Last year I wrote about learning Dutch; the efforts of an educator being educated. I’m still going and I’m better than last year.
Crunching through approved European Language acquisition scale’s A-C gears and probably an A1 when I last wrote, I’m a passable B1 now and moving into B2 in some areas.
Do assessment criteria help me? Actually not. But I’m not taking any exams.
As a sample of one I won’t be extrapolating wild claims about Assessment, Recording and Reporting policy but it’s revealing to feel as vulnerable and frustrated as some of our children and young people must feel when continually addressing new knowledge.
I find myself in frustrating plateaus and then on wonderful peaks when fluency feels close only to be dashed again when I bite off more than I can chew in a conversation and have to revert to English.
When I’m fully engaged, I actually lose sleep. I’m translating conversations, reminding myself of vocabulary and finding myself in embarrassing positions in which the words run out. Sometimes the shame is real and you just have to laugh with others and AT yourself.
I was in a cafe in Amsterdam last week (a real one) and conducting myself beautifully in Dutch. When it came to paying I responded confidently and even offered a small tip, “laat de rest maar zitten.” I was hastily called back because I’d misheard the bill and hadn’t left enough money. An Englishman’s nightmare.
I’m lucky though. From my background knowledge of grammar I understand the difference between the perfect and imperfect tenses, know my conjunctions from my prepositions and have used these skills previously (although imperfectly), to learn the rudiments of other languages. There is a point where your improved vocabulary accelerates your progress in Dutch; breaking down long compound nouns into meaningful chunks makes educated guessing more easy.
What I’ve lost in brain plasticity I’ve made up for in stubbornness and the confidence to give things a try – knowing things are likely to go wrong. What prevents my teenage sons from embracing the language is the generic sense of “mortification” afflicting many teens. As a father, my core function is to be embarrassing.
Having placed a huge emphasis on spoken communication, I joined a local football team (Voorschoten ’97) and a Rotary club in The Hague. Win-win. The Dutch are super friendly, great company, patient and they give you a free language lesson.
“What do you mean the Dutch don’t drink mulled wine on the bench?”
Rather more high-brow – one of the fascinating lectures at The Hague Rotary Club
However, learning is frustrating; I am always below where I want to be. I can do small talk quite nicely and so well that big talk comes too quickly and I can only nod; it feels terrible, like I’m letting people down.
Sometimes I understand the whole story on the radio with such clarity that I think I’ve got the whole thing cracked and then the next story leaves me stumped at the first sentence. This is what it must feel like for our children and young people with EAL and why this area of our school provision is so crucial. Learning a language makes you feel fragile.
So how to get to the next level? I need to read back through my notes more frequently. Having spent 25 years telling my students this, it’s surprising how difficult I find it to commit to my own advice. Therefore I know I need to be tested. Regularly. This may be a reflection of the mental maps of my past but it’s true. Low stakes regular tests help commit core knowledge to memory.
I’m going to ask my teacher for a test because I know I don’t like failing. And I’m a bit of a swot.
On the positive side, I can now survive in Dutch. It does feel different here a year later. Walking around town the words are no longer alien. The adverts work and the backs of vans make sense. I feel more at home. I’m confident I could get out of most sticky situations with a non-English speaker (as long as they were patient). There is also that look of wild surprise and even joy when I persist with Dutch.
And there is no escape for my Dutch colleagues. I am now at the point of insisting that the first 5-10 minutes of every meeting is in Dutch.
The BSN Language Centre, shares the same vision for colleagues. We have structured programmes on offer and actively encourage study. After finding many people just couldn’t make many of the “taal cafes” our Dutch teachers set up to provide a social setting for learning, we’re determined to try something else.
Learning a language is a challenge but also a pleasure. Stick at it.