Cate, the Language Nerd


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

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.


I am a language enthusiast sharing my language learning journey. Apart from 2 years of French at high school, my childhood was largely monolingual, with a smattering of Japanese numbers 1 – 10, Australian Sign Language (Auslan) finger spelling; but I was fascinated with languages.

I learned Dutch as a 23 year old through self-study in the Netherlands, became conversational. Then, I quickly picked up Auslan in Australia. I revisited French and reached A1 level in 55 days using modern tools. Now I am living in France, and doing my best to become fluent in the language.

I’m passionate about languages and want to inspire you to embark on your own language journey.

Cate Deans

Bachelor of Arts (Anthropology/Marketing)
Graduate Diploma of Arts (Linguistics)
Cambridge Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA)
Auslan Interpreter
Language Nut

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.

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.

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.

Then in my early twenties I began to travel, and my interest in the language, and language learning in general, was rekindled. 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 and 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!

Learning Dutch

I arrived in the Netherlands 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 word 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 five minutes of rehearsing my single word acquisition for the morning, I braved the 1 degree Celcius snowy weather and walked the ten minutes into 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 all these years later… but it was not going to stop me. If anything, it simply solidified my intent to learn to speak Dutch.

After my first 3 month work contract, I moved in with a Dutch family, whose father (with a big smile) 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. (Later I learned this was called ‘code switching’.)

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 around 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 twenty years on, with maybe two Dutch conversations in the meantime, I was still conversational… and still occasionally dreamt 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. I have not particularly worked on the language since I left in 1995, 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. 🙂 )

Learning Auslan

I began to learn 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.

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 a little of).

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).

Learning French as a False Beginner

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 test of the Alliance Française organization at A1 level.

And so it continues…

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!)

My Language Experience

Languages I Can Use In Conversation

Naturally, English, my mother tongue (native).

  1. Dutch (B1)
  2. Auslan (C1)
  3. French (A2)

Languages I Have Studied (for more than a month)

  1. Spanish
  2. Polish

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

  1. Icelandic
  2. German
  3. Afrikaans
  4. Russian
  5. Yoruba
  6. Macedonian
  7. Greek
  8. Classic Hebrew
  9. Polish
  10. Langue des Signes Francais
+ posts

Cate is a language enthusiast sharing her language learning journey here. Apart from her native English (albeit 'Strine'*!), as an adult she has also learned Auslan (Australian Sign Language) to approximately a C1 level, Dutch to around B1/2, French to around A2, and has a smattering of other languages.

B.A. (Anthropology/Marketing), Grad. Dip. Arts (Linguistics), Grad. Cert. Entrepreneurship & Venture Development, (CELTA).

Auslan Interpreter (NAATI), and general Language Nut.

*For more information on 'Strine', visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strine