plateaus in learning a new language (or: month seven of learning Dutch)


“You haven’t been practicing your Dutch lately, have you?”

One quality I love about Dutch culture is the notion that honest (even unsolicited) feedback is a sign of respect. It’s a sign that the other person genuinely wants to see you grow and succeed. Feedback is not seen as a passive-aggressive attempt to put you down and make you feel inferior.

Kevin from downstairs in the student bar was right. I haven’t been putting in as much heart into learning the language as I once did when I first arrived in the country. I can still conduct daily business and simple small talk, but I haven’t made any meaningful progress in the last couple months. I hit a plateau in learning Dutch, and I haven’t been able to climb out.

I watch the Jeugdjournaal (kid’s news) on a regular basis, but passively watching a television show, while great for language exposure, doesn’t do much for language retention — at least not for the short time period I’m here in the Netherlands. I copy unfamiliar words out of a Peanuts calendar, but all the words in the world wouldn’t matter if I’m not using them in daily speech.

“You know a lot of words, but now it’s time to make sentences out of them.”

Perhaps the issue is not that:

a) Dutch is too difficult a language


b) I suck at learning languages

but rather that I’ve approached language learning the wrong way. I’m still getting regular exposure to the language, which is good. But what I did in the first few months isn’t working any more.

So, when progress becomes more difficult to come by, I need to remind myself why I wanted to learn the language in the first place:

1) To immerse myself in a new culture.
2) To connect with people who identify with that culture (even if it’s not “necessary”, seeing as though most Dutch can speak English wonderfully)
3) To learn how to learn a language. Think of what I can do if I apply what I learn this year to other languages, or any other personal goal in the future.

“I’ll see you in about two weeks to see if you’ve progressed.”

[having other people hold you accountable, explicitly or not, can be useful in learning a new language, or in any other personal goal]

This conversation happened some time last week late at night. I remember coming out of the bar highly motivated, but that alone won’t get me out of a learning plateau.