We’re joined today by Nele van Hout, who’s agreed to share with us her experiences and stories learning English and Japanese.
Can you tell us about yourself and your interest in learning languages?
“I’m Nele (pronounced as Nay-la), a Dutch ex-pat living in the UK. Growing up in the Netherlands, it is mandatory to study different languages in high school. Nobody apart from the Dutch speak Dutch, after all. In high school, I studied English, French, German, and Spanish. Even though I have always had a great passion and interest in traveling, I struggled studying vocabulary for foreign languages. As soon as I was able to drop some of these classes, I did. I ended up only taking English classes as my foreign language because it was mandatory.”
“A huge shift did happen in my view in my last year of high school. English suddenly “clicked” with me. I’m not sure whether it was because I was finally able to form proper sentences in it, or because I was very much into music at the time and most popular songs were sung in English. I started reading English books in my spare time and after studying Communications at university for one year, I dropped out to move to the UK. At 18 years old, I moved to Manchester to study English Literature and Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. There aren’t really any good options for studying English at higher education in the Netherlands unless you want to become an English teacher to Dutch high school students. I’ve got nothing against that profession, but I never had the desire to teach.”
“Studying English literature has been absolutely amazing. Especially because I studied alongside native speakers, it really helped me boost my knowledge of the English language and strengthen my skills. I graduated in 2018 and it is one of my proudest achievements. During university, I started a blog called The Navigatio, where I write about travel and living abroad. As mentioned before, travel is one of my greatest interests, and combining it with my passion for writing and photography – a blog seemed like the perfect hobby. It has now turned into my full-time job, something which I’m forever grateful for!”
“During university, I also took one year of Japanese classes. Visiting Japan had been a dream of mine since I was 13 years old and being able to study the language at university alongside my degree seemed like a great opportunity. Unfortunately, I was only able to follow these classes for one year because it didn’t fit in my schedule the following year. Nevertheless, I learned a lot in just one year and it sparked my interest in learning another foreign language. I traveled to Japan after graduating in 2018 and only speaking a few sentences with native Japanese speakers was amazing! After returning from my trip, I took it upon me to continue learning the language at home.”
How and why did you get started in learning English and then Japanese?
“In the Netherlands, studying English, German and French are mandatory subjects for the first 3 years of high school. You can pick Spanish as an extra unit if you’re interested in it. After that, you’re free to choose whether you want to continue German and French. English, however, is mandatory for your entire high school career. Which is why I stuck with it haha!”
“Learning Japanese has been one of those things that I’ve always wanted to do (despite my terrible experience trying to learn German, French, and Spanish in high school), but it seemed too intimidating to start doing it by myself. When the opportunity arose to study Japanese alongside my literature and creative writing classes at university, I had to take it.”
How far along are you in your language progress with both languages?
“I have lived in the UK for almost 6 years now and having graduated from university with an English Literature degree, I can say I’m definitely fluent in English. To be honest, my English is probably better than my native tongue (Dutch). Because I lived my entire adult life in an English speaking country and never really got to practice my Dutch (unless I call family or Dutch friends), it kinda slipped.”
“My Japanese is still quite basic. I can read Hiragana*, Katakana* and, a few Kanji*, I can form a few basic sentences but I definitely still have a long road ahead of me. In the future, I’d love to take the JLPT* test to set another challenge for me.”
*Hiragana: Japanese alphabet used for Japanese words and grammar.
*Katakana: Japanese alphabet used to write foreign words.
*Kanji: Chinese characters used in the Japanese writing system.
(The Japanese language writing system combines the 2 alphabets, Hiragana and Katakana, and Chinese characters, known as Kanji.)
*JLPT: The official Japanese Language Proficiency Test.
Could you explain how you work at learning your language?
“When I started learning English, I had 2 hours of classes every week. It wasn’t until I started doing some learning outside of my high school classes that I started to really improve. From listening and learning English songs to reading tons of English novels. When doing this, I always wrote down new vocabulary and tried to study the words I wasn’t familiar with just yet. After moving to the UK, I had the chance to really perfect my English because I had to use it every single day to get by.”
“As for Japanese, I took one year of classes. This really motivated me to get through the first hurdles of learning a language that is so different from any language I know. After finishing that year, I continued to use the books we used in class: “Japanese for busy people”. I have used language learning apps like Duolingo, which are good fun, but I know that studying with an actual textbook works much better for me.”
“I would love to take the JLPT in the future because I think it will motivate me to study harder. At the moment, it’s sometimes tough to stay motivated because I don’t use Japanese in my day-to-day life. As well as taking the test, I would love to go back to Japan for a longer period of time. I hope this will also motivate me to learn more.”
What personal lessons have you learned through learning English and Japanese?
