How to not learn a language

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I was in Europe for 90 days. Before I left home, I knew that the mother language of my home base in Belgium was Dutch, specifically the Flemish dialect. I poured over books, websites and Rosetta Stone with great ambition, sure that I would know enough Flemish to get by for a summer in Belgium. This lasted a few weeks. Native Belgians and friends who had traveled the area told me that almost everyone could speak English. I stopped studying, comfortable in the fact that I would be just fine and learn as I went.

Big mistake.

I’ll be honest. I kind of just expected it to come to me. That if I listened hard enough, I would just know the words I needed to know and Presto! Flemish! That’s what people talk about, right? I expected to be immersed into the language, forcing me to cope with the lack of English and be fluent in no time. But I wasn’t immersed. Any conversations in the house that included me were in English. My boyfriend and I spoke English. I could say “alstublieft” and “dank u wel” which were enough to get me through a cash register. When I had a question I either avoided things altogether or spoke to the employee in English. In practice I was learning nothing.

I could read some signs or pick up a couple words, but when given the opportunity to speak Flemish, I was mute. I was so worried about being wrong and embarrassing myself that I couldn’t open my mouth. There were nights I sat and cried. In English I could be brave, friendly and passionate, but in Flemish I felt so impressively stupid, weak and scared. I had so much to offer and to say, but no one knew me. No one was able to know me. I had never had to struggle to communicate before and it was burning me up from the inside.
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I truly failed myself in group situations. When I was with a tiny group,  we would almost always speak English, but that was nearly impossible with groups larger than four people. And why should it? Most of the crowd didn’t know me, had no reason to care about whether I understood or not. Mix in a couple drinks per person and everyone was rowdy and shooting rapid fire Flemish in all directions. Sometimes someone would turn to me and say something in Flemish. When they realized I couldn’t understand, I was given a look or pity or annoyance before they returned to the conversation. I was overwhelmed, feeling left out and wishing that I had just spent more time studying. I never knew that a person could feel so disconnected from the world while sitting with a dozen people. I didn’t want to busy myself somewhere else and miss out, but I also couldn’t figure out what I was missing out on. By the third month I was craving conversation the way junkies crave their next trip.

What I was too self involved to see was that many of the people in these groups were having the same problem as I was. They were too nervous to speak English. It was easier to leave out one strange girl than look like a fool. For many that I spoke to, English was something that they had to think about before they spoke. It didn’t flow off their tongue in quick succession the way their mother language did.  It took almost three months to stop pitying myself and take notice. I wrongly assumed that it was just easier for them than it was for me.

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I owe incredible amounts of gratitude to the people who went out of their way to speak to me, help me and include me. Without them I would have been figuratively and literally lost. If I had been intelligent instead of emotional, I would have taken advantage of the situation. I was surrounded by a language I wanted so desperately to understand, but didn’t ask any questions. There were several people that I spent time with who could have and would have taught me things, but I was too afraid to practice in front of anyone. I learned a lot about myself and the way the world operates while I was away. There was no way I should have left home with a vocabulary consisting of the words for fish and bike.  I should have been able to see when I was overwhelmed and walked away from the situation instead of sitting there and letting it drill into my bones. I should have realized that I’ll never be the only nervous person in the group. I should have spoken up and made a bigger effort to make friends.

Above all else I should have spoken the language with confidence and conviction. The few times I made an attempt to write or speak Flemish, I was met with confused or irritated looks. It stopped me in my tracks and I shouldn’t have let it. I made it just another excuse to limit my learning and my interactions with others. I was the creator and keeper of my own loneliness and I won’t let it happen again.

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Categories: Personal, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

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20 thoughts on “How to not learn a language

  1. Very funny – but how useful would learning Flemish be anyway?

    • catrector

      My boyfriend is Belgian and I intend to spend a lot more time there in the future. For me, Flemish will be a must have!

    • Elke

      How is learning a second or third language ever “not useful”? anything you learn that you don’t know is always useful!

      Also Cat, this is really not a “you” thing, this goes for everyone! Remember in France, when my boyfriend was irritated the first few days, because he couldn’t follow the English we were speaking? Now he’s begging me to speak English to him at home so that he can learn and next time he can understand.

      PS: If you plan on staying/working in Europe, a lot of rich business are settled in the Flemish region of Belgium, so if you want to make big bucks by impressing your clients, any form of Flemish, bad or good,is always appreciated.

      • Never could I stay for an extended period of time in Belgium – the food is way too good!
        After two months I would be easier to jump over than walk around.

      • catrector

        I do remember him being very frustrated and I’m glad that we were all able to have a good time. His English turned out to be fantastic, but I can understand being nervous to use it. It’s comforting to know that I’m not a unique case. There were so many people who were just fluent in many languages that it was hard to remember that behind that were years of hard work.

        At this point its hard to say who will do what, but there’s a fifty percent chance that I’ll end up in Belgium. Knowing that I’ll be back at all is enough for me to learn Flemish. Every language opens new doors and I have huge reasons to get this one under my belt.

        Plus, how many people do I know in Canada who know Flemish? None! How impressive would that be?! 😛

  2. I’m often met with the same response cavegirlmba gave, but it always baffles me! How would not learning a new language not be useful in any way? Besides, as long as you are speaking a correct Flemish vs hyper dialect, it can serve you in several countries. It may not be as widespread as English and Spanish, but it’s not a long forgotten language. I’ve found that telling a native Dutch/ Flemish speaker that you are learning the language usually makes them happy because it’s a language that is so often overlooked.

