent with their mum) coincided with the first week of my intensive studies. It was at the end of that first week of studies that I took my practice tests and realized I was doomed to fail the speaking and writing sections of the exam. I was angry and frustrated and depressed. As much as I love my husband and the girls, and have no regrets about moving here to be with them, the past two years have been quite challenging. I changed just about every aspect of my life and left my friends and family and a city and job that I loved very much. I have been here nearly two years and everything, everyday still feels rather foreign to me. I have had my heart set on passing this exam and feeling like the universe was giving me a thumbs up that things were going to be OK for me in the Netherlands. I have really wanted—really needed—to pass this test.

On Tuesday of this week the girls came to stay with Jaap and me for a week. And something small yet rather amazing happened when they arrived. I was able to speak whole sentences to them and, for the most part, understand what they were saying to me. I may not be ready for the NT2 Staatsexamen 1, but evidently a couple weeks of intensive study has dramatically improved my ability to communicate with my stepdaughters.

A few days ago I came to a realization.

I decided, “Screw the Staatsexamen.”

Yes, of course, I must pass this exam eventually to get a residency permit—but passing the exam is so not the point.

I want to be able to talk with the girls. I want to be able to chit chat with family and friends at the rather incredible number of birthday parties that I attend each year. I want to watch Dutch news and understand what’s going on. I no longer want a group of Dutch people to have to speak English for my benefit when I’m in a meeting or at a dinner party. I want to feel like I belong here. I want to understand my new tribe. I want to be able to make people laugh in Dutch the way I can in English, at least on a good day.

It’s probably going to take many more years before I achieve these milestones. But for the moment, I can talk a bit more with my stepdaughters. And I’m holding onto that as I prepare to fail my exam tomorrow.

So what does any of this have to do with the arts?

First, It’s amazing to me how much easier it is for me to appear fluent on paper when I still have a hard time speaking three sentences in a row without stammering and having to stop and start again. I’m both grateful and frustrated by multilingual Netherlanders who immediately switch to English at my slightest hesitation with their language. It’s generous of them to speak English (which they all do amazingly well); but it isn’t helping me to master their language.  My Dutch is never really necessary or tested. I can always default back to what’s comfortable—to speaking English. Similarly, I think it’s relatively easy to fake change, innovation, and transformation on paper and I note that we often stammer about as we try to talk thoughtfully and without a bunch of jargon about what we’re really trying to do these days in the arts vis-à-vis the changing world. Moreover, it’s tempting to default back to business-as-usual when initial attempts to change our processes are frustrating to us and to our stakeholders.

Secondly, and not unrelated to point one, I was wondering last week whether (like passing the Staatsexmen) securing a high profile grant to support innovation, or change, or sustainability, or the future (or what have you) has somehow become the goal rather than a means to a higher goal. There’s so much fanfare about grant programs as they are announced and their winners celebrated. It’s as though we are living in a narrative in which the organization’s hero journey is a multi-year conversation with a major funder and grueling application process that finally leads to a five- or six- or seven-figure grant, rather than a ten-year conversation between an organization and a community that finally leads to a stronger and more vital relationship between the two.

I knew I was starting to get somewhere when I both stopped caring about the Staatsexamen and also stopped telling myself that I could probably get by without having to learn Dutch.

Finally, going through this process has given me tremendous compassion for all the leaders and staffers of arts organizations that have been turning the flywheel (to use a metaphor from Jim Collins) for several years now, trying to transform their organizations. I imagine that some must be incredibly weary of the process. This is hard, sometimes grueling, work and the returns are often small at the start. My new life is very different from my old life. That difference feels uncomfortable most days. I believe that if I continue to persevere at the university and with my Dutch lessons and with every other aspect of my new and challenging life that I will eventually find my place in this foreign land. Likewise, I believe that if the arts sector keeps turning the flywheel that it will find its purpose in this new world. The worst thing we could do at this point is stop pushing forward.

I’m looking forward to writing posts on a weekly basis starting again next week. Thanks for your patience and apologies for the hiatus while I was immersing myself in Dutch the past few weeks, for the greater good of my relationship with Flora and Sarah, even if not for the reward of a passing grade tomorrow.

