How I Study Dutch Vocabulary (and not only) – a personal recipe.

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Anita Lewicka
4 years 8 months
Dank je wel, Jola! Ik vind deze taal heel moeilijk! Dzięki więc za zachętę - potrzebna mi ona!
Jola Nijborg
4 years 8 months
Anitko, swietnie napisane. I know the struggle! Moze na pocieszenie - nawet nie bedziesz wiedziala...

One day, an over-forty-year-old woman had a dream: she started imagining her new life in a new place, with new people around and a new language heard everywhere. So, the more intensely she visualized herself in totally new surroundings, the closer was the prospect of moving and starting anew. The Netherlands – why not – for the country’s innumerable bike routes, inner feelings of absolute serenity and loads of flowers everywhere. The Dutch – why not – for their openness, tolerance and justified pragmatism. The Dutch language – well, here my niggling doubts started gradually growing. Having heard the language before, I realized it would be the greatest linguistic challenge in my life.

Shortly before coming to live in Zuid Holland, I’d been advised to take up my Dutch on my own. As a language teacher, I took the friendly advice seriously, I logged in with my new username and password to do an online Dutch course. The internationally acclaimed and professionally designed site can be found at: www.oefenen.nl. The introduction of new vocabulary items is truly appealing to visual as well as to auditory learners. The target items are then practised in a series of activities, mostly based on authentic materials. The regular use of leaflets, tickets, screenshots of shopping, transport and travelling services is a genuine preparatory survival kit for a language user. Boosting my functional language of filling in real documents, invoices or application forms was an eye-opener for me as a student and as a language teacher.

Thanks to the website, I was able to develop my reading, listening and writing skills. The website modules correspond to various proficiency levels and you can smoothly go from level to level, practising the skills and enriching your vocabulary. What I didn’t have there though was speaking, limited just to individual repetition of morphemes, words, chunks, sentences, etc. I’m a highly practical person and knowing something just in theory is insufficient for me. I tried applying the newly acquired vocabulary in new contexts when talking to the Dutch. With little success though! It was the first time in my linguistic explorations I had come across a language so difficult for me from the point of view of its pronunciation. In my daily life so far I have been used to the intriguing beauty of British English, to the undeniable charm of Italian and to the naturally heart-warming sounds of Polish. But Dutch phonetics holds great mystery to me, so intricately throaty and impossible to copy.

Is it then true that with age it is getting harder and harder to learn a new language? I’d rather not believe that! As I see it, your ability to learn to speak properly and fluently boils down to the concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, to your exposure to the culture where the language you want to learn is naturally spoken, to finally you eliminating your innermost inhibitions. What inhibitions? Well, you don’t have to be perfect (if not a perfectionist), you don’t have to be accurate from the very start, you should communicate your ideas for others to see and appreciate your efforts! Once you’ve achieved the goals, your linguistic confidence should be built up! Maybe one day I’ll get rid of my deeply-rooted inhibitions and will eventually produce some harsh and throaty sounds, so different from the soft sounds I’m used to.

One thing is crystal clear to me – it’s vocabulary that holds the key to the Dutch language (my personal view). Grammar seems not that complicated. Knowing the syntax of Germanic languages and relying on Latin, I can honestly say that building affirmatives, interrogatives or negatives is nowhere near as complex as reading the written part out loud.

To some it may sound obsolete but, following my friend’s advice (the friend being a language specialist), I listened to Dutch lessons based on Michel Thomas Method (“Dutch Foundation Course”), where you learn a foreign language through your mother tongue or through any language you know very well. Learners are taught to reconstruct the language themselves and can’t move on without understanding any previous material. Once they’ve grasped this or that, they naturally remember it and build up their Dutch (or any other language) on this foundation. So, I learned Dutch through English. Michel Thomas (a unique personality anyway) claims that there are no poor students, only bad teachers. Following from that, my confidence was boosted and I started the course. You listen to the teacher who speaks both English and Dutch, you realize this is teacher-centred environment as she conducts, guides and  repeats. You listen to her as well as to two adult students who, similarly to you, start their adventure with the language you’re studying. In three-minute-long units, the teacher introduces basic vocabulary and grammar elements, making continuous parallels with English. The students she instructs translate chunks, phrases, sentences. You do likewise and learn from their mistakes and learn by avoiding the mistakes they make (or you make). There is a lot of language substitution to drill and master both syntax and lexis. Where is communication here? Well, you repeat, you produce your utterances, first given by the teacher (language model), you know a variety of questions for multifold real-life situations. It’s up to you to pluck up your courage later on to apply the functional structures in a shop, in a bank, in a restaurant. What I found extremely useful here was the idea of comparative linguistics, which I adore and it has always helped me in language acquisition. Language universals, as developed by Joseph Greenberg, may be somehow, though loosely and to some inadequately, linked to this method.

And again, also with this method, with Michel Thomas Method, I came back to square one, to Dutch pronunciation. Living in the Netherlands is inevitably related to knowing the language. I know there is always a soft option – English as the Lingua Franca. But this is no challenge for me! Besides, living in a new country, you should integrate with the local community, mingle with the native speakers of Dutch and feel appreciated when doing your best by speaking Dutch instead of English.

