The euphoria of a new language

Lots of young people enrol in courses at all sorts of language schools to learn a new language. From business English to Japanese, from Spanish to Turkish and Arabic. Freelance journalist Fréderike Geerdink, herself studying Turkish in Istanbul, explores the backgrounds of this language passion.

Evelien still feels the euphoria when she thinks back: in a supermarket in Utrecht she heard two men talking in Arabic about which bean would be the best for a certain dish, and she gave them advice in reasonably fluent Arabic. ‘Their mouths literally fell open, they were dumb-struck’, she says, ‘and after that they stammered ‘thank you’ in Arabic. I felt so good when I walked away!’
Evelien Meijs (29) learns Arabic at the Alifba language school in Utrecht, after earlier efforts in Wageningen. She’s been busy with it for four years now and quit once. ‘Sometimes I felt like I would never ever learn. But I started again anyway, because I was still motivated, and I still am. The fire is also re-ignited when I find that I actually did learn something, like that time in the supermarket.’

Language learning for seniors? Something you start doing when your working life is over, and then choose Spanish or French because you want to spend some of your retirement days in Spain or France? No: even though quite a few seniors enrol at language schools for exactly that reason, there are also many young people in their twenties. They also learn Spanish or French, but often choose a much more exotic language: Japanese, Arabic or Turkish for example. And Polish and Russian too are in demand, as I discover from calls made to several language schools and adult education centres. Most of the language schools don’t routinely register the ages of their students, but distance education institute LOI does. Jan Jelle Bouma of LOI: ‘Almost half of our students are under 35 years of age, and 60 percent of those are female. We don’t exactly ask why people start learning a language, but the statistics show that young people more often learn a language for their career than older people: young people are an absolute majority in a course like Business English’.

‘I picked up street-Arabic pretty well’

As a freelance correspondent in Turkey I have good reason to learn Turkish: not only do I want to do my work with as little help from interpreters as possible, but of course I also  want to learn the language of the country I’ve been living in for three years now. Without the language it seems impossible for me to really understand a country and get to know it better, and that is both my personal and journalistic goal.

A similar situation applies to Evelien, even though she didn’t choose to live in an Arabic-speaking country. She has been learning the language in Utrecht after she became acquainted with it in Yemen: ‘For my studies, International Development Sociology, I lived in Yemen for six months and picked up ‘street-Arabic’ pretty well. I had to, because in Yemen hardly anybody speaks English. Before I left, I did a crash course of ten lessons, and when I came back, I could communicate reasonably well. Without the language, I would have learned a lot less about the country and would have gotten to know the people a lot less.’
That she wants to upgrade her Arabic now, after completing her studies,  is not just for hobby reasons, but also because she expects to be able to use it in her work. ‘I’d love to work at a university, and then I would like to return to Yemen to do research. It turned out to be hard to find such a position, but I can probably use the language in another job as well. My studies were aimed at an international work field, and Arabic is spoken in so many countries that it will surely be useful one day.’ Even in her current job helping immigrants to integrate in the Netherlands, she occasionally uses her Arabic, ‘even though most of my clients already speak pretty good Dutch’.

A carreer in language

Career is also an important reason for young people to learn a language, according to Jan Jelle Bouma of LOI. He already mentioned Business English, but also the choice of many young women is remarkable: ‘Women more often than men aim for a career in languages by enrolling in a complete higher-level vocational course in translating, where English and Spanish are very popular.’ Theo Ruiter of the Adult Education Center in Rotterdam says:  ‘For business reasons, here in Rotterdam Polish and Russian are rather popular. Poland and Russia are countries where a lot of entrepreneurs see growing possibilities, as do young men and women.’ And the Alliance Française in Amsterdam declares with a thick French accent that many students between twenty and thirty years old want to learn French for work, for studies and for exchange programs, ‘but also just for fun’.

