Is too much confidence a problem in learning Dutch?
"I have been living in the Netherlands for quite some time now. When people speak Dutch to me, I understand most of it. I also know some words and sentences already, I just need to speak it more often. What I really need is more confidence, I guess…"
Sounds familiar? Sure! Is it always true? Sadly, no!
The overconfidence effect
The truth is that people sometimes believe that they understand more than they really do, assuming they know how things work when they are actually making some rather inaccurate assumptions.
Undeniably, arriving in a new country is not easy, especially in you don’t understand the "strange" local language. Just like the vast majority of newcomers, you will struggle for some time, but sooner or later your brain will make you believe that you do understand what others are saying (and they what you are saying), so you grow in confidence.
It’s not our fault. Our brains force us to do so. In simple words: we create an illusion in order to feel at ease, to feel safe. It’s the so-called "overconfidence effect." Unfortunately, this stops us from accomplishing numerous things, including learning Dutch.
Fabrications & Illusions
Let’s start with a simple example: let’s assume you want to buy cheese at the local market. Given that you already know a few words, you might say: "Nu ik wil hebben een kilo kaas" and a few moments later, you find yourself holding a kilo of cheese.
You did it! What a feeling, right? Doesn’t that round piece of cheese you’re holding look like pure gold? Are you ecstatic with the little prize you got for speaking Dutch?
But here comes the bad news: what you said was not exactly Dutch. Yes, all the words you used were Dutch and the stall owner understood what you really meant, but every Dutch person (and internationals who can speak Dutch) out there would say "Nu wil ik een kilo kaas hebben."
It looks less "golden" now, doesn’t it?
Practice makes perfect, NOT!
The irony is that you might have been going around for years using wrong sentences without being aware of it, since (most of the time) you get what you want. What’s even worse is that since you think it works, you keep using the same phrases.
Put simply, you are practising something that is not Dutch, and you might even be thinking that you’re good at it!
I bet I know what you are thinking now: "Well, people understand me, right?" This is the most common excuse, and it is partly true. However, here are two examples:
1. Reversal: a Dutch person asks you "Eat you cheese?" In Dutch you would say "Eet jij kaas?" and, just like you in the example above, he translated directly to English.
What would you think of him? Would you take him seriously?
2. You can satisfy simple needs like buying cheese or asking about the tram. Clearly, these are important, but your expat life will not become significantly better because when it comes to more complicated issues, the semi-Dutch you have been throwing around won’t be good enough.
I mean it’s good enough to order a coffee, but what about an interview or working with Dutch customers?
Be confident. And careful!
So, confidence is essential, but it’s not enough to solve your inability to speak Dutch. Neither is speaking more, if you continue practising a language that sounds Dutch to you but actually isn’t.
The only way to master the language and thus make your expat life more exciting and meaningful is first to understand how Dutch really works. After you do that, it’s time to go out and practise.
Then, and only then, will your confidence actually be your ally. Then, and only then, will you be able to learn by making mistakes.
And last but not least, don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know something. Don’t worry about feeling stupid - quite often it is one of the wisest things that you can do!
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