Last week I attended my first Dutch language course at the Volks Universiteit. Because no others were open, I’m signed up for an intensive 6 hours per week for 12 weeks. The decision was made quickly, and I had to rush to class the first night after whipping up dinner for the two little boys under my care and without even having purchased the text book. For this and other reasons, I wasn’t thrilled to be going. I have a hectic work schedule as it is, and class two nights a week wasn’t what I had in mind.
Unfortunately, it’s either this or I continue to walk around Amsterdam staring at people blankly and whimpering “sorry… English?” fifty times a day. I can’t even tell whether the 3-year-old I look after is speaking Dutch or pure gibberish. The other day he was in the stroller waiting with me to cross the street, talking loudly and happily to himself. People were turning around and giving he and I funny looks; usually they do this because they think I’m his mother, but I had a feeling this time he was attracting attention with inappropriate conversation – in a language that, to me, is wholly indecipherable, even when spoken by adults.
So I rode my bike the fifteen minutes to class and took a seat. I instantly felt comfortable. The bright, warm lights, clean chalkboard and small desks lined up like crayons in a box made me feel right at home. I laid out the crumpled printer paper I’d grabbed from the house and a ball-point pen and tried to soak up the potent zest for learning that hung in the air. After two weeks of constant and complete unfamiliarity, being in a classroom was something I knew, something I could handle.
As the teacher entered and class commenced, however, I quickly realized it would be a slightly different learning environment than any I’d experienced before. Every member of the class offered a brief introduction – name, nationality, and length of time in Amsterdam thus far – with my turn coming up last. Here is a list enumerating where everyone is from, and how many are from each place, in the order they were introduced:
Venezuela & Germany: 1
…and USA: 1.
Even in my study program in Italy, the most international a class got was maybe four students from Mexico and one from Sweden. Except that there was only one girl from Sweden in the whole program, and I don’t think I had any classes with her. So, great! I thought as the list kept getting more and more diverse. This is so cool and everyone seems so nice and eager to learn! I couldn’t wait to blog about the real, live “It’s a Small World” that I’ll attend class in two nights a week. I’ll be more interestingly seasoned just by being around these people!
Then I realized something else, something that I feel was confirmed in my second class last night: these people are probably all smarter than me, or at the very least have more practice at languages. The class is taught mostly in Dutch, but anything that is translated for learning’s sake is translated into English. So, aside from perhaps the two British girls in the class, I am the only person there who doesn’t already speak at least two languages. At least two. Most of them have also been in Amsterdam for much longer than two weeks, so they can at least recognize Dutch as a language and not just a random assembling of strange sounds.
Lucky for me, I’ve secured a seat next to Charlotte, a French girl who really knows her stuff. I obviously have no choice but to give it a go, so I turned to her and we practiced our greetings. I said, “prettig met u kennis te maken” (nice to meet you), in a choppy, nervous voice, but I smiled and made sure she knew I meant it. The exciting thing is that I won’t only be learning from the teacher, but also from the faces around the classroom, who’ve come here from around the world. And I’d say that to be back in school where I feel at home in a place that feels totally foreign makes me pretty boffen (lucky!).
Now we’ll just have to see if I actually learn anything.