Finding the gumption within when grammar and vocab alone won’t save you.
By David Doochin
Only when you’re sitting in an Ethiopian restaurant with your friend in the Netherlands does it hit you that you’re a long, long way from home. That’s what I can say from my own experience, at least. I don’t know why the culture shock decided to hit me right then and there, but suddenly, the reality of being an outsider in a foreign context came crashing down on me. I felt dizzy, untethered. I felt uncomfortably alien.
Finding myself here was no mistake. I had been planning for months to take this trip, a meticulously planned five-stop jet-set throughout England, the Netherlands and Germany to visit friends and get my first taste of the continent. Cambridge and London were my first two stops, and the fact that two of my dearest pals from college, Derek and Mackenzie, were students at the University of Cambridge made for a warm and welcoming embrace to the United Kingdom. We frolicked and la-di-da’d around for two days, bobbing in and out of pubs to dodge the biting cold and warming ourselves up with frothy beer and fireplaces instead. I had not a care in the slightest, tagging along with my pals as they showed me the sights and catered to my comforts.
It must have been this cozy jaunt in a college town and my adventures in London afterward that left me with an inflated sense of confidence. Because it was only after leaving a primarily English-speaking zone that I realized that my ability to speak the local language has almost everything to do with how at-home I feel in a new place. And this realization was, at first, nothing short of sobering.
I wanted to feel like I’d bathed in the city, found the warm and the cozy nooks and crannies hidden among it, just like the locals. Instead, I felt lost.
I had set off to Europe with only a semester’s worth of beginner German and about fifty Babbel lessons of Dutch under my belt. Not a negligible amount of language study, but certainly nothing like the seven years of Spanish I had studied and honed in classrooms and Spanish-speaking countries for a major chunk of my multilingual lifetime. I had spent a summer in Thailand four years before, but that felt different, even though I barely spoke a word of Thai before (or during) those two months. I knew at the start of that experience that I was coming in blind, a total foreigner with no linguistic know-how to get me through. Living in a house full of English speakers also made the transition to Southeast Asian culture a lot more manageable.
But now here I was in Amsterdam, and I have to admit that I was a little full of myself. After settling into our Airbnb and having a nice chat with our English-speaking host, Mackenzie and I decided to venture out on the town for my first foray into everything Dutch. I recognized a few words from my studies here and there on street signs — a verkoop advertised at a winkel or at a supermarkt — and smiled upon recognizing that my reading comprehension was at a nonzero level. It felt good.
But when we got to that Ethiopian restaurant, an invisible force struck me, humbled me, and reminded me of my own identity as, well, someone from the outside. Faced with the prospect of having a real Dutch conversation, I felt exposed, even naked. Could other restaurant patrons see my American essence in all its colors? Would I be able to stumble through the process of ordering food without drawing attention to myself as someone who didn’t belong?
Time seemed to move slowly as I looked at the menu and realized I’d have to parse through each word like a grade-school child reading his first chapter book. I felt embarrassed. I dreaded the waitress’ arrival at our table and my inevitable failure in trying to explain what I wanted from her. Even if I rehearsed what I wanted to say in my head, how would I be able to understand her unpredictable response and hold a back-and-forth with her all off the cuff? The thought was nauseating.
It had been my dream to navigate a new place like this beyond just knowing when to turn left and how to maneuver around swarms of bikers whizzing past. I wanted to feel like I’d bathed in the city, found the warm and the cozy nooks and crannies hidden among it, just like the locals. Instead, I felt lost.
I had the urge to return to the Airbnb and wall myself off — or rather, in — from all of the external stimuli that I felt were throwing my brain and my mental stability out of whack. I had visions of a vacation ruined by my own inability to communicate my own basic thoughts, to be anything more than a babbling baby unable to express myself in a world of grown-ups who were all talking in some tongue I couldn’t understand. My imagination ran wild, my anxiety consuming me.
It wasn’t about how much vocab I could recall from my memory or how many times I’d practiced grammar, but rather how comfortable I felt trying to put my knowledge to use, even if it meant I would trip up, stumble and hiccup along the way.
