After years of talking about it, I’ve finally completed a Dutch course. Yay me! I’ve spent the last two weeks completing the intensive intermediate course at Direct Dutch in The Hague; a crazy-busy undertaking which had me study a ten week course in just ten days.
And the result? I’ve gotten a lot better. I can feel it; my grammar has improved drastically (I’d never heard of inversions or sub-clauses before last week) and I’ve found a bit more confidence in speaking. I’m far from fluent – in fact, I’m worried that other Dutchies will think that I am now – but I’m a lot closer to what I want to achieve, and that’s the Staatsexam NT2.
Dutch is by far the weirdest language I’ve ever learnt. (I’ve taken classes in Japanese, Italian, Spanish and sign language in the past.) When I was learning Japanese, I had to completely leave my English at the door to the classroom. The language bore no similarities to English and you had to completely start from scratch. I actually found myself liking this, and I always found Japanese grammar quite mathematical and easy to navigate. Vocabulary and the kanji text were another story, unfortunately.
Dutch, in direct comparison, is one of English’s closest relatives. In fact, they were pretty much the same language for a while. This makes a lot of things easier – a lot of vocabulary is shared, and simple sentences have the same grammatical pattern – but can make you lazy and therefore make silly mistakes. You catch yourself getting mixed up with the two languages all the time.
I took a beginner’s Dutch course back in Melbourne in 2010. Here I learnt things like the days of the week, numbers and how to order a cup of coffee. For the next three and a bit years, I picked up a lot of vocab just by living here, but hardly any new grammar. I was stuck.
The thing was, I’d never really been interested in learning Dutch. Sure, I wanted to know the basics to be polite, and thought it would be great if I was a bit better at it all, but I just hadn’t found the environment very conducive to getting better at the vernacular. Some Dutch people have been helpful and patient when I’ve stumbled through their language, but they have been in the minority. The vast majority have either switched straight to English or flat out laughed at me.
The laughter has occurred on more than one occasion, and it was completely mortifying. Compare that with what I experienced in Japan (complete joy and even disbelief that I was attempting to speak their language) and Spain (the attitude of ‘hey, I don’t know your language either, so I appreciate that you’re making the effort’). The laughter has had a direct effect on me often getting Paul to ask for directions or make a restaurant booking, for example.
What made me take action, in reality, is the need for me to take a language test here in order to qualify for a Dutch passport. It’s mandatory for all foreign residents who don’t have an EU passport, either through inburgering (sort of a citizenship test, which has gained a pretty bad name since it was first introduced) or the harder but more respected Staatsxam. I wasn’t really in the mood for toddling off to inburgering classes three times a week for months on end to learn about Queen Maxima and stroopwafels, so I opted for the Staatsexam instead.
So that’s why I found myself, after living in the country for almost three years, returning to the classroom yet again to learn the local lingo. I had five other students in my class – two French, one Spanish, one Romanian and one Chinese – and we were all at a similar level. I quickly found out that my strength was writing, whereas some others were much more confident in speaking.
If you’re reading this as someone who’s in a similar position and weighing up different Dutch language schools, then I can recommend Direct Dutch. I was placed at the intermediate level after a short interview, which was easily the scariest thing I’ve done all year (even scarier than bribing border guards). Petra, who ended up being my teacher, recommended the intensive course which was what I had in mind anyway. I wanted to get better fast, after plodding away slowly for the last few years.
We ended up having three hours of classes, plus about three hours of homework, per day. Half of the class would be spent on grammar and going over the homework (so you end up self-studying quite a lot) and the other half would have us talking about everything from the Miss Nederland beauty pageant to Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. Petra would keep the conversation going and was a real character. She was easy to understand, encouraging in that very direct sort of the way of the Dutch (meaning that if you said something stupid she’d burst out laughing) and downright hilarious. Her style wasn’t exactly orthodox, but it certainly worked.
Something you’d have to be aware of, however, is that the class is taught almost entirely in Dutch. This took some getting used to on my part. I didn’t mind so much with the class discussions and so forth, but it took a lot of getting used to in terms of understanding grammar points. Some of it just went right over my head, as explanations were simplified for our understanding, but at times too simplified for otherwise quite complicated grammar. Everyone in my class spoke fluent English, so we ended up helping each other in the breaks. English explanations of the most important grammar points – inversion and sub-clauses – would have saved me a week of frustration. (Yes, I know that’s yet another example of a native English speaker expecting everyone to cater to them. I don’t care.)
Another thing to keep in mind is the cost. This is probably the main reason why I didn’t sign up for a class earlier – it’s scarily expensive. My course cost €535, including study materials. Compared with friends’ stories of doing intensive courses in Spanish and German, this price was absolutely ridiculous. But hardly anyone learns Dutch, really, so prices are quite high.
So, was it worth it? Only time will tell, really. We took three out of the four Staatsexam practice exams and I easily passed the writing and reading components and just came up short with listening (why do you need 29/40 to pass? WHY?) so I know what I need to work on.
I’m going to aim for taking the Staatsexam in March. That should give me enough time to scrub up on my vocabulary (that’s what’s holding me back with the listening test – all words beginning with ‘v’ sound the same to me) and not feel completely out of my depth.
There’s only one thing standing in the way of this noble quest. On Thursday I’m heading to Australia for almost a month. Looks like Paul and I will be speaking in het Nederlands in the stands of the MCG.