“I think that learning English has been one of the greatest things I have ever done for myself. It has completely changed me for the better. In Dutch, I find it really difficult to express myself properly and it always caused a lot of internal anger – especially during my teenage years. I felt a lot of things that I couldn’t put into words. Because there are different ways of phrasing things and a lot more decorative words to choose from, English allowed me to express myself much better. There are a lot of stories out there about how you have a different personality in different languages, and I fully believe this is true. I think that my “English” personality fits the way I see myself much better than my “Dutch” personality.”
“I think that I have learned to understand myself much better by learning English. But I also believe that this has to do with the fact that my English skills allowed me to move abroad on my own at the young age of 18. That has really allowed me to get to know myself better, made me very independent, and gave me the work ethic I have today. It was a huge and scary step to make, but I’m so glad I did it!”
When learning a new language, we’re bound to make plenty of mistakes. Do you have any stories you can share with us?
“My first year living in the UK, my English definitely wasn’t anywhere near as good as it is today and I made a lot of mistakes. I worked at McDonald’s to help pay for my rent and I don’t even remember how many times I had to be like “Um… what’s that?”. I remember one instance in particular on my first shift where my boss told me to grab an apron to start learning about the kitchen duties and I had no idea what an “apron” was. He looked at me like I was an idiot when I asked him. Stuff like that happened a lot in that first year, but making mistakes like that is the only way you’ll learn!”
“Another one is when my boyfriend (he’s English) and I watched Star Wars together. The text on the intro screen said: “Turmoil has taken over the universe”. Because my vocabulary was still quite limited, I thought that turmoil was one of the characters in Star Wars. When I asked my boyfriend to remind me who turmoil was, he had to pause the film cause he couldn’t stop laughing.”
Do you have any advice for others learning a new language?
“To have fun with it! If you’re not enjoying it, you’ll never master it properly. From experience, it’s also much better to learn a little bit every day, than it is to learn a lot once a week. Spend 10-15 minutes every single day doing something in your target language. Whether that’s studying vocabulary, listening to songs in that language, watching tv shows, or just a writing exercise. Keep doing it every single day and you’ll see crazy results in no time!”
You’ve mentioned to us separately from this interview that you’ve also been teaching your boyfriend Dutch. Could you tell us a bit about that as well?
“My boyfriend is English and the only foreign language experience he had before meeting me was doing a bit of German in high school. He’s a music producer and through his work, he’s also met a lot of other Dutch producers. That, and dating a Dutch girl, had really inspired him to start learning Dutch.”
“He picked up quite a few words whenever we visit my family in the Netherlands, he tried learning it on language apps but it wasn’t until recently that he started learning it properly. Because of the COVID-19 lockdown, we started going for daily walks around our neighborhood to stay active and go outside. These 30 minute walks turned into Dutch classes. We talk in Dutch, I teach him new words, new grammar rules, and correct him where necessary. We’ve only been doing this for a month or so, but doing this every single day has helped him improve his skills dramatically!”
“We can now speak basic Dutch together, and it’s been really fun hearing him speak full Dutch sentences – especially after having been together for seven years haha! I never wanted to force him to learn it because I don’t think that’s fair. He needs to learn it if he wants to learn it. Most of my family and Dutch friends speak English, so there is never a huge need for him to speak Dutch – but it’s definitely fun for him to learn it now! It also makes visiting the Netherlands a lot easier cause I won’t have to constantly translate things for him, and he will feel more involved in group conversations where everybody speaks Dutch.”
Teaching a language can help us reevaluate how to learn a language, or how other people learn languages differently than us. What have you learned so far from that experience?
“Because I have learned English from scratch and am learning Japanese too, I think I’ve got a pretty good understanding of how people learn languages. In the summer between my second and third year of university, I also took an online TEFL course to gain my teaching certificate. I still don’t think I’ll ever go into teaching, but I wanted to have the opportunity to maybe teach English in Asia for a bit after university (that never happened lol!). But those skills definitely help me teach my boyfriend Dutch.”
“One thing I noticed is that teaching one language is completely different from teaching another. Every language has different rules and it’s tough to transfer those teaching skills across different languages. Especially because I was taught Dutch when growing up, a lot of the “rules” are second nature to me. Whenever he asks me why you have to say something a specific way, I often find it really hard to explain. Because I don’t know the actual rule, apart from “that just sounds most natural in Dutch”. Luckily, he’s picking it up quite quickly though haha!”
For a bit of extra fun could you tell us a fun, inspiring saying that you’ve learned that you find interesting?
“‘頭隠して尻隠さず’ in Japanese roughly translates to “Hiding your head but not hiding your butt” which basically means that when you pretend everything is fine, others can still see that there are problems.”
We’d like to thank Nele van Hout for sharing her experiences with us.
You can reach out to Nele van Hout through her travel blog, the Navigatio.
Check out more interviews with fellow language learners.
If you’d like to share your language learning experiences and stories with us, please reach out.