Thank goodness I had Mackenzie. It was her candid and disciplined response to my self-perpetuated panic that saved me from spiraling into a whirlpool of self-doubt. It wasn’t that she reminded me of just how strong my Dutch skills were, how much I practiced up to that point. Because at that point, she truly had no idea how much Dutch I knew. But by highlighting her own willingness not to have the answers, to make an error even when she felt that all eyes were on her, she empowered me, too.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” she asked frankly. “And even so, who cares?”
I thought about it. She was right. The world around me wasn’t pushing for me to fail. It just was what it was. And I could either participate in it or not. I took a deep breath. Mackenzie’s encouragement and reality check put into perspective for me just how okay it was that I was afraid of speaking Dutch to a real Dutch speaker. It wasn’t about how much vocab I could recall from my memory or how many times I’d practiced grammar, but rather how comfortable I felt trying to put my knowledge to use, even if it meant I would trip up, stumble and hiccup along the way. And so I held my chin up high, and I managed to muster up a Waar is het toilet? to our waitress, putting my Dutch language skills into practice in a real context for the first time. And she understood!
At this point I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention just how easy it is to get around using English in almost every place I visited in Europe. Had I truly had no background in Dutch, I would have been completely fine throughout most of my travels. This is a truth that became quite apparent to me only after my mental frenzy in that Ethiopian restaurant. But instead of choosing to rely on my native language as a safety net, I made the conscious effort to be uncomfortable, to be an outsider — because how else was I going to learn?
So I chose to be vulnerable and not to let being afraid stop me from soaking up the riches of a brand new culture and life experience. And from that point on, the rest of the trip unfolded seamlessly before me.
Over a Thanksgiving dinner at a quaint Dutch home in the suburb of Wassenaar outside of The Hague, I chatted with Dutch employees of the American embassy who were impressed with my pronunciation and patient with me as I syntactically strung together loose words and sounds into something resembling a sentence. Wij zijn uit Amsterdam gekomen, I told them, or tried to, and to my surprise, they could actually understand. The questions they asked often went right over my head, but when I swallowed my pride and asked them to repeat and slow down, I found that they were more than willing to help me navigate the maze that is understanding a foreign language from a native speaker. They encouraged me to try, try again, and filled in the gaps when I couldn’t find the right word.
I left the Netherlands with a newly found sense of wonder, like I’d begun unlocking the door to some great secret treasure that had once been hidden from me. I found that on many levels, I was just like the people I was talking to, even if language barriers seemed at first an insurmountable obstacle that threatened to keep us apart.
It was in Berlin, the final stop of my trip, that I was warned profusely by my friends Nicholas and Gentry that we risked standing out as foreigners (and worse, especially, Americans) if we didn’t look and sound just like the locals.
In the hour-long wait in line to get into famed Berlin nightclub ://about blank, for which we’d spent an hour perfecting our outfits, we practiced over and over how we’d respond to what we imagined could be an intense line of questioning by the ticket checkers at the door. Wir wohnen in Schöneberg, we’d say. Wir haben drei Tickets gekauft. The thrill of running language drills in the chilly November air at one in the morning is a memory I’ll never forget, partly because of how silly we must have sounded, but also because it was a very tangible way to watch my language skills pay off. I mean, I wasn’t going to risk not getting in after all that waiting (we got into the club just fine, by the way). It was rewarding to know that all that German I had practiced wasn’t going to waste — as long as I had the guts to use it in the first place.
So what’s my takeaway here? If nothing else, all of this is to say that foreign language anxiety is a phenomenon that strikes us all, even when we think we’re prepared for the linguistic obstacles that might come our way.
But that’s healthy. In fact, it can be a good thing. Because if you face it head-on, you get the experience of doing something scary, and every time you do it from that point will only be easier, more fluid, more embedded in your mental musculature.
And that’s what learning a language is all about for me: expanding my horizons to connect with parts of the world and myself that were once foreign and frightening. Europe was simultaneously a seemingly infinite playground, or a constant reminder of my own alienness. But it was up to me to decide which one. Mistakes and vulnerability are part of the learning process, and you can’t possibly grow if you don’t admit that there’s growth to do in the first place.
And for the record, that Ethiopian food was delicious.