A small epiphany with a glass of wine


Last Friday I attended a friend’s 35th birthday party. Her living room, with tall glass doors to the garden and a gleaming hardwood floor, was filled with women festively dressed for the occasion. Dim lighting, jovial conversation and a table lined with a selection of wines and snacks created a festive atmosphere. Even though I didn’t recognize anyone besides the birthday girl when I arrived, I knew that I shared the common thread of her friendship with all of the guests, setting the stage for easy conversation among strangers.

I have been to such parties before, and enjoyed them immensely, but there was something that set this gathering apart from my former experiences–they were all speaking in Dutch. I started a conversation in English with the first woman I met and we had a fantastic dialogue that ranged from literature to parenting, to the speed of which our society is changing. But one thing that’s guaranteed about conversations at such a party; if you wander away to refill your wine glass, or snack on the mixed nuts, when you return, the conversation will have switched to Dutch. And so it was.

I joined in a conversation and within a few minutes I received compliments on my Dutch. This launched a conversation about language acquisition and comfort level in speaking in a foreign language. I admitted I didn’t feel comfortable speaking Dutch and both people with whom I spoke couldn’t understand why.

“I understand everything you are saying and you communicate very well. You have nothing to be uncomfortable about,” she responded in Dutch. I understood all of her words and I knew they were not meant to placate my fears. The Dutch aren’t into that. So I had to receive them earnestly. And in doing so, both I and my partner in conversation wanted to get to the bottom of my discomfort.

“Do you think in Dutch?” she asked.

“I think in Dutch when I’m speaking Dutch,” I responded. Others had joined the conversation and they all agreed that this was a very good sign that I had reached a strong level of language acquisition. And then the significance of this realization hit me. If I think in Dutch, my thought process is limited to my current Dutch vocabulary, which is a fraction of the vocabulary available to me when forming my thoughts in my native tongue.

Wow. Perhaps for others this sounds like a no brainer, but for me it was a small epiphany. Those pauses I feel when I’m searching through my limited Dutch vocabulary alter my natural flow of conversation, making me feel like a dimmed down version of myself. I’m not saying that I am always eloquent and witty in my native tongue, but I am definitely smoother and more confident than in Dutch.

As the evening progressed, I forgot about me and just listened and responded to those around me.  With the right mix of alcohol, ego release and a good night’s sleep that kept my brain sharp and engaged, I had moments when I was so emerged in the conversation that I completely forgot about the language barrier or the fact that I was speaking Dutch.

If there was a string of words that derrailed my understanding, I asked for a translation and then just as quickly returned to Dutch. And that is key–going with the flow, interjecting an English word here or there, and always returning to the foreign language.

At one point, I wisely realized my brain had had enough Dutch for one evening, and I started to say my goodbyes. The next day, instead of feeling tuckered out, my language muscle felt stronger due to the cerebral boot camp I had attended the night before. Not only that, but my little epiphany has put vocabulary development on the front burner and the words are bubbling in my mind, finding their place in my permanent collection.

Now if anyone can give me a tip on how to maintain this enthusiasm, I just may reach fluency afterall.

Published by kristininholland

I believe in living with integrity and in choosing a lifestyle that shows respect for our environment. Although continually attracted to the idea of imminent success with the publication of my two novels, I am also greatly drawn to living simply and living well: loving my family and friends, and being aware and present for those moments in life--a spontaneous hug from my son, a smile to a stranger, moments of insight--that define real connection and success with peace, love and happiness.

13 thoughts on “A small epiphany with a glass of wine

  1. this is a wonderful post Kristin! You have beautifully articulated the biggest reason I haven’t been teaching my son my native tongue: I’d like him to know me–and himself–as fully as possible. And between feeling guilty, I am able to trust that he’ll have other opportunities for language acquisition.
    Good for you, for all your hard work.

    1. Thank you Izzie. I’m sure your son will have other language acquisition opportunites as you say. What is your native tongue? It might be fun to teach him some words. When we were living in the U.S, we sometimes refered to Dutch as our secret language. That motivates kids to learn some words, as secrets are almost always cool.

  2. The whole subject is fascinating. I wonder what it would be like for you to write in Dutch.

    I remember from teaching writing to foreign exchange students that they often wrote with great directness and simplicity–in a good way, not a simple-minded way. They didn’t know how to use fancy words or make rhetorical flourishes. I have to go back and take all that fanciness out of my writing, and I don’t always succeed. They didn’t know how to put it in in the first place. I suspect that they wrote and thought very well in their own languages–which would certainly apply to you.

    And I am still so jealous that you are speaking, like, total Dutch!

    1. Funny that your foreign writing students had one leg up on us in their ability to write simply and directly. I love Hemingway’s sparseness, but despite my admiration for his style, know it is not in the cards for my writing. My Dutch writing sucks by the way. I have no aspirations to do creative writing in Dutch, but hope eventually to write a flawless email. Maybe next decade!

    1. Maybe. But I think wine and foreign language is a bit like wine and darts; at first, the wine loosens you up and you throw more accurately. But too much wine, and the darts and language both miss their mark.

    2. Yes, more wine, and lots of good parties! (All in moderation, of course). But red wine is good for you, so is the break from being mom, and you need consistent work on your language acquisition to improve. Keep up the good work, Kristin! Now I need to follow my own advice.

  3. I remember similar feelings when I was an exchange student in high school. I remember towards the end of the year being whisked into the school nurses office with a nasty bloody nose, and trying to tell them through blood soaked tissues that I was not Swedish. I don’t remember why it was relevant, but the two ladies kept assuring me that I sounded Swedish to them. My thought at the time was that it was such a limited conversation though, mainly related to the event at hand, and didn’t require a huge vocabulary.

    Anyway, I’m excited for you. I love saying, “I have a friend who lives in the Netherlands.” And now I can say, “and she’s gaining fluency in Dutch.” Yes! That’s a great accomplishment. Have you dreamed in Dutch yet? I found I dreamed in swedish periodically for a couple years after returning home. Alas, without practice retention suffers horribly. Keep it up!!

    1. Thanks for your comments Rocklynn! I love that your time in Sweden makes these sort of posts relevant to you, even years later. I relate to your bloody nose experience; I always want to speak English in medical situations as well, such as at the doctor’s office, because I want them to know I speak English. Strange, eh? But sometimes my Dutch is better than their English, so this isn’t always wise in my case!
      I hope none of my Dutch friends are reading this; they may disagree about how close I am to fluency 🙂

  4. Lieve Kristin,

    De aanhouder wint…! Heel knap hoe je je blijft inspannen om meer van ons moeilijke Nederlands te leren spreken.

    Heb je alle onbespoten groentes al geplant met de vrolijke bloemetjes, die we gisteren kochten? Veel liefs, Henny

  5. I recently read something in an essay by Rachel Cohen that reminded me of this post. The essay itself was not to my taste, but these lines stuck with me. She was discussing two poets who made a living as translators:

    “Not simply catching the literal meaning of another’s words, but actually expanding one’s own language under the influence of another’s language. Thinking in two languages, like a circus rider standing on two horses, allowing oneself to be carried away by the two languages together.”

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