Insights from a Dutch language coach
Learning a new language as an adult is an interesting, infinitely rewarding but also challenging experience. Here are some great insights into the language learning process, from an interview with TalenCoach's Albert Both.
With age the mind becomes much less malleable and receptive, but if you remain aware of this and of the "linguistic baggage" you bring with you when you decide to learn a new language, you can avoid much frustration and get more enjoyment out of the learning process.
The brain and language learning
When you are a baby you are open to anything and you don’t have any judgments about it. You can put a baby in China, in Sweden or in Greece, and it will basically wake up with the language.
Research shows that the infant brain is capable of discerning all possible sounds in all the world’s languages. When a child reaches a certain age, however, its brain loses the capacity to hear sounds it was never exposed to.
Different languages across the world have different sounds and as adults not everyone can make all those sounds, or even hear them properly in the other languages.
For example, in some languages there is no difference between the letters V/W and B. If someone speaking that language were to learn a new language that uses all those letters and sounds, it will not change the fact that the person will not be able to hear any difference between those letters.
It’s also the reason why some Asian languages struggle with the letter L and R, or why some French people have difficulty with the guttural hard Dutch G (as it sounds like a French R, also produced in the back of the throat).
Resistance to the unfamiliar
In addition to the adult brain not being as receptive anymore to new or unknown sounds, by this time in your life you will have developed subconscious judgments about many things. As long as things sound or look familiar, the mind accepts it. If it’s new, if it’s unfamiliar, the brain tends to reject it.
This poses a challenge for learning a new language, because that requires really opening up and being able to see what’s really there.
The fact that the brain no longer recognises unfamiliar sounds as easily when it gets older is important to keep in mind when you learn a language. Because many people believe that if they simply hear a language or are just exposed to it enough that they will pick it up automatically. This is not the case.
Interference from your native language
Your first language will always remain the first reference point, which can cause something called interference when learning a new language. In the beginning when you start learning Dutch, your brain will insist on seeing it through an English filter (if you’re an English speaker).
How to learn a language faster
The key for making it easier for yourself to learn a new language efficiently is about noticing what is there, and to ignore the rules and assumptions from your native language. You have to hear what’s there and truly see what is there, because only then can you get a thorough understanding of how a language works.
Dutch spelling reveals the pronunciation
Dutch spelling is challenging for English speakers, because in the English language pronunciation tells you nothing about how to spell the word.
In Dutch, however, what you see is what you get. In that regard Dutch is very straight-forward, but for English speakers this takes a lot of adjustment. This is an example of interference, or seeing language through an English filter.
English native speakers have to learn to pronounce exactly what’s there when they learn Dutch, and that the spelling shows you how to say that word. A good example that illustrates this is knie vs knee.
Consistency is the key to correct Dutch
The most challenging Dutch sounds are the G, R, UI and EU. However, many people believe they can’t say certain sounds when that’s actually not the case.
Very often a person is capable of saying UI, but then change their pronunciation for different words. Kruid, geluid and huis, for example. That’s because in English, you have "fruit" and "fluid". The secret to Dutch pronunciation is that you have to remain consistent.
Don’t be afraid to speak
It’s very important to open up to people and to be fine with making mistakes and people not always understanding you at first. You need to speak it often, as often as possible. Only then will your pronunciation improve. Even if you think what you said isn’t very good, you still learned something in the process.
One problem is that people who want to learn Dutch or another language strive for perfection right away. But you have to put in the time first. Everything that goes smoothly in life now took a lot of time to get to that point.
Hold on to your accent!
For your own benefit, it’s important that you have a small accent when you speak Dutch. If you have an accent, people know that you’re not Dutch and then they can only admire you. If you sound too Dutch, then expectations and assumptions are suddenly very different and people will treat you differently.
Perhaps you will sound less educated or less intelligent to a Dutch person, or they will think you’re from a lower social class. However, when they find out you’re from another country and have a different native language, they will re-evaluate their whole opinion of you.
If you have a small accent it’s great, because it’s also something that makes you uniquely you. It’s not about you becoming Dutch, but about you enriching yourself with Dutch.
People love if you come from a different country, and if something in your Dutch speaking reflects your origin.
Don’t take it too serious
The only thing to keep in mind is that you need to be able to handle jokes about your accent. Dutch people enjoy teasing others about their language mistakes, making jokes and laughing about it, so it’s important to not be too sensitive about this. See it as something positive, because most often it means you've been accepted into the group!
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