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. 

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  1. Dank je wel! Ik kan me voorstellen dat toewijding inderdaad het belangrijkste is – maar dat is het eigenlijk altijd. Liefs!

  2. Goede tips. Leuk! Ik wil nog verschillende talen vloeiend kunnen spreken. Engels is daar een van. Ik spreek het zeker wel op goed niveau, maar wat lastigere woorden ken ik soms niet. En taalliefhebber dat ik ben, zou ik dat graag kunnen.


  3. ok, ik don’t speak english at all, maar wat betekent “bilingual parents” precies?

    ik vind dit een heel leuk stukje! zo leer ik je nog wat beter kennen,want ik vroeg me wel altijd af wat precies de reden is waarom je zo goed!! engels schrijft. maar nu is het wat duidelijker!

    ik vind het echt tof dat je dit doet/kan. zelf wou ik dat ik het met frans kan, al gaat mijn kennis ten opzichte van de franse taal lang niet zo ver als die van jou in het engels.

    1. Des, ga alsjeblieft niet schrijven in het Frans, silvousplait. Je bent briljant zoals je bent (en dan snap ik het niet meer)
      OT: Ik vind het echt heel fijn om je blog in het engels te lezen, zeker omdat je zo creatief schrijft. Je hebt je een unieke stijl eigen gemaakt in een andere taal en dat vind ik zo knap! Props!

    2. bilingual parents = tweetalige ouders ! En thanks, het is echt een uit de hand gelopen hobby. Gewoon doorblijven oefenen en wie weet waar je ermee komt!

  4. Great post!
    Even though I speak English all day, every day, I am still not entirely confident about my English. Well, that is, my writing skills. Great that you keep forcing yourself to write in English and to continue to extend your vocabulary.
    And those writing skills, that is why I write in Dutch. I just write better in Dutch. Although I also have another site where I write in English. 😉
    Anyways, I’m going to follow you!