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Cate, the Language Nerd

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Bio

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Cate

Hi. I’m Cate Deans. Like Seth Godin, I’m a teacher, and I do projects.

Unlike Seth Godin, most of my projects have been in my home and working with individuals who are my friends. Shipping meant having dinner on the table and getting the kids to school – or later when we homeschooled, getting the kids out of their pyjamas! – and sharing with my friends to be the best version we can of “us” on any particular day.

For more than thirty years, I’ve been trying to help people “see the light” (even if it is at the end of a tunnel), inspire people to be the best “them” they can be, while sharing how I am trying to be the best “me” I can be, in whatever I am doing. This blog is my latest project, and I hope it inspires you to realise language learning is most enjoyable when it’s… well, fun. That “fast” doesn’t necessarily mean “today”, and that simple is probably best. If my magpie-like attraction to “the next shiny thing” can save you some time and money, I will be happy. One day, if we meet, I hope you’ll share with me your favourite posts. Even better, I’d like to hear about how learning a new language helped you interact with people differently and leave a legacy of positivity.

My Language Learning Story

My first language learning experience was a very normal one; one that I am sure many English speakers will relate to. In Australia every child learns a LOTE – Language Other Than English – at some stage of their education. In primary years it is normally restricted to learning the numbers and some basic animals or colours in a few different languages.  At my primary school we learned how to count to ten in Japanese. We learned how to sing “Frère Jacques”. And that is about all I can remember! However I was very interested in the languages, and wished we had done more.

In late primary school, my mother (a special education teacher) learned Australasian Signed English – not a language, but a signed form of English. My sister and I learned enough to communicate in church when we had to be quiet :). Mostly by spelling out words. I learned how to sing-sign “Old MacDonald” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”… that was about it.

In my case, high school brought consistent instruction in  French. I still remember the name of my first lesson… “Le magnétophone” (The Cassette Player). I don’t remember much else from that lesson, or in fact any of the lessons following for the next two years. I was however quite good, and was selected to compete in an Alliance Française French competition, in which I received an Honourable Mention. The poem we had to recite, Dame Souris Trotte by Paul Verlaine, is one that many French first graders have to learn, and the verses I learned are indelibly imprinted into my brain, even thirty-*cough* *cough* something years later!

A couple of things did stick with me… the present tense conjugations for the verbs “To Be” and “To Have”… how to count to sixty (the French numbering system becomes a little non-intuitive after 60)… the words to the poem which I learned for a competition in my second year of high school. I actually wanted to continue studying through high school, but my father didn’t see any point in a kid from a country town in Tasmania, Australia learning French… “What is the point? What would you do with it, except maybe become a French teacher?”

In my last year of secondary college one of my very close friends and I brushed up our fingerspelling skills, and we became so fast and so good that none of our other friends could understand us 🙂 Which was sort of the point… we wanted to be able to comment to each other without being heard. It was pretty rude… but we were teenagers and really didn’t care!

I found that I really enjoyed languages, and wished I could learn more, but living in North West Tasmania, in a town where my high school only had 800 students and only two Chinese boys and two Aboriginal boys, there wasn’t really much opportunity to be exposed to anything other than English.

Then in my early twenties I began to travel, and lived for almost 2 years in England. In the winter, a London newspaper offered vouchers for a £1 day return ticket from Dover to Calais, and a couple of Kiwis* and I decided to take the opportunity for a cheap day out! One of my friends had taken six years of French at school, and had quite a good grasp of the grammar and structure of the language, and enough of a vocabulary to get by for a day in Calais. The only problem was that her accent was terrible, and none of the French people she spoke to could understand her. But while my knowledge of the vocabulary was next to non-existent (Bonjour. Je m’appelle Cate. Je suis australienne. Je ne parle pas français. Parlez-vous anglais?… Hello. My name is Cate. I am Australian. I do not speak French. Do you speak English?), my accent was quite understandable. Hilariously, we spent the day with my friend asking things of the locals, them looking very confused, then me repeating the (until then forgotten) words in my better accent, and the locals being able to respond. My friend was not impressed! However, my interest in the language, and language learning in general, was rekindled.

