Dutch language skills: Overcome your perfectionism and build self-confidence

Dutch language skills: Overcome your perfectionism and build self-confidence

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Babel Talen is the official language partner of Utrecht University, offering individual and group Dutch courses, from introductory to advanced levels.

We often take for granted our effortless ability to clearly communicate our thoughts, opinions, values, and emotions. And yet, when settling into a new life in a new country, we can find ourselves struggling to complete even these basic tasks.

As adults, most of us have spent a fair amount of time becoming good at something and these feelings of incompetence can be worryingly foreign and incredibly frustrating. We’re not used to being bad at something!

If you’re anything like me, you might also be a bit of a perfectionist and become increasingly disheartened at the stark difference between your ability to communicate in your native language and your abilities in Dutch.

If this sounds like you, know that you’re not alone and that there are several effective ways to stay afloat and even thrive in your new and challenging circumstances.

Set small goals and celebrate small victories 

While the first days, weeks, and months in a new place can fly by and be filled with heady excitement, they can also shift into a difficult period of adaptation as you get down to the business of living and learning in your new home. Prepare yourself by setting small language goals and arm yourself with a written record of your past successes.

I like the acronym that describes SMART goals: goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based. Setting up intentions in this way is setting yourself up for success. And since these sorts of goals are doable, you’ll complete so many of them!

Said good morning to your neighbour? Good for you! Asked the Albert Heijn employee where to find the soy sauce and only made a few mistakes? Yes! Remembered that verb you studied last week? Victory! These single acts may seem so small as to be negligible but recording them matters.

In other parts of our lives, we are often able to easily define success, or at least know what it looks like when we see it. However, language learning can sometimes seem ill-defined and nebulous.

Setting small goals and recording your victories can give you that needed sense of progress. Looking back weeks, months, or even years can give you a sense of perspective on where you started and how far you’ve come.

If those past goals and achievements seem quaint, that’s exactly the point. At some point in the past, you didn’t know what you do now, and with dedicated work, that pattern of success can continue.

Persist in making mistakes 

If you are a confident English speaker, it can be far too easy to stay in your comfort zone or to avoid situations where you need to speak Dutch. However, trying and making mistakes is an essential part of language learning.

Do you find that people switch to English when you speak Dutch with them? No problem. A simple smile and explanation that you’re trying to improve your Dutch will usually do the trick. Most people are gracious, and even if they’re not, you might learn something useful from the interaction.

In fact, the more mistakes you make, the more you learn. That time you said that incredibly embarrassing thing and people stared at you? Well, you’re not likely to make that specific mistake again!

Plus, the more mistakes you make, the more you realise that it’s actually not the end of the world when you do trip up. Then, you can truly throw yourself into learning without your inner perfectionist holding you back.

Build a community 

Nothing binds people together like a shared challenge. How wonderful then, to find yourself amongst a group of people that have many of the same difficulties and fears, and who can celebrate the same small victories. Especially if you’re a trailing spouse or haven’t yet settled into your new work or community, a language class can serve many functions beyond the obvious one of helping you learn the new language.

In short, you’re building a network for accountability and encouragement. Even the most Type-A, organised person can become disillusioned by the slow process of developing a new skill. Even if you’re a lifelong learner who loves to explore and gain new knowledge, there’s something very humbling about feeling at a loss for words or feeling unable to effectively communicate.

A good teacher will understand all of this and help you identify your learning goals, your personal hurdles, and how to press onward. In addition, a network of fellow learners will understand your struggles and encourage you along the way.

So, take a class and reach out to your classmates. Get people’s phone numbers. Start a WhatsApp group. Go out for a coffee or a post-class drink. You may be surprised to find that you’ve built up a team of allies or even built the beginnings of powerful friendships.

And it’s never too late! If you feel like no amount of coffee or number of stroopwafels can motivate you to study any further, or if you’ve been demoralised by language setbacks, don’t burn out. Call on your network or start building a new one.

Shared goals mean that you can pool your resources and motivation. You don’t have to do it alone.

With more than 30 years of language teaching experience, Babel Talen is a top choice for many people who wish to learn Dutch in Utrecht or via distance learning.



Kiera Reifschneider

Kiera Reifschneider helps academic and business professionals communicate their work in clear and effective ways. She grew up in Seattle, Washington and studied in the U.S. and Canada. She has...

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