This year I declared that I want to learn Dutch. Why? Why not? I’ve studied several languages in the past, and I thought I would share my methods before I really get rolling.
Languages are ranked by complexity, and there are four categories. Japanese and Arabic, for example, are both Category IV, partly because they have their own writing systems. There are serviceable estimates for how many hours of study it takes to become fluent in various languages. Dutch qualifies as a Category I, and that’s why I’m comfortable choosing it as a project.
Usually when people say they want to learn a language, instead of “I want to learn this language,” they say, “I want to get the Rosetta Stone” for it. I’ve heard this from dozens of people, but I’ve never actually met anyone who claims to have learned a language this way! I single it out because it’s expensive, and with the internet, there are tons of free ways to learn any language.
There are two important questions to answer that have already come up in this post.
There are four categories of language comprehension: speaking, listening, writing, and reading. We tend to be better at some categories than others, even in our native tongue. Most people picture themselves “speaking” their chosen language.
The basic problem with this, as I have found from experience, is that the better you sound, the more fluent people assume you are, and the faster they start talking to you! They will not realize that they should filter for you, so they’ll use slang, big words, and idioms. I’m a good mimic, so I purposely talk slowly and flatten my accent. If my vocabulary only has like twenty words, then I want to make sure that’s obvious to my listener.
This is why, for my purposes, when I say “learn” a language I really mean I want to be able to read it. I would only consider myself fluent if I could listen to a casual speaker and grasp 80% of what they were saying.
Fluency doesn’t mean we need to know a bunch of obscure surgical terminology or be able to have a conversation about numismatics - unless, of course, that’s the reason we’re trying to study.
This is where most beginners could use more specificity. We think of learning a language as a bucket list type of a goal, but we don’t necessarily color in the whole visual. Who are we talking to, and what are we talking about?
When we study languages in school, we start with grammar and classroom nouns, like ‘paper’ and ‘pencil.’ We might spend a year in class, get straight A’s, and still not be able to use the past tense. We get few opportunities to listen to natural speakers having casual conversations, which is probably how most of us would imagine fluency feels.
What I’ve learned from travel is that almost all of my opportunities to practice speaking are totally predictable, utilitarian transactions. Buying stuff. Getting directions. Getting directions in order to buy stuff. Asking what ingredients are in something. I realized that I needed to spend much more time listening, like 3:1, rather than speaking. I also realized that I needed to spend about 5x more effort memorizing lists of nouns.
This is where I get around to why I chose the Dutch language, out of all others, and how I picture myself using it.
The first time I traveled to a country whose official language was not English, I was blown away to realize how many travelers there are from other countries. Wherever you go, if it’s a tourist attraction, there will be French and German visitors! I had the opportunity to try to help a French tourist read an Icelandic map, and I realized that the French I studied as a 12-year-old kid actually had a real-world application. It was more than a thing of beauty and complexity, an interesting puzzle; it was a legit code for altruism and human connection. Whoa.
I went home and picked up a bit of French and German. As I did, I pictured all the friendly French and German faces I had seen on the trail and I imagined being able to trade travel notes and birdwatching tips. It was motivating.
Adding Dutch, for a linguistics nerd like me, is a way to stretch my circle.
The reason I’m focusing on a language for my first declared ultralearning project is that I’ve felt like I have neglected an innate talent. For other people, this might be something like drawing, singing, woodworking, playing guitar, dance, or a sport like tennis or swimming. I’m pretty terrible at every single one of those things, but language is something I can get into. Also, it’s supposed to help fight dementia.
Why Dutch, just to meet backpackers in other countries? Because it’s a Cat I, that’s why, and the grammar is similar to English. Later I intend to bone up on my high school Japanese. I can still read hiragana and katakana, I’ve had a couple of quickie conversations over the years, and my accent is understandable. I’m pretty excited to take on more Asian languages - I’m just rusty.
My ultimate fantasy would be to travel in every country on Earth, and spend enough time studying in advance that I could exchange greetings with someone there in their own language. That’s not necessarily a dream of unity, though. Why should someone else drop what they were doing just to entertain me?
“HI! GUUUD MORGNIEEN” *tries to wave, instead makes rude gesture*
“Uh, hi?... Do I... know you?” *rolls eyes*
In the meantime, I’ve started my project. I’ve chosen my language and I know why I want to learn it. I can picture the types of transactions and conversations I might have.
At this stage, I assemble my materials.
I don’t believe in going out and buying “foreign language dictionaries.” I used to! I used to check them out from the public library in stacks up to my chin. Instead, I start with the Babbel app. When I feel like I know a bit more, I go to TuneIn Radio and try to find a local station. I try to sound out news headlines. The next step would be to find a language partner for chatting online, and that’s where I balked back before I became a Distinguished Toastmaster.
That’s what is so funny about linguistics. A lot of us with a great passion for languages are actually really shy about using those languages to, ya know, talk? To humans?
All right then. My ultralearning language project is to study Dutch until I can test at the A1 level. I’ll also try to find a real Dutch person who will chat with me in Dutch for a minute or two, next fall or winter.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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