The beach photo was taken by the terrific Leiden-based photographer, Martin Ken.


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  1. TomV says

    Hello Diane,

    I can well understand your frustration. Alas, Dutch – like Danish – is one of the worst European languages to learn to understand and speak. The grammar and many of the words are pretty close to English, but once you get to speaking and understanding….oyvey.

    I say Danish, because I lived many years in that country, but fortunately(?) arrived at age 4, so I was able to pick up the language fluently, as indeed I was able to do with English a couple of years later.

    I lived with my American wife in Denmark for a couple of years, and her experiences are very much the same as you narrate. Danes would switch to English when needed, but often, in purely social situations, they got tired of the English and switched to Danish with nary a thought for my wife. When they did speak Danish to her, they made no effort to slow it down and be patient waiting for the reply. Sufficient to say that after a few years, we left Denmark and moved back to the U.S., which was fine with me, since I don’t particularly like the mindset of small countries with all the rules and regulations that are de rigeur at work and in one’s social life.

    Danish or Dutch spoken at normal colloquial speed stymies most foreigners, though I think Danish is even worse than Dutch, since Danish basically has almost no fixed rules of pronunciation. I believe spoken Dutch isn’t quite as bad in that respect.

    Fortunately, you have a good attitude, which is the only path to success. I wish there was a shortcut to learning languages that are unintelligible when spoken. There are a few pointers I can give you, based on my experience learning Swedish, German, Italian and French at a somewhat more advanced age.

    Read comic books in Dutch, e.g., Tintin or Asterix. The vocabulary there is much simpler than in newspapers and books and corresponds better with the level you have to start at and more closely resemble the way people speak. They also beat the dry starter’s language learning books hands down in preventing utter boredom. Have your daughters or husband “test” you once you’ve finished a comic book by reading random passages to which you try to construct an answer (whatever springs to mind – it doesn’t have to be connected with the text from the comic book).

    I don’t recall if they dub foreign programming or use subtitles on Dutch TV. But watching TV in English while reading the subtitles in Dutch is also a very helpful technique. If TV programs are dubbed, try DVDs that you can set to the original language with Dutch subtitles. Again, if you can find programming for kids or kids’ program DVDs that is the best place to start because the language is simpler, easier to start out with and easier to memorize.

    Practice Dutch in your own head – which you most likely already do. Initially, it is helpful to form a sentence in your own language and then translate it in your mind. If you can’t come up with words, look them up and write them on flash cards for memorization. Ultimately, though, the goal is to think in Dutch (or not think about the fact that you’re thinking in Dutch), otherwise you’ll never get up to speed. If you are comfortable enough with the translation in your mind method, switch to forming sentences in Dutch in advance of the situation in which you’ll need them. For example when you go purchase something at a counter in a store. Force yourself not to switch back to English when making phrases in your mind.

    If you have a Dutch best friend, ask him/her to help you out by speaking to you only in slow Dutch and correcting you when you make mistakes. You can speed up as you get more comfortable. I realize that your husband is probably already doing that with you, but you get used to hearing only once voice, and you need as much variety as you can get in order to become fluent. Also, you get comfortable with a family member, whereas someone outside the family circle will make you less likely to clam up when you have to speak with strangers.

    Also, aim to become comfortable with 500 words spoken in only the future, present and past tenses at first and build on that. Skip trying to construct hypothetical sentences as you are used to as an adult. Realize – again, as I’m sure you already have – that you’re not going to be able to have an “adult conversation” for a while, so don’t try to force it because you think that, as an adult, you should be able to or you’ll look stupid. That’s the way kids do it, since their vocabulary is at that level when they are able to pick up languages quickly and fluently. Once you have 500 words down pat, getting to 5000 is much easier and not nearly as daunting.

    Most important of all, don’t hesitate to say “please speak a bit slower, I’m still learning Dutch.” If that makes the person switch to English use another Dutch phrase: “I don’t understand English (or German or whatever).”

    Good luck and greetings from someone who found managing non-profit organisations as frustrating as you find Dutch and who, unlike you, decided to say to hell with it, I don’t need this level of frustration.

