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On learning languages in general and Dutch in particular.
ARTICLE FOR CATALONIA TODAY
Given that some readers of this magazine, to judge by their letters, are interested in language learning, here's hoping they won't mind if I explain how this year I finally managed to teach myself Dutch (and that they'll forgive my chuffed tone, which I hope doesn't sin on the side of smugness). When it became necessary to learn this language (about 15 years ago) I reckoned I could do so on my own, just as I'd done with Catalan back in 1979. But I'd forgotten that then I simply didn't have any choice: there weren't any Catalan classes available for foreigners (and precious few for anyone else) so there was nothing else for it but to buy Teach Yourself Catalan and combine that with daily conversation with native speakers. (It helped that I was living in the country at the time, and my brain was only 19 years old). When Dutch rolled into sight, however, not only wasn't I living in Holland, my brain was now over 30, and whatever edges it might have had were at least partially weatherbeaten. Nonetheless I assumed, as I said, that all that was needed was to repeat the Catalan experience, and duly bought the then current edition of Teach Yourself Dutch, which turned out to be an old-fashioned book seemingly aimed at trainee farmers, which, far from cutting the mustard, only made it clear how impenetrable Dutch was. When I was desperate enough to consider enrolling in a course (despite a long-standing allergy to classrooms) a friend happened to buy me a graphic novel by a well-known Dutch author. Even with the help of the pictures, I still had to look up a half dozen words or so every page, but the effort was worth it, simply because the book was. With its mix of colloquial and literary language, it started to prise open the secrets of Netherlandish well and truly open for me, in a process which – several graphic novels and a couple of years later – led to a kind of breakthrough this summer (the season in which I usually visit Holland every year, for a week or two). In short, self-teaching could be the answer if you really want to cosy up to a language, so long as you chance on a system that suits you down to the ground. John Steinbeck, at the start of his writing courses, used to ask his students: "Who here wants to learn to write?" After everyone in the class had put his hand up, he would snap: "So what the hell are you doing here?" There you go.