Have you stopped learning new words? I haven’t. Even in English, I mean. (Looking up tinderbox in an attempt to understand it better, I just picked up the adjective tindery: passionate, inflammable, easily set ablaze.) If you comb the OED recreationally, you’ll pick up gorgeous words with archaic usages, and you might reach the same conviction I have: a whole language is wide.
I’ve been attending Dutch conversation lessons since January, one night a week in a local pub. I’ve gained a lot of confidence in ordering at a restaurant or saying what I want in a shop. But after “Ik wil graag…” (I would like), my most-used Dutch phrase is still “Spreek u Engels?” I can carry on a brief transaction without changing to English—though as often as not, the other person does it when they hear my accent. I can read headlines (usually) and sometimes whole paragraphs. I sometimes now pick up snatches of what other people are saying, which used to never happen.
But my vocabulary, I realize, is so, so small. As soon as a Dutch acquaintance moves away from weather, transportation, or food, I am utterly lost. (And I so rarely find good occasions to use those applicable Rosetta Stone phrases: “The cat looks at the fish!” or “Your bike is red!”) I have been seeing an acupuncturist (Dutch) and she suggested to me, knowing that I am taking lessons, that we try communicating in Nederlands. I thought this would be good practice for me—but after five minutes of failed conversation, I felt stupid, and her response conveyed that I hadn’t impressed her.
When you’re learning a new language, you realize that the new language is deceitful. It contains words that sound very much alike, but are completely different. In the conversation with my acupuncturist, she was saying sneeuw and my ear said she was saying snel. Weer is the word for weather; oh, and it’s also the word for again. This increases your awareness that your first language is also slippery. English-learners here will ask us a question, like: Why is watch the word for the thing on your wrist (a horloge) and also the verb for what you do when you look (kijk)?
To thicken the stew, I am a word-magpie and usually pick a few up when I visit another country. Some of them stick: I can always remember how to say “I don’t understand” in German and “What is your name” in Hindi; and Italian numbers sometimes pop out of my mouth when I’m reaching for Dutch. Last year I read a study on Tolkien which mentioned, as I recall, that Tolkien thought the idea of learning one language at a time was ridiculous. If you understood the way languages worked, there was no reason you could not be learning several simultaneously.
All of this is to say, when we moved here, I had no doubt whatsoever that I was going to become fluent in Dutch. Tackle it, subdue it, use it. I boldly announced my plan to read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in Dutch. (It’s still a goal.) But it’s become one of those things where the further I go in, the further I realize there is to go.
I used to tackle the grocery store with a dictionary, so I’d know what I was purchasing. That seems distant, but now I feel limited by my few phrases of “I want” and “Do you have”. I used to lean more heavily on my English, but now I get stuck in situations where I’ve asked a question in Dutch—and can’t understand the answer.
It’s kind of a mess, but it’s a mess with words: my favorite kind.