I’m 45, the CEO of The British School in The Netherlands (BSN) and I’m worried about my homework. My Dutch teacher takes her job seriously and will look let down if I don’t make an effort. She doesn’t want to look disappointed but I can always sense it.
There is a fine history of Anglo-Dutch relations between corporations and in my family. My wife’s side of the family is Dutch and I had a pretty good grasp of gezelligheid before arriving in The Netherlands (this has in my experience always involved Indonesian food, drink and friendly, if somewhat frank, conversation).
I do have some crazy latent Dutch that I have no right to know; this is the product of being immersed in conversations I haven’t fully understood with my in-laws over the last eighteen years. I’m confident that some of the expressions can’t be repeated in polite company but that they will come in handy when watching the football.
But if I really want get the most from being in another country I have to learn to speak the language. I got 63% of the way through a Dutch Language MOOC before I came (it is actually possible to be this precise with a MOOC). Like many users, I didn’t finish because I needed more interaction.
What we project as learners is fascinating. The fact that one of my first reactions to my teacher is a fear of letting her down is an emotional response and that should tell us a great deal. Learning is emotional and it takes a good deal of courage. As teachers we need to remind ourselves of this daily.
Learning takes courage
At 45 I’m a much better learner than I was when I was 15. I’m more resilient and I’m no longer addicted to Jet Set Willy for the Spectrum. I’ve also been in a learning environment my whole life. Can my experience as a Dutch student inform my educational philosophy and leadership? These are some early observations from my student renaissance:
- As I get better I feel I’m getting worse. My expectations of myself have the potential to dishearten me. I really should have recorded my week one spoken efforts for review at week fifteen. This tells me something about the need for a convincing formative assessment narrative.
- My teacher gets me to speak in ways that no-one else can. I secretly think she is the only one who can understand me. This is down to our relationship of trust. But I won’t just be interacting with her in The Netherlands. I need to immerse myself in the subject outside of the classroom.
- It’s important that I’ve told everyone with whom I work that I’m going to do this. It’s public. I made it public on purpose to pin my commitment. I want to speak better Dutch at my opening address at the start of the new academic year. BSN people will know if I’m better than I was last year. This tells me a lot about the importance of personal target setting.
- Relationships with real people are crucial. My Dutch is just about good enough for me to sound like I could actually hold a conversation. It is usually at this point that I deliquesce into a gibbering idiot who can’t form the perfect tense or do word order correctly.
- Your pride takes a hammering. My hairdresser doesn’t know where to start with the small talk and my wife hides when I try out my Dutch at home. To be fair, she spends hours pronouncing words and hearing me repeat them incorrectly in perpetuity. It must be hard to hear your man speaking like a five year old. My job is about communicating and I humble myself in front of my PA, Dutch colleagues and business connections. They are politely encouraging but I must be even more irritating than usual as I murder words and maul their language.
However, I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve enrolled in a programme from the BSN Language Centre, great teachers and the resources to make my Dutch stick. Everyone with whom I speak in this organisation is my teacher.
Whether they like it or not.
Another thing is for sure. We will do more at The BSN to connect people with Dutch. We learn so much more than a language in doing so. If the people we recruit aren’t encouraged and supported to do the same then we may lose people a year or two before we’d like to.