    I had a similar thought process to this when I got back home. The only difference was that because I had often found myself out and about on my own, I often got stuck in a situation were the clerk on waitress or pedestrian actually spoke less English than I spoke Dutch and it helped me kick in my Speaking Dutch to Strangers lol Everytime they understood a word, I felt more proud and confident haha.. They Also warn you in most Dutch textbooks that pronounciation is tricky and that if you say it a tidbit wrong..you are met with confused looks because you just said something REALLY weird 🙂

    Goodluck and we should have Dutch days were we force ourselves to babble to each other in Dutch 🙂

    • catrector

      Dutch dates might be a good idea! We can order fish and ride bikes and other related words that we know!

      There is never a downside to learning something new. There are still people worldwide learning Latin, despite the fact that its a dead language. And it certainly didn’t seem pointless to learn Dutch while I was sitting with Belgians and Dutch people trying to decipher conversations. For me it’s a matter of participating in the conversations at the dinner table, being able to haggle at the flea market and to ask a question at the grocery store.

      One of the biggest restraints with my trip was that I wasn’t on my own and because both of us were always free, we went everywhere together. I actually did much worse in front of my boyfriend than I did alone with a stranger. A stranger will never see you again. Even when my boyfriend found it cute, I had the knee jerk reaction that it wasn’t supposed to be cute. The next trip I’m looking forward to having to go and get things on my own and be forced into those situations.

      • Elke

        I hope he took you to Amsterdam by the way??? If not, I’ll take you with me next time. Trust me, you’ll learn all the Dutch you need to know in one night 😉

      • catrector

        We didn’t go to Amsterdam! We were in Holland twice for work, but nothing else. I’ve heard its quite the place and it’s certainly on my list. We didn’t even get to Brussels! There’s too much to see!

      • Elke

        Good thing he didn’t take you to Brussels, clever man. If you did, you probably would have had a whole other view of Belgium… god.. what a shithole..

      • catrector

        HAHAHA That is NOT what I expected to hear! The average response has been “TISK TISK, he didn’t take you to the capital?” But with a response like that I can stick with Gent.

  3. Irrelevant

    My boyfriend is American, and spent months here in Belgium. He had the same problem as you, and felt very excluded because all the conversations would be in Dutch. You’re so, so big for seeing the bigger picture and their perspective. That’s amazing.
    If you ever need Belgian people who speak Dutch with you, or want to make friends there, don’t hesitate to hit me up.

    • catrector

      That is so thoughtful of you to translate that for me! I’ve been looking into different ways to learn so that I’m not always feeling like it’s work, so things are shaping up.

      It honestly took a long time and a lot of reflection to get to the conclusion that it wasn’t all about me. I had been told that everyone would just speak English when I was around and when that expectation didn’t live up to the reality, I felt offended. I was upset that in a crowd that I had a lot in common with, I was a pariah because of my lack of language skills.

      To be honest, I still feel torn. Of course everything I wrote is true, but I have moments where I think it wouldn’t have been so hard for one of the group to include me. I’m very grateful for those who chose to go out of their way to talk to me. It made all the difference, so much so that it sometimes brought me to tears. Either way, I know I have to do better next time.

      As far as meeting, I have no idea at the moment when my next date in Belgium will be. We have a “plan” but nothing solid unfortunately. But when it happens I may take you up on the offer!

      • Irrelevant

        I know all about long distance planning and plotting, and mostly I know how it can all blow up in your face. Hang in there.
        Belgians can sometimes seem very closed, especially when compared to the socially VERY approachable Northern American culture. It really is a big difference. Not your fault though, nor anything personal. Hopefully that notion will somewhat help you.
        Good luck with the Dutch! (translation following)

      • Irrelevant

        Ik ken alles van het lange-afstands-plannen-en-voorbereiden, en vooral weet ik heel goed hoe het allemaal kan mislopen. Hou vol.
        Belgen kunnen soms erg gesloten lijken, zeker als je ze vergelijkt met de sociaal HEEL toegankelijke Noord-Amerikaanse cultuur. Het is echt een heel groot verschil. Maar niet jouw schuld, en evenmin persoonlijk bedoeld. Hopelijk kan die opvatting je een beetje helpen.
        Veel geluk met het Nederlands!

      • Elke

        At least we’re not as bad as the French!

        – a not so closed belgian

      • Irrelevant

        Haha this is true 🙂

      • catrector

        Conversations like this make me a lot more motivated to learn and be confident enough to use what I’m learning. Thanks guys! *single tear*

  4. Irrelevant

    Mijn vriend is een Amerikaan, en heeft maanden hier in België gezeten. Hij had hetzelfde probleem als jij, en voelde zich erg buitengesloten omdat alle conversaties in het Nederlands waren. Jij bent zo, zo grootmoedig dat je het grotere plaatje kunt zien, en hun standpunt. Dat is ongelooflijk.
    Als je ooit Belgische mensen nodig hebt om Nederlands met jou te praten, of Belgische vrienden wil maken, aarzel niet om me een seintje te geven!
    (Exact translation, maybe you can find similarities in phrase construction already!)

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