So, we’re about to wish each other “A Happy New Year” and we’re also about to think in our heart of hearts of some resolutions. Mine will definitely be to improve my Dutch pronunciation and Dutch fluency. Now, by publishing this resolution, I should stick to it, not to cheat to myself. Why should I anyway?

In the meantime, as I said before, I’d like to present to you the way I’ve been studying Dutch lexis. As I find it effective vocabulary-wise, why not share it with you then! Voila, some learning strategies and language tips! You probably know all the following vocabulary-related techniques and have used some of them: flashcards, real objects, analogies, synonyms, antonyms, word families, definitions, polysemy, word domains and collocations, mind maps, connotations and denotation,  substitution, root analysis, etc.

At the end of August, when starting my online www.oefenen.nl Dutch course, I saw my Dutch vocabulary would be growing extensively with any next lesson. To logically and systematically group the new items, I decided to write down the words, subsequently to group, to arrange and to categorize them into my specially prepared notebook. All the pages in “Anita’s Mini Dictionary” have been divided into two columns; in the left-hand side column there are Dutch words and expressions, whereas in the right-hand side column there are their Polish equivalents. Colourful index cards take me from section to section:

 

  • Verbs in their infinitive forms and sometimes with conjugated personal forms when a verb is irregular. Additionally, some marker sentences are given when a verb goes with a preposition and, because of its complex structure, should be easily remembered in comprehensive (usually with funny and shocking imagery) sentences;
  • Nouns which are preceded by the definite article. As there are two nominative definite articles in Dutch, they are important to know and should be learnt together with the words they’re ascribed to, not to get confused in the future. This is about building solid foundations. The “het” article seems less frequent and, since I’m mainly a visual learner, I highlight any “het” nouns in green. Similarly to the verb section, also here, I write some sample sentences when a given word is used in a fixed expression, preceded by the zero article instead;
  • Adjectives are organized in simple sections, usually with the prepositions they go with. And again, when used as adverbs but in their adjectival forms, then I also write sample sentences;
  • Mish-mash section (mainly prepositions) with not only one-word prepositions of place but also, or in most cases, in prepositional multi-word combinations. In this section, there are also conjunctions, adverbials of time and place, short colloquial expressions.

At the beginning and at the end of “Anita’s Mini Dictionary”, there were originally some blank pages, not blank anymore. To use all the pages I have, to be economical, to fit in as many items as possible, and to plan further, I have here the core lexis of any language: cardinal and ordinal numerals, the days of the week, the seasons and months of the year, question words (and phrases), the most common festivals celebrated in the Netherlands or Dutch equivalents of internationally celebrated festivals, etc.

 

How do I use “Anita’s Mini Dictionary”? Well, any time, any place, provided there is some time, there is some place. The notebook isn’t too big, so it fits perfectly into my bag (any bag). When I have coffee in a café and wait for a friend, I take the notebook out and revise some words. When I put down any Dutch words, I simultaneously learn their spelling. Very often I use a pencil with which I circle the most problematic words or the items I find too hard to memorize. Later, when I’ve already learnt them by heart and have used them properly in context, I erase the earlier pencil marks. Now, with lots of work, I hardly ever refer to the notebook. Mea culpa! I know I am to blame! When not used, when not regularly recalled, any vocabulary becomes rusty and poorly functions in the long run.

I should add one more thing: in October, in order to reinforce the vocabulary even further, I recalled an internet site which I’d once used for my Italian lexis. The site is at www.quizlet.com and here you can upload (type and type and type) the words you wish to have in your personal online dictionary. Before your wish comes true, you should first of all create your own profile, do some privacy settings and language requirements. Though it sounds complicated, believe me it isn’t so! It just takes time to type in the words and to organize them into categories (I personally copied my notebook sections). Once the material has been successfully (and correctly) added, you test your vocabulary grasp in a variety of suggested ways. You may simply do flashcard translation. You may also let computer generate a quiz with various testing techniques used (true/false; spelling and translation; multiple choice; matching; odd-one-out). On top of that, you may enjoy yourself playing a memory game, so universally known in various contexts and themes. What’s more, you may use some folders other people have created (and have allowed access) and build up your lexis in this way. Practice makes progress (and perfect) on condition that your vocabulary has been correctly typed in. So, give it a go! Any time, any language, any words! Just for the fun of it!

This way of studying a foreign language is intended, planned and should be systematic. There is also an incidental study of vocabulary, which I like a lot as it helps me recognize the previously learnt vocabulary in a totally new context. Between you and me (and everyone else I guess), I tend to read one press article in Dutch daily. In this way, I see my lexis activated (not in speaking though) and, as many experts claim, you should have as many encounters with the same word as possible. Because to know one particular word is to know how to spell it correctly, how to pronounce it accurately, how to use it naturally, and how to re-use it on multiple occasions.  At present, “being equipped with” some Dutch vocabulary and being fairly familiar with Dutch grammar, I should eventually start speaking! My perfectionist nature demands from me to be both accurate and fluent. I know what they say: “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, and neither was …Amsterdam.