  2. says

    Diane, I so admire your stretching beyond your accustomed boundaries. You’ve always been someone whose work and work ethic I’ve admired. And though you may doubt what your results might be, I love how you find value (maybe more inward results) in the work required.

    I keep reading Jumper because of the personal value you keep putting into it. It’s what we ask our actors — and indeed, all our artists — to do. It’s what keeps our work relevant and non-cliche’ed.



  3. says

    Parents of children in two-language (or more) families may have another take on your situation. If you learn to speak Dutch (as by all means you should if you’re planning to continue living in The Netherlands) in order to speak it to your stepdaughters, you are depriving them of a terrific opportunity to grow up bilingual (though as I write that of Dutch people, I laughed … since few of the Dutch people I know stopped at a mere two languages). If you speak English to the girls all the time, you give them the opportunity to race ahead of their peers in that language. My (younger-than-your-stepdaughters) kids live in a Japanese-language bubble; their mother, maternal grandparents, friends and audiovisual entertainments are all Japanese. I noticed last year that their (rudimentary … they’re still young) English skills were declining, and implemented a (mostly observed) English-only rule for myself in the house. And I took my son with me without his mother and little sister on a recent trip to New York. Fight the power! Do the right thing! 😉

  4. says

    Hallo Dianne,

    Je moet nederlands leren zodat je je volledig thuis in Nederland voelt, en niet voor een staatsexam.

    It took us (2 American expats now living in NL for more than 16 years) about 6 years to reach a level where our Dutch was as good of the general guy on the street’s English. It is so worth it to get there — to know what’s going on as you walk down the street, to be able to catch the joke that the butcher is throwing at you, to be able to argue with the guy giving you a parking ticket.

    It is so easy to stay in the expat bubble of being a second class citizen to whom everyone linguistically caters.

    So keep going, you’ll get there, hopefully before those girls get completely fluent in English in high school! (Then you can help them practice their “th” and their “t” versus “d” at the end of words.)

    I find your metaphors very appropriate. Change is really easy to talk about and really sweaty to do

    I am also curious how your thinking about the arts world will change as you quietly add the word “Nederlander” to your resume. The wider world view will make your writings even more interesting!

  5. Jeanne C. Fuchs says

    Diane, your post comments remind me of Garrison Keillor’s comment years ago – when he was married to a Dane and went to live (briefly) in Denmark – that it was so difficult to learn & speak Danish that even the Danes came home from work at night & said “Oof, Danish is so hard, let’s speak English.”

  6. Andy Buelow says

    Diane, thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. The analogy between your struggles with Dutch and the struggles of arts organizations to “learn a new language” really fits. In my chosen part of this world, the orchestra industry, I am perceiving a growing misunderstanding between the boards and administrators’ well-meaning and perhaps stumbling efforts being made to “reinvent the model,” and the professional musicians whose livelihoods may change as a result. I hope that real dialogue can happen between the two groups instead of the polarizing rhetoric that often seems to be generated during collective bargaining struggles. Boards, administrators, and musicians alike need to learn a new language. Thank you for pointing the way toward a mindset that might help this happen.

  7. Natasja Koole says

    I can only speak from experiences with the Dutch financing system of the arts, but I can relate to your analogy when it comes to grants.
    I get really frustrated when I realize in an application process that the applicant pretty much devised a project apart from what they really want to achieve, just in order to raise more funds. But I understand it very well, because when I was at the other side of the fence I also had to find a way to cooking up my plans in order for them to fit fundingcriteria. I also realise that in our system where it’s public money we’re spending, accountability is key and we’ll always have criteria, formatting etc in the application process. But we should be aware that how more rigid that process becomes, the less likely we (government, grantgivers) are to stimulate the actual innovation,renewal or whatever other development we want to achieve.

  8. Ann Brown says

    I find that learning Dutch has been the most difficult learning endeavour I have ever undertaken (and this is after years of post graduate studies at universities!). However, after doing my own analysis, I discovered why I feel this way.

    Firstly, learning a language seemingly has no end. At least when you enrol in a Master’s or PhD programme you know when the end will be. Three semesters, 4 years etc., and then you are conferred your degree. The steps are clear and defined. However, with every success you have with the acquisition of a language, there is still more to achieve.

