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‘Sorry, I’m English’ my most repeated phrase of the last 18 months since living in the Netherlands, often felt like an apology rather than a statement to indicate my Dutch language skills were not quite up to the mark.

Despite my best intentions, learning a language during a pandemic is not easy. Various levels of lockdown, shops and amenities being closed, visits with other people disallowed – all these factors do not help to immerse oneself into a new culture.

My weekly language classes I had started at my son’s school were cancelled in the first lockdown and never reinstated. My son home-schooled for a large chunk of the last year and this, which changed the priorities at home, with well-being and outside exercise to break the day up becoming the priority, not more learning.

I tried online classes, there was some progress, but they didn’t suit me as in the evenings my brain was tired to take in new information after a full day working.

I tried to teach myself. I have text-books, story books, apps, audio-books and podcasts. I’ve tried them all, voraciously filling in all my down-time while cycling, gardening or doing the house-work. Passive listening can only take you so far, however. On my own I struggle to structure the learning beyond memorizing simple words, and with no-one to be accountable to other than myself, I drift.

As I’m just a little over 18 months here, I feel I need a system that will work for me. I decided learning for me must be one on one, with a teacher to meet me at my level, giving me nowhere to hide.

I’ve set something up with family members. I speak to a sister-in-law two evenings a week for half an hour. She’s great as she speaks slowly so I can follow and make out the words. Anytime there’s a word I don’t know she types it into the chat, and I make a note of it. So, my vocabulary of ‘regular’ conversational words is growing. I’ve been floundering in putting sentences together in response, so I’ve asked another sister-in-law, trained as a primary school teacher, to help me out with some more structured sessions. So now two mornings a week, at 9am, we work through basic grammar. She sets me homework, and now I put in the extra time to study myself as I have someone to be accountable to.

From my arrival here to now I feel like I have forgotten more than I have learnt. I feel like I’m going round and round and not moving forwards. But learning a language is one of those things where there is no quick fix. There is no learning ‘hack’ that can take the place of hours of study and practice. Last year I read a lot of books about learning, how the brain takes in information, sorts it, and recalls it. My ‘day-job’ for many years has been corporate learning & development. Knowing how learning works does not necessarily make learning easier. But I am aware that I will need structure and a system to learn, and then lots of repetition, and practice at recall. I’m also aware of the importance of ‘mindset’. Thinking that I can’t do it, being afraid to try, not wanting to look stupid and make mistakes – these are all self-limiting beliefs. I am fortunate enough to have people around me where I feel safe enough to try out my learning. It may just take me a little longer.

And in the meantime, I’ll have to keep saying, ‘Sorry, I’m English’.

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