March 13, 2020 | Feature
lost and found in translation
on language-learning, age, and starting from scratch
NOTE: The University is mandating that all students studying abroad in Western Europe return home by Friday, March 20, 2020.
Hoi! Mijn naam is Jasmine. Ik kom uit de Verenigde Staten. Ik spreek Engels.
On the very first day of Beginning Dutch class this semester, my classmates and I were posed a question: “What made you choose Amsterdam for study abroad?” For me, there wasn’t really a clear answer. All I knew was I wanted to explore somewhere new, and while my knowledge of the Netherlands itself was limited to stroopwafels and the color orange, I thought that my love for both of these things almost compensated for the absence of any logical decision-making. Quite simply, spending my spring semester at the University of Amsterdam just felt right. But for others, their choice of destination was based on more practical reasoning. “English is widely spoken here” was a common answer. So far, my firsthand experience in Amsterdam verifies this claim: English is ubiquitous here, and it is possible to get by without knowing a single word of Dutch.
Dutch was not a language I’d ever imagined myself learning. In fact, I was only enrolled in the class because it is required by Brown’s Office of International Programs for those studying abroad. Yet the process of language learning has always fascinated me, and I had enjoyed foreign language classes in the past. I hadn’t started the process of learning a new language from scratch since my first elementary school Spanish classes. Looking back at my first three years of college, I regretted my decision not to continue learning Spanish or enroll in another language course. As the beginning of my semester abroad approached, I began to feel growing excitement about learning Dutch. What did I have to lose?
Still, just a week before my departure, I started getting cold feet about spending a semester in a country I knew next to nothing about. Doubts about my ability to learn a brand-new language became a recurring source of apprehension, leading me down a rabbit hole of last-minute, panicked Internet research. Scouring websites in the middle of the night when I should have been packing, I was relieved to find reassuring quotes from sources like Language Partners, a language education company in the Netherlands, calling Dutch “probably the easiest foreign language for native English speakers to learn” and citing the similarities between Dutch words like “appel,” “banaan,” and “tomaat” and their English counterparts. I took a deep breath between stuffing T-shirts and toiletries into my already-too-heavy luggage. Learning Dutch would be easy enough, right? Yet, after arriving in Amsterdam, I stared in awe at the long names of the metro and tram stops that comprised my daily commute to school. Amstelveenseweg? Bilderdijkstraat? Henk Sneevlietweg? How could I ever expect to become familiar with this language when I couldn’t even begin to pronounce these names, which seemed so long that my eyes glazed over after reading just the first few letters?
I’d forgotten how clueless a beginning language class could make me feel. Each day, we sing simple songs to introduce ourselves and complete connect-the-dots worksheets to practice saying numbers. We riffle through the pages of our textbook, searching for momentarily lost vocabulary words, and stumble through sentences, unable to will our throats to make the elusive guttural “g” sound that I can’t imagine ever mastering. I’m fully aware of my struggle to reach even a toddler’s level of Dutch proficiency.
Growing up, I’d been one to ruminate over the smallest mistakes until they overwhelmed me. Between this and my naturally shy personality, throughout childhood, I’d do my work quietly and diligently in the back of the classroom to conceal any potential flaws, reluctant to raise my hand even when I felt confident I knew the right answer. Beginning language classes don’t work that way, though—competency takes active, vocal practice, and I’m almost never sure I know how to pronounce the words correctly. And while I’ve been actively pushing myself to speak up in class since starting college, I still find myself hesitant to raise my hand in Beginning Dutch. It’s taken time for me to understand that making mistakes in this class is not a sign of pure incompetence or disrespect for the language—it’s part of the learning process. I’m constantly uncomfortable with how much I don’t know about Dutch, but I’m beginning to embrace my discomfort with a newfound understanding that each blunder I make is necessary for improvement.
Despite the awkward sentences, nervous laughter, and cheeks flushed with embarrassment that accompany my all-too-frequent mistakes, I’m reinvigorated by even the slightest successes—introducing myself in a full, fluid (albeit short) sentence, counting up to 20 without glancing down at my textbook, understanding snippets of conversation on the metro. Although I have the crutch of English to fall back on here in Amsterdam, there is something to be said about learning Dutch in the place it’s most widely spoken. Opportunities for everyday victories are only truly possible here (after all, when would I ever hear someone asking “Waar kom je vandaan?” in Providence, Rhode Island?), and while I’m not quite proficient enough to order meals in Dutch yet, I’m confident I will get there one day.