    For example, you move from not understanding a word, to understanding a sentence, then you find yourself understanding a whole story. You feel good about these accomplishments, but then it is time to start speaking and writing…plus, no one can tell in explicit terms when you will be fluent. After how many hours of study? After how many hours of practice? After how many years? What are the clear steps of progression that if I follow, I will be successful? In my case my Dutch is good enough for daily life, but not good enough to work in a Dutch company. Frustrating indeed.

    From my own experience I find that my command of Dutch is definitely not a liner progression. There are days when I speak well and understand, and then out of the blue, there are days when I lose all my vocabulary. In sum, this is not a motivator to keep studying.

    Secondly, learning a language is harder than other types of learning, as often, it is your mistakes that become the focus rather than the things that you do correctly. In an academic setting, you are rewarded for a good research paper etc., however, nobody comments when your Dutch is perfect. The focus of caring spouses and language teachers is on correcting the bad grammar, the bad pronunciation…this can lead to even more frustration…

    Anyhow, I am happy that you are focussing more on the “big picture’ of being able to communicate with your step daughters. This is a better approach than obsessing on “I must pass an exam”….as if this was an end in and of itself. My command of Dutch soared after I slowed down the pace and tried to enjoy the experience and take pleasure out of my new found ability to communicate. As my husband says, one has to “feel and live” the language. Studying can only take you so far.

    Best of luck to you.

  9. says

    Hello! New reader here… I came over by way of Nina Simon’s blog Museum 2.0, and this post immediately caught my eye. I recently left the States to settle in Croatia and try to find a place for myself in Zagreb’s art community. Though I love it here (and I even love the language, though it is also very difficult), you put it so well: “My new life is very different from my old life. That difference feels uncomfortable most days.”

    Keep posting. I’m looking forward to reading more.

    And, it looks like you have more than enough language tips already, but three things have helped me a lot since I quit taking formal language courses: speaking a lot more, reading something I enjoy (right now, it’s Catcher in the Rye since I’ve read it many times in English and it’s quite conversational and simple in terms of syntax), and translating content I care about (currently, exhibition descriptions for the museum I work at). Like you, though, I feel more comfortable writing than speaking, and the only way to rectify that is to speak more. Easier said than done, right?

  10. says

    Hi Diane,

    I’ve just stumbled across your site. Great post on your struggles to learn dutch!

    How’s it going now with learning dutch?

    I’ve been really working hard on my dutch for the last year (and on-and-off for the 9 years before that!) and on the whole it’s going well. Aside from time with my family I usually speak dutch more than 90% of the time. However I still struggle often with frustrating experiences (usually people who for some reason won’t speak dutch with me).

    I’ve also been learning Italian and am progressing so much faster with that as I HAVE TO speak Italian when I go there. Sometimes in the Netherlands I really wonder why I’m bothering investing thousands of hours of my time!

    But those thoughts only come on a bad day :-)

    On a good day I can see that I’m much happier and more integrated since I focused on improving my dutch.

    It’s also an amazing challenge!

    I hope it’s going well for you…

  11. Emily says

    Thanks for your article. It is what I needed today. I’m in a very similar situation to you, I got remarried to an American who has been living in Sweden for the past 18 years. I brought my three children with me, 17, 15 and 10. I attend the Swedish for immigrants classes and have passed the first national test, but can I speak? If my kids laughing at me is any indication well….I would say no. Today after leaving my Swedish class I came home so discouraged and feeling like I will never learn this language. My understanding of it is ok when in class and the teachers speak slowly, but outside of class its a whole other story. So what do I do? Switch to English! It’s my crutch, but I really want to be able to speak Swedish for all the same reasons you mentioned you were trying to learn Dutch. I hope I get over this hump and have the courage to try and speak Swedish and be ready to be laughed at. I might mention I don’t speak to my husband either in Swedish, he is fluent and he has corrected my pronunciation right off the bat and has left me to shy to try again, that combined with my kids continually saying “don’t try and speak mom you sound horrible” well those reasons have left me too embarrassed to speak except with my other immigrant friends at school. Most of them have horrible pronunciation as well:) otherwise I was about ready to throw in towel until I read your article and it has helped. Thanks

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