After two years of my working holiday, and not wanting to return to Australia yet, I turned to employment opportunities in France in the hope of extending my holiday and brushing up my French. Unfortunately, opportunities to work with an Australian passport in France were limited by having to obtain a work visa from OUTSIDE of the country… very difficult when really the work opportunities required first an interview INSIDE the country. I was running out of time, so when the opportunity instead to work in the Netherlands presented itself, I decided to change my plans. After all – I could learn to speak Dutch!

I arrived in the Netherlands, aged 23 years, with a total of three words in my repertoire – “ja”, “nee” and “hallo” – and a “Teach Yourself Dutch” language kit under my arm! The morning after I arrived, needing to go into town to buy a few bits and pieces, I asked the English woman in whose home I was working “How do you say please?”. “Alstublieft.” “Ahhhh… huh?” Three syllables for a simple work like “please”???

Fear filled my heart! “Is there another word?” “Well… you could say ‘graag’” (which sounded far harder, as Dutch uses a gutteral sound for ‘g’, similar to the Scottish ‘ch’ in ‘loch’). “Ahhh… what was the first word again?”

After 5 mins of rehearsing my single word acquisition for the morning, I braved the 1οC snowy weather and walked the ten minutes in to town to buy my shampoo. I was fine, until at the register the cashier asked me a question. “Huh!? Sorry?” She repeated for me slowly, obviously having worked out I wasn’t a native… “Wilt… u… een… tasje?” (Do you want a plastic bag?) and showing me a bag… “Uhh.. ja!” I raced home, breathing heavily. 🙂

This experience is indelibly printed into my memory, even twenty years later… but it was not going to stop me. If anything, it simply solidified my intent to learn to speak Dutch.

The next three months I sort of dabbled in learning Dutch. I listened to a few Linguaphone lessons. But I spoke English at home, and anyone I met spoke English to me, because I couldn’t speak anything else. I learned Dutch at the greengrocer and at church. I was blessed with a lovely lady who volunteered to interpret for me in the church services. The headphones were fairly cheap, so I could hear all the Dutch as well as the English. Many of the songs were translated from English, so I was familiar with the content. Having been raised in the church, I’m pretty familiar with the Bible, so as long as I could find out what scripture was being discussed, I was fairly sure to know the subject. (Then I bought a bilingual bible… even better!)

At first conversation went something like… *point to item* – “Tomaat?” – “Ja, alstublieft” *hold up 6 fingers*. After three months I had progressed to “Zes tomaten alstublieft”… but not much more. Oh, I could make out the general subjects people were speaking about, especially if it was a seminar that was also being summarised in point form on a board. But other than two or three word sentences with little children, I couldn’t really generate coherent sentences in Dutch.

And then my work contract was finished.

I wasn’t ready to leave the Netherlands, but I was on a three month working visa and had to leave the country after that expired. I found a job in Kenya, and when I was finished there I still didn’t want to go home to Australia yet, so I returned to the Netherlands, and started to really work on my Dutch.

I moved in with a Dutch family, whose father refused to speak English, and with three small children who hadn’t yet learned any English at school, with whom I wanted to communicate. The “Teach Yourself” book and cassette I had bought in the UK prior to my first arrival in the Netherlands came out. I started studying for an hour or so each day, working my way through a few lessons a week. I read children’s stories to the children, watched children’s television programs with them, played with them, and practiced with them. When I attended church, I no longer used the English interpreter, but just listened to the sermon in Dutch, and used a bilingual Bible. I sang the songs in Dutch, many of which had been translated from English so I knew the content already. I listened to Dutch pop artists, Dutch radio, watched Dutch movies. I listened a lot.

I also made word associations as much as possible. The Dutch word for “through” was “door”… in English, one walks “through a door”. The word for “door” was “deur” … a fairly obvious association. If the word looked or sounded like English, I would use that as association, if not I would try to make up an association (called a mnemonic) to help me remember – sometimes it was straight forward as above, sometimes a little more contrived. But I was still reluctant to speak in Dutch to anyone except the children… I could remember so little when I wanted to express myself, and it was so frustrating not having the words I wanted.

Then one day I met a Filipino lady who came to a community group I attended. She was also not fluent in Dutch, and as I listened I realized she was using a mixture of English and Dutch – and the other ladies understood her. So I started to do the same. I used the language as much as possible. I stopped worrying about sounding “right”, and started to use the vocabulary I was learning. And when I didn’t know a word in Dutch, I would say the English word, and usually we could work out the Dutch word with discussion. I didn’t care that my language was more “Denglish” (mixture of Dutch and English) than Dutch. I just kept speaking.

