Updated: Oct 20, 2020
When you start learning a new language, one of the things that can be very frustrating is the lack of vocabulary. After a few classes, you know how to construct a sentence, how to conjugate a verb, but you have no words to put in that sentence structure and know no verbs to conjugate. It feels like wanting to treat people to homemade muffins, but carrying around this empty muffin pan instead: all the holes are there to hold the batter, you just lack the ingredients. I had a difficult time learning German and French in high school… But never had an issue with vocabulary in Dutch, English and Spanish because I learned those languages through doing things that were important enough to me to retain new words without much effort. Relevance is everything.
That’s why at Rubio Dutch we never ask you to memorize lists of words nor do we dedicate entire classes to specific topics that are utterly meaningless to you. How DO we learn vocabulary then?
1. Context is everything
Our brain works in structures and networks. Things gain meaning in relation to other things. Words gain meaning in relation to other words in a sentence. This not only counts for adjectives (hot-cold, soft-hard), but for any concept within language (if you’d like to read or hear more on language and meaning, click here or here or here).
So instead of writing down a new word out of context, write down the whole sentence or phrase. Seeing the new word in its original context will help to recall the meaning of the word much faster and easier than if you try to memorise the word alone.
2. Meaning and relevance
If your crazy uncle talks to you for hours on end about the details of his stamp collection, how much of that would actually stick? Would you remember the specific names of certain special stamps? Would you be able to speak about stamps in a meaningful way, even after having been with your uncle for a significant amount of time? Probably not, unless you love your uncle so much that you actually get interested in stamp collections yourself. Language can only be meaningful if it is relevant to you.
It is easy to see how this can make learning Dutch or any other language, faster and more interesting. Instead of learning what the course materials tell you to, it is incredibly helpful if you learn what is relevant and thus meaningful to you.
Are you crazy about cooking? Or do you love financial news and the stock market? Are you fond of reading online forums about raising children? How much easier and motivating would it be to be able to read and communicate on topics that are close to your heart?
Talk about the things important to you and learn the vocabulary that you actually need.
If you are having a hard time finding a connection between your hobbies and interests and Dutch language learning, please feel free to drop me an email. I love to help and think with you. Also, I have a blog on my new website and you are welcome to investigate any topic of your interest and write about it in Dutch as a guest blogger!
You can apply this same principle in any conversations you might have. If people talk about boring stuff, don’t be surprised if your Dutch drops. Instead, get in control, change the topic and you can be sure that once you feel more engaged, your Dutch will improve much faster.
3. Learn what you live: Dutch Territory
It helps to make the connection between your language learning and your daily activities. Instead of creating a separate moment each day to work on your Dutch, try make it part of your regular routine.
Choose any place you regularly visit and from now on only speak Dutch there. This can be the supermarket, daycare, the lunchroom, any place. Once you know the words and sentences related to this place of your choice, you add a new territory, until you’ve slowly conquered several spaces of your daily life in Dutch.
Set yourself small challenges. It’s not about how well you do, it’s about doing it. So if your goal that day is to at least have three short conversations in Dutch, then don’t measure your achievements by how well it went, just measure whether you spoke Dutch or not. Make it a challenge to overcome your shyness!
4. Train your brain
Even if you don’t have any real conversations that day, it REALLY helps to have them in your mind. You might have heard that when you imagine playing tennis, the same areas of the brain fire as when you actually play tennis. The same goes for languages. Whether you are actually ordering ‘een volkoren brood’ at the bakery or just sitting on your bike imagining you are ordering ‘een volkoren brood’ and just going over the sentences in your mind, it still counts as practise.
Talk to yourself (in Dutch!)—we promise not to think you’re crazy 😉
5. Synonyms and fluency
In your mother tongue you might not even notice when you get stuck in a sentence: you know so many verbs and words, that you always have other ways at your disposal to finish expressing your thoughts. When learning a new language, you might not have a wide variety of words to choose from to express your thoughts—instead, you have just one word for certain concepts.
A great way to increase fluency is to use www.mijnwoordenboek.nl to translate the new word and look at the different synonyms it suggests for translation.
Tip: When using mijnwoordenboek.nl, just type in ONE word to translate. Instead of “to remember,” just type “remember,” for example. Use “vertalen” when on mobile version.