“Why do you write in English?!”

Despite my blunt tweet, (that I don’t really mean completely) I understand where the question comes from. I do. Dutch girl. Born and raised in the Netherlands. Dutch native speaker. Associated with Dutch bloggers, talks about them, mentions them, links them, talk to them – often in Dutch. But writes in English. Always. Yes. I can understand it’s a little peculiar. Allow me to explain why I do it.

First of all, English has always been super-fun and important to me. I have been madly in love with this language ever since I was little. I taught myself and when I was 20 years old (you can read all about that here) I did the necessary course and exam to become an official bilingual. Through writing, I get to play with one of my favorite things in the world every single day: the English language. I love Dutch blogs, but it’s just not for me.

It really isn’t for me. There is a huge discrepancy between my writing skills in Dutch and my writing skills in English.I mean, Grande Canyon Gap.

Which makes total sense if you think about it. Due to my infatuation with all English words, I’ve been practicing almost every day, let’s say on average of 2 hours a day (this is low-ballin’), for almost 7 years  — that’s when I started my first English blog. It was adorable and riddled with faults and my own drama, but it was a start.

Let’s turn that into a little calculation now, shall we? 340 days (I wrote almost every day but you don’t always have the time, you know?) x 2 hours a day x 7 years. That’s 4760 hours. Not even including anything I wrote in English before I turned 18.

My Dutch writing skills are reasonable enough, but compared to how I write in English it takes me twice the time, triple the effort and the results are not even half as satisfying.

And there is another thing that became more important to me over the years. A reason for writing in English bigger than funnier jokes, prettier words and a hobby gone wild is the fact that English is so nice and global!

Everyone* can understand this language. I mean, I know the majority of my readers is Dutch, but I also have readers in other corners of the world. People from California and Australia and Canada. This guy I know sends his articles to his Portuguese family members and can be like “hey, read this, it’s cool” and with some basic understanding of the English language, they are actually able to read it!

More people can read English and I just love that idea. I write in a language most people know. And I am not deluding myself into thinking I can help everyone on the planet with the articles I write. I just want is that the majority of people have the option to read my stuff. You know, just in case.

So in conclusion, I write in English because I love the language as well as love the idea that anyone, anywhere can read it. And you know…because I can. 😉

*Okay, not everyone. But pretty much everyone.

Becoming Better At A Language.

Another language can be tricky to learn and tiring to keep up. But it’s worth it! In fact, being a bi- (or tri- or quadruple) lingual is not only neat and handy in other countries, it’s also really good for your brain. There are quite some cognitive advantages to being (moderately) okay  in different languages.

But when you snooze, you lose your language just as much as you would lose any other skill you stop training. Luckily, you don’t have to spend your entire day working on your French, English, German, Klingon or Cantonese: some simple ways to keep it up work well enough and they will make you even better. I want to share some tips with you that will amp up your English, Italian, Turkish or Mandarin. Whatevs.

1. Read, dammit. Everything. Anything (but feel free to put down poorly written drivel the moment you realize it’s poorly written drivel). When you encounter a word you don’t know, look it up if you can’t get its meaning out of context. And ‘sort of’ knowing where you can’t explain it doesn’t count.

2. Watch TV without subtitles. Frustrating at first (especially in French or Spanish with the tongue-knotting speed of the language). But once you have heard it for a little while, your brain catches up and it clicks. You’ll start learning and recognizing words in no time.

3. Get acquainted with the beauty of a language. Personally, when I read I underline and jot down not only words I don’t know but also yummy writer-party-in-my-pants phrases. Things like “Septieme Ciel” (7th Heaven), “Screwing Someone Until Your Thighs Ache”, “in need of more personal space than a herd of American bison”.  To this day, English is this big gorgeous pool of words I get to splash in daily and I love it, I have fun with it. I play with it every single day.

4. Make sentences with the new words yourself. The main way I usually do this now is by implementing them in my own writing. What I used to do was write poetry and work with the words I had just learnt. This way you become familiar with them and you learn to use them. They become yours.

5. Speak it. Read aloud.To yourself, a drunk friend who doesn’t mind, your foreign friend or family member. Talk to exchange students. Let that tongue struggle a little bit with the foreign language. A little vocal training here and there will make you better than you ever thought you could be.

10 Things Good For The Brain

1: Have an Internet Free day. The constant stream of ever-updating information is eventually too much for even the most relaxed brain to handle. By shutting down your Internet for a day, you’ll be amazed how quiet and relaxed your mind is at the end of the day and how much more you can take in the days after. Also, procrastinating just became a lot harder without Twitter and WeHeartIt available.

2. Write with your other hand. Even if it’s just your name, the alphabet or a dirty limerick, it’s supposedly very good for your head, activating different neurons and increasing your focus and flexibility. It may look awful, but it’s good for ya and besides, do it for a year and you’ll be amazed how much it will have improved!

3. Turn off your phone. While you’re working, while with a friend, while enjoying a book, while anything. Being focused on one thing completely without any distractions gives you many benefits; for one thing you’ll finish your task sooner but your brain learns to be more efficient. Plus, you’ll probably sleep better afterwards. Unless you’re a surgeon on call or your wife is about to have a baby, I’m pretty sure people can do without you for a few hours.

