Is no knowledge truly wasted? Or was Dutch a big time suck?

When I decided to study Dutch last September, I thought: What the hell, we could be here awhile, I might as well take the intensive class.

As the result of that decision, I spent six hours per week in a classroom learning Dutch for seven months. Outside of class, I dutifully completed my homework, watched Dutch TV and puzzled my way through the local newspaper. I was going to fucking ace this Dutch thing.

In late April, I basked in the warm glow of triumph upon receiving a certificate announcing that I understood Dutch at the B1 level (intermediate).

Shazam! I could read signs! I could listen to the radio! I could eavesdrop on couples in cafes! I could speak really slowly to a very patient Dutch person! 

However almost the same day that I received my Dutch language certificate, it became clear that we would be returning to Hong Kong.

In an instant, the scales fell from my eyes: I had studied a niche European language, the speakers of which also mostly speak impeccable English, and I would now be moving away from the tiny country where it was spoken. One might class it all as a colossal wasted effort.

Do I think I wasted my time? I must tell myself ‘no’ in order to keep from weeping over my language books.

Why were Dutch lessons not a waste? Let me attempt a list of reasons:

Formal classes gave a structure to my week that kept me from losing my newly arrived mind. I credit Dutch class with making this last international move the easiest to date. I had a purpose and I spoke to real live people who weren’t part of my family on a regular basis.

The in-class people-watching opportunities were tremendous. My transgendered Thai classmate was far more stereotypically feminine than me and I often wondered how often she could flip her hair about her shoulders during one class period. The young Ukrainian women, with an extremely old-fashioned world view, wore low-cut evening wear at 9 am, but worked harder than any of the rest of us and was sweet as pie. Our Dutch instructor was a fashionable 70-year-old who was kind enough to only show her frustration after I mixed Dutch and English together the millionth time in a row. This is but a fraction of the cast of characters.

Instant satisfaction as the results were much faster than Chinese. Studying Chinese is like eating a whale: one bite at a time and eventually you will eat the entire thing. Ten years of on-and-off Chinese study and I proudly estimate that I’ve eaten the tail fin. Studying Dutch is more like eating a large salmon: you can see a predictable end to the process from the first bite (even if I ate my fill before then).

Hey, if I want to learn German someday, it should be easier, right? Now I’m grasping.

So I have a short list of reasons why Dutch may not have been a total time suck, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t given a passing thought to what I could have spent the time doing: writing the first draft of a novel, building a freelance career, learning Kung Fu, being a more fastidious recycler, studying Spanish, proofreading this blog, yarn bombing Utrecht… further suggestions?

17 responses to “Is no knowledge truly wasted? Or was Dutch a big time suck?

  1. In my opinion, language learning is never a waste. You never know if you might meet a Dutch person in Hong Kong who will be totally blown away by your B1 language skills and happen be the perfect connection to build that freelance career or get that novel off the ground!

    Plus like you said, the classes seemed to have helped you settle into life in Holland, and that could never be a waste!

    • Now that is a good way to spin it: potential networking help! Every little bit helps, right?

      The classes did really help me settle in and I suppose are just as worthwhile as any other sort of recreational classes I might have taken up.

  2. I sympathize! I seem to specialize in learning obscure languages badly! (Greek, Tagalog, Nepali…) We are heading to Jamaica next which is English speaking fortunately, Although there is always Jamaican Patois to tackle!

    • Do you ever find yourself using bits of Greek, Tagalog, Nepali and English together in one sentence? You know, when you’re a bit flustered and trying desperately to say something correctly? (And of course you’re going to at least dabble in Jamaican Patois, right?)

  3. I think it’s noble of you to invest time and effort learning the language and be engaged with the local community. There are expats who spent decades of their lives in one place and never bother with learning the local lingo/culture as they are quite comfortable living within a bubble. You’ve accomplished a lot in a short time.

    • You always know the right thing to say, sundanze. I did enjoy my time here more and learned more about local culture by studying Dutch. Plus it was fun. Now, with my language confidence up, I’ll have to attempt the same thing with Cantonese this time around.

  4. I think that learning other languages is good for the brain, so even if you never use it again it was making your brain work and grow. 🙂 Hey and you may vacation in Amsterdam or Curacao, Aruba, Bonair, or Belgium and use it again! Now you have goals on where to vacation next.
    On a completely different note, did you decide to take your bike with you? I really do see it as a career opportunity!

    • I haven’t decided 100% about the bike, but am almost certain that I will take it. You all convinced me!

      Aruba or Curacao sound about right 😉

  5. Always good to learn a new language as it will also help you better understand the local culture (do our words determine our thoughts or is it the other way round?) You can take it as a mental exercise too! Going out of one’s comfort zone in a good way.

    Instead of all that time learning Dutch, I suppose you could have tried baking apple pies??

    • Studying Dutch was a really good experience. And I’d rather have done that than bake apple pies or a lot of other things, so it wasn’t really time wasted, so long as I think of it as a “hobby.”

  6. Take a trip to Jakarta to practice some of your newly learned Dutch. Which is to say, apart from car repair shops and bakeries, it…may not come in much handy.

    In other news, back to Hong Kong, is it?

    • So the key to using my Dutch is to visit Jakarta, rent a crappy car and spend a great deal of time chatting to the old man who is repairing it? Perfect.

      Yes, back to Hong Kong.

      • It’s more that auto body terms count among them a handful of Dutch words. Expecting to find someone who speaks it as about as unlikely as having a conversation in Spanish with a Manileño.

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