If you’re moving or living in another country where English is not the mother tongue, and you must learn a new language as an adult, then my heart goes out to you. I’m living in a country that’s not much bigger than the state of West Virginia with its own language spoken little elsewhere. It’s a tough language. English speakers struggle with pronunciation and guttural words spoken from the throat and the Yoda-like sentence structure used in some, but not all, tenses.
Recently, I’ve been spending a few hours a week in an office, volunteering my time to help with client flow and assisting the staff. Working with Dutch speakers has highlighted my limited grasp of the Dutch language, causing me to stress out about how little progress I’ve made in language comprehension.
Time to Step Up
A new chapter in my expat housewife life is beginning. We’re opening a chiropractic office in Rotterdam next month, and guess who will be working the front office? Hint: it’s the same girl who can barely piece a few Dutch words together, let alone have comprehensive dialogue. Things are about to get uncomfortable.
I’ve had so many friendly exchanges with the Dutch, even if they don’t speak English they still talk with a smile on their face and patience in their voice. They all say Dutch is a hard language, especially for English speakers. I love them for giving me an easy out with this, but still, enough is enough. Now, I don’t have a choice.
Cognitive Benefits of Learning a Second Language
Learning a new language forces your brain to function in a different frequency. It’s been linked to improved memory and concentration. Learning 1,000 vocabulary words and focusing on grammar supports these claims. Outside of the cognitive improvements in the brain, it also improves well-being.
Language Benefits for Your Wellbeing
It’s easy to feel like a visitor in your new home. All around you, people are communicating and laughing in the native language, all of which is unfamiliar to you. Gone are your comfortable familiarities. I’m used to hearing other languages spoken without knowing what’s being said. Now it’s a normal everyday occurrence; all day, every day.
Learning the native language helps you feel included by virtue of communication. One time I was on a Dutch tram when the driver came over the speaker warning passengers that they had to exit at the next stop due to mechanical problems in the tram. I had no idea what he was saying, so sure enough, at the next stop, most passengers exited the tram. I and a few non-Dutch speaking passengers were still aboard, we had no idea what was going on. Security came on and told us we had to leave.
Not a huge problem, but this happens from time to time. Although it’s not entirely the case, I feel incompetent and left out when I can’t understand people. Establishing community and connections guards against homesickness helps earn friends easier, and makes you more competitive in the job market. There are ways around this, as I’ve learned and have practiced over the past few years, but then you realize that it’s just not as good as what could be. This is more apparent when you visit home.
Language to Establish a Sense of Community
When I visit an English-speaking country, I immediately feel a more comfortable. I understand public transport better, I know what authority figures are saying, I understand bills and other important documents. It’s easy, nice and comfortable. Then I return home, and once again, I feel like a stranger.
Doing What is Difficult to Make Life Easier
It’s a lesson on doing what is difficult to make life easier. Making decisions based on where you want to be, and not where you are currently, is not always in the forefront of our mind. Where I am now is sitting comfortably in my home office, working with US clients and texting English speaking friends. Where I would like to be is a fluent Dutch speaker, capable of answering complex questions and helping my community with their health concerns. So, that’s where I will go.
Language and Life
Same can be said about other areas of our lives, not only in learning a new language but in other lifestyle shifts: losing weight, confidence, relocating, new jobs and starting a family. Making decisions based on where you want to be, not where you currently are, is scary but good in the long run. Give it your best shot, do not lose focus if it’s truly important to you, and don’t give up just because a new challenge pops up. You can handle the challenge and you deserve to live the life you’ve always dreamed.