4. Read a book, listen to a song or watch a movie in a different language. And not just the English (because you probably have enough understanding of that language to fully follow everything), but something in French, Swedish, Italian, Spanish or German. Listening to or learning different languages is one of the best things you can do for your head. Plus, it looks great on your resume.

5. Turn off the TV or set a limit on watching it. I find a good television show (such as Doctor Who, House M.D. or even New Girl) very stimulating in a positive  way, so I don’t ban watching TV completely myself. However, it has been shown to lead to attentional deficits in children in multiple studies, which is quite a horrible prospective. And to be honest, looking at my own life, big chance it’s true.

The more I watch TV, the harder it is for me to focus and concentrate for extended periods of time, and I also become a lot more sedentary and passive. You basically get so much visual and auditory stimulation handed to you, your brain gets used to the overload and you get used to not having to do anything for mental stimulation. Neither are great features of watching TV, which is why lately when I come home from work, I try to watch only one hour and then go do other stuff, like things for work or writing. I get a lot more done lately.

6. Make music. Sing, play your ukelele, sit down behind your father’s piano or use your Sing Star equipment. Another great and entertaining way to train your brain.

7. Challenge your brain with some helpful programs. ‘You snooze, you lose’, which is a terrifying idea to me when it comes to my brain, unfortunately applies. There is a reason so many Brain Training books and Apps are out these days: we could all use a little more mental stimulation.  You don’t have to make homework every day like you did when you were in high school (thank God!), but it’s good for your head to solve a few math problems, work on a spatial rotation task or do something with face recognition. There’s always an app available. I use BrainChallenge on my iPod, but I could use some fun suggestions for the iPad!

8.  Look at a map. Seriously. Go to Google Earth, Google Earth your street and from thereon zoom out and try to make sense of your neigborhood, your city and the area surrounding it. Very good for spatial orientation. And you know, might save you some confusion and screaming at your Satellite Navigator should you ever need it.

9. Pretend to be artistic. You don’t have to get an easel, palette and cut off your ear, but drawing, making something with your hands or even just doodling works both hemispheres (your rational right and your funky left) and increases communication between the two sides as well activate a lot of different areas in the brain.

10. This. The WikiHow on How To Be Smart: It’s very simplistic but a nice read with cute pictures. It seems targeted at teenagers, as it also teaches you how to deal with bullying (which I hope you don’t need advice for) and how to ‘sound’ smart, which I only recommend if you have the intelligence to back it up later on.

And finally, sleep. Among the theories of sleep there is one, supported by the fact we have REM sleep, that states we need sleep to repair and restore brain and body processes. So get your shut eye. Best excuse I’ve come up with for a nap thus far. So. Excuse me.

Auto Didacticism: Becoming Fluent in English

Most of you know I’m Dutch, but I’ve been on-line posing as an English writer for years now. But I wasn’t raised by bilingual parents. I didn’t come into contact with the English language until I was four years old: I didn’t even meet my  (distant) Canadian family until I was eight.

But put me in an English speaking country and I am able to get by as easily as the next American, Brit, Aussie or Englishman. Except that I have a hint of a Dutch accent and a few rarities in my spoken English that I picked up during my time in Canada. It all happened kind of naturally, but I became a native speaker. And my English is the result of a pure autodidacticism. So how does that happen?

My first tip to you would be to be passionately curious. In this case, you have got to want to know everything about a language. In my case it helped that I was a really dorky child. I would actually read the English-Dutch dictionary (to answer your question ‘no, I didn’t have any friends’). I wrote down the words I really liked and tried to make sentences with them. I translated English video-game walkthroughs of games I liked into Dutch so I could play them. I watched English television shows and tried to put the spoken words with the subtitles. I started reading English books from my parents’ library as I became better at it. Over time, English became very easy.

(And sure, English in Middle School and High School helped. A little. But if that is all I had done in terms of homework you’d probably wouldn’t be reading this and I wouldn’t be a bilingual. At least not in this language.) 

When I was 18, I started writing in English. I wrote every day. About everything. That daily, all-including practice might have made the real difference. It made me even more curious. My thesaurus and synonym-guides became my favorite possessions. I made friends on-line and learnt from them.

At 19, I enrolled in the Cambridge English Advanced class to get my CAE certificate, which states you’re a near-native speaker. My dad stimulated me to do this with the comment: “Make it official. It’s good you’re great in English; it is better to have evidence of this.” So I enrolled, did the exams and passed all of them royally. I was now a near-native speaker. You’d be surprised how much this helps in job interviews and opportunities. Everyone says they’re fluent in a language, but few can actually prove it.

Next thing you do is you hold onto that unsatiable need for knowledge, practice and expertise, and you put it to good use. Because if you want to keep up and keep getting better, you never stop learning. So I’m not done. I still write in English, every single day. Not just for the blog, but also grocery list, journal entries, texts and e-mails. I only read English books and I will talk in English if you give me an opening (or an American). When I read an English book, especially a well-written one, I have a pencil in one hand and a dictionary nearby.  I still look up words in dictionaries. I make conversation with the adorable expats who wait with me in line for coffee, I talk to exchange students. Learning is still a part of my routine.

You can apply this to English, to another language, But this also goes for any other skill you’d like to pick up over your life. It takes practice, perseverance and you’ve got to be devoted to your topic. Trust me. You’ve gotta love your subject so much you never want to stop learning, that it doesn’t feel like an obligation or a chore to do it. It has to fill you with love and enthusiasm. That’s the key to auto didacticism.