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.