My Steps to Reading Well in Dutch – formal and cultural schemata in books of Defoe, Collodi and Walliams


Anita Lewicka
6 years 7 months
Thank you very much, Justyna. Another article is coming today. I do appreciate your feedback. Hope...
6 years 7 months
"You don't just read for the sake of reading or for holding a book in your hands."-You just read...

Entering a bookshop in a foreign country is so invigorating; you see all the books there neatly categorized and inviting you just to taste them. The majority of them is in the official language of the country you’re in. Fortunately? Unfortunately? Well, to me it’s truly inciting and extremely motivating. Another stimulus to study the language.

When I entered a “Bruna” bookshop in the Netherlands for the first time, I felt truly overwhelmed. The titles of the sections I saw seemed fairy clear to me – my knowledge of English or German came in handy here. The titles I saw gave me no clue at all about the book hidden in between the covers. The books were mute and appeared hermeneutically closed in their foreign code. “Access denied!” was a mental message I unwittingly got at that time from the books. So, I sensibly decided to find a key which would help me to break the code in order to welcome the literature written in and/or translated into the Dutch language.

Last Sunday in Haarlem it was frosty in the air and warm in my heart. “Bruna” again! I gave it a go after a few months of staying here. I went inside, surrounded by nothing but some hushed whispers of shop assistants in the background and some lovely tunes of soothing music around. Was it the music that did the trick? It might have been so…. I opened a book in the bestselling section: a female protagonist admiring il Duomo (the Cathedral) in Florence. The book passed its “first-page test”; I understood the flow of words, followed the thoughts and visualized the scene delineated by the author. Another try? Why not. This time a totally different world started unveiling in front of me: a male protagonist of Turkish origin, settled in the Netherlands, calling his sister in Turkey and asking about his family in his native land. A simply warm setting as an introductory scene for a book which might be another page-turner. I was delighted and full of fervent hope when grabbing still another book to test it in this way. This time Auschwitz, the doom and gloom of the wartime. A tragic picture of a wintry day in the concentration camp. Too many incomprehensible words, too much sadness to take in. As complex as the theme may seem, I’m not ready to fully appreciate that author’s mastery. Later?

Sometimes I find it difficult to emotionally comprehend some themes in a foreign language. Books depicting the horrors of the World War II are a case in point. It’s Polish, my mother tongue, that makes me totally immersed in a world in which a multitude of inscrutable emotions is so immense.

This lengthy introduction brings me to the core here, namely to reading books in a foreign language in order to learn the language. I’d like to share some thoughts with you. Reading books in Dutch is a challenge, not a difficulty or a hard nut to crack. Reading books in Dutch has been helping me a lot in my adventure with the language. This is what these books do to me, this is how they affect me linguistically:

-          They boost my vocabulary;

-          They help me see the same word in different contexts;

-          They show me how to construct a narrative in Dutch;

-          They offer different language registers (informal, colloquial, semi-formal or formal) and help me to intuitively recognize them;

-          They show me some words which are false friends when looking them up in a Dutch-English dictionary, e.g. “raar” (NL) isn’t “rare” (ENG) but “strange”; “slim” (NL) isn’t “slim” (ENG) but “clever, smart”;

-          They offer useful colloquial expressions, applicable on a daily basis;

-          They teach the use of a lot of determiners in context;

-          They highlight the importance of grammar tenses and the use of linking words and adverbials integrally linked to the tenses;

-          They recycle new words and help me remember these words in this way;

-          They show syntax and its varying patterns in naturally constructed chunks, paragraphs and dialogues;

-          They get me to figure out the meaning of a lot of words from context – no need to use a dictionary any time I come across a totally new word;

-          They invite me to interact with them on various levels of text cognition;

-          They reflect Bloom’s taxonomy taking me higher and higher in my critical thinking and text comprehension;

-          They invite me to follow the storyline, plot and subplots as well as to visualize the characters in their setting – formal schemata;

-          They test my content / culture schemata – if the world present in the books is for me to identify with, to understand, I may get even much more immersed in the book.



So far, in order to get myself at least partially immersed in books in the Dutch language, I’ve read two I already knew. I started with “Adventures of Pinocchio” by Carlo Collodi and then went on to read “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe. Formal schemata worked out really well here because I’d read the books beforehand either in Polish, English or Italian.