Fun, that’s what it started with for Julie Soedirman (27), who learns Japanese. ‘Since childhood I have been interested in Japan. I got that from my mother, who was very interested in Japanese culture. Once I even started studying Japanese.’
Private circumstances prevented her from finishing those studies. After that, she had several jobs, but with no satisfaction. ‘I was so confused about what kind of work I wanted to do’, she says. ‘And it turned out that it was right in front of me without my realizing it: Japanese! I already knew quite a bit about the country and the culture, I had a Saturday job at The Japanese Shop in Amsterdam, and when there was a job vacancy in the Japanese travel centre, I knew that was it!’ She got the job and now works daily in an environment that ‘breathes Japan’, as she says. ‘I want to make a career in this world. I picked up the language course again, and even though I have to push myself sometimes to learn new kanji, (the Japanese characters), I am delighted that I found my destination.’

For lack of money she is yet to visit Japan, but she’s looking forward to going and starting a conversation with her beginner’s Japanese. ‘But I also get insecure when I think of that’, she admits. ‘Japanese has several politeness forms. What if I use the wrong one and appear very impolite? That would be horrible!’

‘My Arabic appeared to be full of mistakes’

Julie’s answer to the question “will she ever speak fluent Japanese”, sounds self- confident: ‘yes, definitely.’ That quick come-back is also a sort of incantation to keep her courage up: ‘I just started again this season with the lessons, and my goal is within two years to be, not fluent, but to reach a reasonable level. I work on it an average of ten hours a week. That should lead somewhere, shouldn’t it?’
Evelien didn’t set herself any time limits. She doesn’t have the illusion that she will ever speak Arabic fluently. She says: ‘The language is way too complicated for that. But I do want to keep increasing my communication skills.’ After she returned from Yemen four years ago, she subscribed to an intermediate level course. She spoke some Arabic, but didn’t have a good foundation in grammar. Evelien recalls: ‘The Arabic I spoke appeared to be full of mistakes, and I had a strong Yemeni accent. I had to un-learn a lot, I lost all my courage, and after two lessons I quit. I thought: Never mind, I’ll do it myself!’

But when she went on a holiday to Yemen, it turned out she hadn’t made any progress in those years. On the other hand:  ‘I was also surprised that my level hadn’t gone down , even though I hadn’t visited Yemen in three years. That motivated me to do better and to find another course in the Netherlands. Now I go to a language school that teaches both grammar and conversation. That suits me better than just memorizing rules. And when something happens, like in the supermarket with the two Arabic men, that is really great. It re-lit my fire for learning Arabic. I want that world to open up further for me.’

Oh, how familiar is the frustration of grudgingly coming to the conclusion that it will never work out between you and the longed-for language, and the euphoria when you notice you make progress. Okay, I would have done better if I had closed myself off entirely from Dutch and English and immersed myself in a bath of Turkish language, but that’s just impossible in my life and work. I don’t go very fast, but I learn thoroughly, and I don’t doubt that fluent Turkish is within reach!

Learning a language: hard work for adults
Neurolinguist Peter Indefrey is a specialist in multilinguistics. He is convinced that not only children, but also adults can learn to speak a language fluently. Only your brain has to work a lot harder: ‘When you are young, the neurones are still flexible. They pick up new information more easily and also reproduce is with less effort. As an adult it’s harder, but it’s definitely not impossible.’ He adds that ‘older’ and ‘younger’ are not easily defined, and that it also comes down to which part of language learning you are talking about: ‘To learn to speak a language without any accent, you have to start as a child, but your vocabulary can be expanded right up to old age.’ And he has a nice tip: sleep a lot. ‘And learn new words before you go to sleep. While you sleep, the brain will store those words systematically.’
He rejects the notion that children learn a language in a trice: not true. ‘Learning a language takes years. A three year-old doesn’t speak his mother tongue fluently, does he? A child is at best six years old before it can express itself properly, and then it still makes a lot of mistakes and keeps on learning new words all the time until it is an adult, and even then the learning continues.’

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