I stayed eight months for that second stint in the Netherlands. I was basically conversational by the end (probably B1 proficiency). When I returned to Australia, I brought back a bilingual dictionary (Google Translate didn’t yet exist 🙂 ), and wrote letters. For the first three months, I would frequently speak in Dutch as my first instinct, before remembering I was now in Australia. I was dreaming in Dutch. When I returned to the Netherlands 18 months later, I was still conversational (in fact to the point that at first my brain “code-switched” to thinking in Dutch only!) After two months my level had probably improved to a B2 level. Ten years later I returned for a five day holiday – and was still able to hold a conversation. Another ten years on, with maybe two Dutch conversations in the meantime, I am still conversational… and still occasionally dream in Dutch! This in less than a year of exposure.

Given that my school-based French had not resulted in any long lasting conversational ability, I consider Dutch to be my second language (L2) learned. For the past twenty years I have not particularly worked on the language, but retain the skill at around a conversational level- a fairly reasonable achievement, given the haphazard way in which I learned. (It also earns me the respect of every Dutch speaking person I meet, as the Dutch consider their language to be a difficult one to learn to speak. I don’t know that I agree, but I’m happy to accept the praise and admiration. 🙂 )

I began to learn to speak my third language (L3) about nine months after returning to Australia from the Netherlands. I had moved to an unfamiliar city, and was looking for community groups to join to get to know people, and saw an advertisement for an Auslan (Australian Sign Language) class. As I mentioned earlier, I already had some exposure to signed systems, and had always wanted to learn Auslan (a real language in its own right, unlike Australasian Signed English that I had previously learned).

I attended that community class for ten weeks, and became friends with the teacher.  I bought a dictionary and began teaching myself, and my teacher introduced me to her friends. After two months of once weekly contact with native users (around 20 hours) I was basically conversational (A2 level), and after around fifteen months of (weekend) exposure to the language, I reached a B1 level of competence. So while I had taken twelve months of daily exposure to learn to speak Dutch (a simple language to learn) as my L2, it took only around four months equivalent exposure time to learn a more difficult L3 (albeit spread out over a longer time frame, which gave me more “practicing in my head” time).

When I examined how I learned it was exactly the same as how I learned Dutch – listening, mimicking and using it. And being humble enough to deal with repeated correction and being treated like a child!

Four years after I first began learning Auslan, I qualified as a paraprofessional interpreter (which requires a B2 level of language knowledge).

Languages have continued to be an interest of mine, but shuffled a little down the priority scale as I completed a degree, then a post-graduate qualification, worked as an interpreter and raised my children. But in 2017 my interest was piqued again after meeting a group of French Deaf people in Australia at a conference. And so I picked up French again, and began learning a little French Sign Language too.

This time around there are many more tools available – smart phone apps, websites, conversation hubs, online directories of face-to-face meetings.

Despite not having face to face contact with any native French speakers at the start of my journey, I learned in excess of 1600 words in 55 days, and passed a self test of the Alliance Française organization at A1 level.

And the journey continues… I have a great big long list of languages I would like to learn, ranging from local and not-so-local indigenous languages, the official languages used at the United Nations, the most spoken languages in my home city, and some other more left-of-centre languages that I just think are cool :). Some I want to achieve high levels of both written and spoken fluency – others I just want to be able to use to chat with people. If all I did for the rest of my life was learn languages and be able to communicate with more people, I would be content!

I’m so pleased you joined me here – I hope that my experiences help you with your own language journeys, and I look forward to getting to know you all!

Ciao! (oops… no, haven’t learned Italian yet!)

Languages in the order I have learned them

  1. English, my mother tongue (C2)
  2. Dutch (B1)
  3. Auslan (C1)
  4. French (A2)

Languages I’ve dabbled in (‘coz, you know… why not?)

  1. Icelandic
  2. German
  3. Afrikaans

New Language Goals for 2019

  1. Spanish (to B1)
  2. Modern Greek (to A2)
  3. Yuggera (local Australian Indigenous language of the Yuggera Ugarapul people) (A1, exposure and learning about the culture)*
  4. French Sign Language (to A2)

*IF I can find the information… otherwise Yugambeh, the language just to the south of my home (because there is a lot of revitalisation work happening in Yugambeh, I think it might be easier to find resources).