With my third book in Dutch, “The Boy In the Dress” (“De jongen in de jurk”) by David Walliams, I adopted a different approach. Originally written in English, the book was some time ago translated into the Dutch. Having had no previous encounter with the English version, I decided to read the Dutch one. Apart from the paper copy of the book, there’s also a full audiobook in Dutch. In one of my previous blog entries on learning Dutch vocabulary, I hinted at Dutch pronunciation as a problematic issue for me because of the “g” and “h” throaty sounds. To improve my Dutch phonetics, I therefore decided to use both paper and audio books in my self-study.  My aim was to do five chapters a day. Between you and me, as much as I was intent on furthering my aim, I didn’t fulfill it. The process took longer than the earlier avowed aim. Anyhow, I finished the book within one week. And here’s how I worked with each chapter:

  1. I read the first page of the chapter to myself in silence, paying attention to the flow and storyline.
  2. I played the recording, followed the written text and stopped the recording after each paper page.
  3. I read the first page out loud trying to copy the stress, intonation and diphthongs, bearing in mind the pronunciation of the most intriguing sounds in Dutch comprising “g”, “h”, “sch”, “ui” letters and chunks.
  4. I read the second page of the chapter in silence to myself…..and so on and as forth.

The procedure was repeated with each and every chapter. When any chapter was over,

  1. I played the recording once more and read (or was trying to read) the text along with the Dutch speaker. Sometimes I made pauses in order to rest (in order for my throat to rest) as the task was terribly strenuous and stressful.

As for words, expressions and grammar points, I focused on them when reading single pages in silence to myself. Unable to understand a phrase, I wrote it down, looked it up in a dictionary application on my phone (Dutch-Dutch or Dutch-English). Next, I came up with sample sentences containing the target phrase in order to activate it. With some lexis, formal and content schemata helped a lot and there was no need for me to translate the words.

In my reading, I tend to use some well-known teaching techniques. I’ve been testing them on my students and find them equally effective with my humble self. Learning styles and determination should, of course, be taken into account when employing these techniques:

-          reading titles of chapters /passages may give a clue about the text;

-          skimming and scanning – grammar- and vocabulary-wise or content-wise;

-          guessing meanings of words from context;

-          summarizing passages / chapters to oneself, either orally or in writing with the target vocabulary in constant use here – vocabulary activation and content control are in focus in this way;

-          identifying registers, genres and text types;

-          identifying scenarios, e.g. a school setting, and speculating about possible lexis;

-          improving text control;

-          decoding text passages by becoming more and more cognizant of lexis and syntax;

-          predicting text content and development – schemata;

-          comparing / contrasting lexis from other languages, i.e. seeing roots, derivatives, etymology, syntactic formulas and linguistic consistencies.

I want such reading strategies to be truly transferable, i.e. I want to effectively re-use them over and over again with other texts. Besides, reading means following a three-fold process, namely pre-reading, in-reading, and post-reading. I wish the three stages would smoothly and logically enter my teaching and learning environments. Integrated approach to reading is also a must, in my opinion. You don’t just read for the sake of reading or of holding a book in your hands. You read to communicate your ideas when you speak, to understand when you listen to others, to write when you skillfully use lexis and syntax from the previously read texts. And then, again,  you read on and on….

Whenever I read, I marvel at the mastery of individual authors. What’s so uniquely beautiful is the alphabet itself. Let’s take the English alphabet – just 26 letters. Other alphabets have more or fewer letters, which still makes a limited number of letters. Nevertheless, the combinations of only 26 letters in English or Dutch, of only 21 letters in Italian (plus 5 letters for foreign words in Italian), of only 32 letters in Polish (plus 3 letters – q, v, x - for foreign words) have resulted in writing incredible literary masterpieces.

My literary Dutch journey has started with the masterpieces from children’s literature. The book by Walliams, who is well-known for having co-created “Little Britain”, should also be part of contemporary children’s literary masterpieces, as it teaches tolerance, openness and diversity, the issues so undermined (if not ignored) nowadays. It’s time I grew up, though. I should go to mature books, so the Dutch version of “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini is waiting for me now. There’s an audiobook, too. There’s also my own old copy of the novel in English. As I haven’t read it before in English, I may be tempted to use the English version to go further up in steps to reading well in Dutch. What is really uplifting about book reading is that it opens your mind and then it opens your mouth when you speak about books, through books or thanks to books.