Deborah Nicholls-Lee explains how learning a language is child’s play and a lot less stressful than you think – just copy your toddler. 

My two-year-old daughter wants to leap off the sofa, run in the street without holding my hand, and be pushed as high as possible on the swing. She enjoys new challenges and sensations and, like most toddlers, she knows no fear.

It is no surprise that this age group is also open to the experience of language learning. Toddlers delight in communicating with their parents and are neither self-conscious nor afraid, and so make quick progress. Expatriates seeking to acquire Dutch as a second language could learn a great deal from them.

As a Modern Languages teacher, I was keen to see how my own children acquired language in a more natural setting: the family home. As they learnt to talk, they made many mistakes but they didn’t care and neither did anyone else. They did not sit and learn lists of vocabulary and they weren’t berated for poor grammar. Instead, language learning was a fun and exploratory process with just one aim: to communicate.

Accuracy is Less Important than You Think

Once we have acquired our mother tongue, we quickly forget our early experimental use of words and often feel that our second language must be perfect. When I was learning German, I was so scared of using the wrong gender and case that I was struck dumb. When I moved to the Netherlands, I knew that I could not allow the same to happen with Dutch.

One impediment to learning Dutch here is the nation’s proficiency in English. More often than not, our attempts to speak are met with English, which can be discouraging. After a while, I noticed something: when speaking English, Dutch people were fluent and confident, but most sentences were inaccurate and their accent was foreign. It was of no importance to them or to me because we were still communicating. This observation gave me the courage to try out my shaky Dutch on them too.

It’s also helpful to remember that the majority of communication is non-verbal. We can over-think the importance of words and their accuracy.

Self-Belief is Key

A can-do approach to language learning is also essential. We are not wired for our native language alone; we could have been born anywhere, speaking any language. It is true that children’s young, flexible brains can pick up language more quickly than ours, but we can all learn a foreign language given the right attitude and environment.

As a student, I spent a year in the French Alps, skiing throughout the winter. My brother, who had never skied before, joined me for a short holiday, hurtling himself clumsily down the slopes. By the end of the week, he was the better skier. He was inexperienced and inept, but he was fearless. We learn more from our mistakes than our successes: this we know, but it takes courage to implement it.

Where language teaching and assessment falls down in our classrooms, in my experience, is the way students are heavily penalised for inaccuracy. This creates a fear of making mistakes which inhibits communication.

Research Confirms the Negative Effect Fear has on Learning

The impact of anxiety and stress on learning is well-documented. In her 2009 paper, Amy Arnsten, neurobiologist at Yale University School of Medicine, examined the ability of humans and animals to perform tasks under variable stress conditions. She writes: ‘Even quite mild…uncontrollable stress can cause a rapid and dramatic loss of prefrontal cognitive abilities’.

A Relaxed Environment is Crucial to Learning

How can we regain that childlike confidence that makes us so receptive to learning? One way is to situate our learning in an environment where we feel at ease. If the classroom is a source of anxiety then it may not be the best place for you to learn.

Lessons are also expensive and time-consuming. Instead, I got my grounding in Dutch using the Michel Thomas CD, where the focus is on relaxing, so that learning is unhindered. There is no need to write anything and no homework. In the privacy of your own home, you glide through the language, adapting basic structures alongside the two students on the CD, who share in the experience and, reassuringly, often make mistakes.

The CD also reminds the learner that their native language is a springboard to the new one. Dutch is one of the easiest languages to learn. It is grammatically simpler than many European languages and, like English, is Germanic in origin so they share masses of vocabulary. You are not starting from scratch: this is one important advantage you have over a toddler.

How Can You Help Yourself to Learn?

Find a sympathetic ear, preferably someone with limited English, who will not correct you or speak back to you in your own language. Or, if you have school-age children, practise with their teachers, who are used to helping with language acquisition. They were supportive as my children and I found our footing in the language.

While they may not always have the most polished Dutch – less important than our key goal of communicating – bilingual people, who speak Dutch as a second language, are often sympathetic listeners. Our postman, cleaner and builder have all been quite receptive to my faltering Dutch.

Learn with your children. Many experts say that you should only use your mother tongue with your children. Certainly, you should never abandon your native language for fear of confusing your child, as their capacity for multilingualism is considerable. But I can’t help feeling that the importance attached to keeping to your own language again prioritises accuracy over communication.

Moderate use of Dutch can be beneficial, especially if your child has plenty of authentic exposure to the language outside the home. Despite the risk of modelling poor pronunciation and grammar, I have found that reading books and talking together (especially when in an environment such as school or crèche, where you want the child to speak Dutch) helps to normalise the use of this new language, and makes it an enjoyable and interesting pursuit. 

Ten Tips for Learning Dutch Stress Free

  1. Start with simple, context-bound communication, such as greetings, ordering in a café or buying a ticket. This places you in a comfort zone where the outcomes are limited and predictable.
  2. Get Dutch children’s books from the library, beginning with picture books and then progressing to more complex material as a child would.
  3. Model good behaviour for your children. An interest in words and sounds is infectious.
  4. Find a sympathetic listener and agree with them to speak mostly Dutch to you.
  5. Adopt a glass-half-full approach: make use of what you already know and can use, rather than worrying about the gaps in your knowledge. Even with a handful of key verbs (can/must/know/want/have/are/go), you can say vast amounts.
  6. If you can’t face Dutch TV, watch your usual channels with the Dutch subtitles on. You will find you can quickly match them up to English and broaden your vocabulary. I learnt some interesting expressions lazing in front of MTV.
  7. Be kind to yourself. It’s OK to dip in and out of Dutch. Sometimes I’m just too tired to sustain it, and slip back into English mid-conversation. Dutch speakers often mix English words into their sentences – it’s not a big deal. Just do what you can: people will see that you are trying.
  8. Immerse yourself as far as possible in Dutch life. Meet your neighbours, take part in the festivals, join a club and visit exhibitions. You will acquire vocabulary without even noticing it.
  9. Know that you can do it. If you can speak one language, you can speak another. Relax, work at your own pace, and have fun.
  10. Try not to feel embarrassed: you are one of thousands of people new to the language of this country – toddlers included.

So say something in Dutch, anything, and you will see how it snowballs. This, and immersing myself in Dutch life, is how I made the most progress. Abandon fear and babble like a baby if you have to. It worked for you once before and it will work for you again. 

The Drongo Festival, the largest languages fair in the Netherlands, takes place in Utrecht every October. 

Deborah Nicholls-Lee

Deborah Nicholls-Lee is a freelance journalist who moved to the Netherlands from the UK in 2009. She is the founder of Clean Page Copy, a proofreading and copywriting service for non-native speakers of English. See her website to find out more about her work.