What to expect: Learning Dutch and adapting to the culture

What to expect: Learning Dutch and adapting to the culture

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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.

Moving to a new country can bring with it a host of positive benefits, but difficulties in language learning and cultural adaptation can sometimes lead to intense frustrations or feelings of isolation. Whilst there are certainly unexpected difficulties inherent to the expat experience, many people also go through an expected series of adaptation phases with respect to language and culture.

Individual experiences do vary, and language learning and cultural adaptation aren’t exactly the same, but understanding these general phases and being prepared for the delights and difficulties of each can go a long way towards feeling engaged and at home in a new culture.

The preparation stage

The first phase begins in the exciting, yet stressful time before relocation. Amid all the necessary preparations, you might find yourself considering the language. However, before tackling vocabulary and grammar, the single most important thing you can do is to understand and take ownership of your motivation.

Establishing why you, personally, want to learn the language is critical to long-term language-learning success. Unfortunately, external motivations, such as a sense of obligation to a spouse or an employer, can be quick to falter.

Internal motivations, however - be they a desire to make friends, to fully enjoy the country’s art and culture, or even to be a more adventurous eater or to help your kids with their homework - have staying power and help us slog through the difficult weeks and months of the coming “Valley of Doubt”.

The important thing is that the motivation is yours. Think about it and write it down! From this point, it’s easier to identify specific goals and make plans to accomplish them.

The honeymoon

The second stage begins when you arrive in your new home. You’ve been swept along by a wave of support and good wishes, and you’re finally there. Everything is new, exciting, and exotic. It’s like a holiday, but even better. This stage is often marked by enthusiasm and focus, both of which you can harness to help propel you through the rest of your language and cultural journey.

Here are some tips:

Soak up the culture and language 

Take advantage of your wonder and curiosity to absorb information about your new country and use it to develop a more nuanced and detailed picture of the culture. In the process, observe how language is used. Gestures, inflection, and the musicality of the language: you can get a feeling for these before you understand a single word. These skills are best learned from the very beginning.

Play up your newcomer status 

Ask people for help, learn new words, and engage with your environment. People are often willing to help others trying to learn their language, but even more so if you’ve just arrived. Take advantage of it.

Begin to build structure and a support system 

This can mean different things for different people, but registering for a language class is the most common. The structure of a class will not only make sure your tenses and vocabulary are on-point, but should also provide you with constructive criticism on your speaking and writing, the opportunity to practice with speakers at the same level, and a chance to begin building a support network of fellow language-learners and new arrivals.

The “Valley of Doubt”

Once the waves of positive feelings have subsided and you get down to the business of living your life in your new home, the third phase begins. The holiday is over and it’s back to real life.

The way you experience the “Valley of Doubt” is personality dependent, but it often results in some withdrawal from the target language and increased feelings of frustration and / or isolation. For some, this phase is merely a mild inconvenience; for others, it can be severe.

Perhaps you’ve had communication issues or discomfort with some aspect of the local culture. Perhaps you feel like you’re struggling to master all other aspects of life - and the language feels like just one more thing that’s spiralling out of control. Perhaps you feel ashamed that you’re not speaking at a higher level.

Whilst there are numerous ways to persist through this difficult time, here are a few suggestions:

Create connections with the place and the language

Join an organisation, do volunteer work, or take up a hobby. Do something that requires you to interact with real people in the target language. This helps you feel (and be) less alone and allows you to practice your language in low-stress situations.

Look for quick wins

Motivate yourself by finding small ways to make the language a part of your daily routine. Language learning is made up of moments, not hours. Could you review one verb table whilst waiting on a computer reset, a train, or a queue at the grocery store? Could you listen to an audiobook or podcast on your commute? Follow a local news site on Instagram? Small, sustainable habits add up to significant change over time.

Find the right method for you

There is no one right way to learn a language, only a right way for you. Your progress is determined by many variables, such as your language background, your opportunities to practice, and your motivation. Try things, and if they don’t work, try another approach. Above all, speak and make mistakes every day. This is the very best way to continue to improve.


As you persist, one day you’ll notice that it’s not quite so difficult anymore. Things flow easier than ever before. Fluctuations do happen, but you are now on the path to the final step: integration.

Language learning and cultural adaptation together make up a long journey with different phases and challenges. However, understanding your personal motivation and actively exploring useful strategies and support methods can help. Good luck!

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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