I believe that picking up a new language as a college student can be extremely rewarding, despite language acquisition research tracking brain activity and recognition of grammar usage by age, which suggests otherwise. Researcher Monika Schmid describes this in The Independent, suggesting that “our capacity to learn a language diminishes gradually over our lives.” It’s a commonly held belief that young children learn languages more easily than adults, and Schmid presents several explanations why: adults are more likely to be preoccupied by concerns and tasks other than learning the language, children tend to be more motivated to learn, and grammar rules of one’s first language are less likely to interfere with a child’s language learning than an adult’s (due to less time spent with their first language). However, as Dana Smith writes in a 2018 Scientific American article, “This is not to say that we cannot learn a new language if we are over 20…our ability to learn new vocabulary appears to remain constant, but most of us will not be able to master grammar like a native speaker.” In other words, there is still hope for adults beginning to learn a new language. Even if fluent mastery of the language’s nuanced grammatical rules is improbable, familiarity and competency can still be well worth the effort.
While the ideal age for language learning has passed for most of us reading this (college-aged students), the benefits of learning a new language remain immense—even at our ripe old ages. These include facilitating more meaningful interactions and communication with a wider range of people, opening doors to greater employment opportunities, stimulating the brain, and simply being an enjoyable pastime. Furthermore, learning a new language can help illuminate the mystifying idea of untranslatability. I’m currently taking a class on world literature and globalization, which explores how different translations can alter, take away from, or add to a story’s original intent and meaning.
Let me tell you about my favorite Dutch word, gezellig, a word that defies translatability. According to the website Awesome Amsterdam, “Some people describe gezellig as being cozy, but that doesn’t begin to cover it…it stands for something or someone cozy, nice, homey, friendly, snuggly, fun, comfortable or enjoyable… but no word can really sum it up. It’s a feeling rather than a word.” So far, my time abroad has been defined by a collection of gezellig moments: dimly-lit dinners with new friends and massive traditional meatballs, serene solo bike rides at sunset, spontaneous jazz concerts and open mic storytelling nights, hours of browsing every bookstore I come across, wandering past hidden alleyways and winding canals at dusk, getting lost without any fear of actually being lost. Just as my choice to come to Amsterdam in the first place simply “felt right,” these moments just feel gezellig to me, though I can’t conjure an exact definition of the word, either. I never thought I’d be able to sum up this first, whirlwind month-and-a-half in Amsterdam with merely a single word. I can’t in English, but in Dutch I now can.
This week, I began volunteering as an English teacher for a class of seven- to eight-year-old Dutch students. My co-teacher (also a Brown student) and I were told that these children have had no prior English training; their current familiarity stems mostly from television, film, music, and other forms of popular media. Going into this week, I felt excited to share my love of language with these kids, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t also intimidated to be their first formal exposure to English.
I walked into the first class not knowing what to expect. Fortunately, it went smoothly: The kids eagerly counted to 20 with us and shared their favorite colors out loud. The class consisted of many different learning styles, with some students nearly falling out of their seats to get a word in, while others timidly attempted a new phrase with our encouragement. Still, no matter their dispositions, all the students eagerly embraced the opportunity to begin practicing a new language, an attitude increasingly rare among students my age. In a 2008 study from Leiden University, it was found that 8-year-old children are more dependent on learning from positive feedback (such as, “Good job!”), while 12-year-old children and adults rely mainly on learning from negative feedback, which emphasizes their mistakes, to inform their future actions. Perhaps this reduced inhibition observed in younger children explains why my own 8-year-old students seem more likely to take risks in the classroom than my 20-year-old peers. College students and adults alike have much to learn from the open enthusiasm of these kids, and we need not hide behind the excuse of being fully “past our prime.” Language learning may take more effort after childhood, but it’s still entirely possible—a personal reminder for myself as I begrudgingly complete the next assignment for my Beginning Dutch class.
These kids are still young, at a prime age to learn a new language from scratch. Yet no matter how old we become, we’re never irreconcilably far from this sweet spot, either.
Hoi! Mijn naam is Jasmine. Ik woon in Amsterdam. Ik spreek Engels… en een beetje Nederlands. Tot ziens!