While my friends back home in book club are reading The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, a heady young adult work of fiction about death and other things, I am reading O, O, Olivia, chick lit about a wild, confused young woman in her twenties who has a one night stand. I have a worthy excuse for my literary deviation: education and future success in the Netherlands.
Before you raise your eyebrows and wonder where I’m going with this, O, O, Olivia is in Dutch. And, it takes place in Den Haag. Topics of romance and sex can be strong motivators to dive deeper into a second language, and dive in is what I am doing–260 pages of diving with sentence after sentence of authentic, contemporary, idiom-filled Dutch.
I’m a sucker for well designed grocery store end displays, that section of real estate at the end of the aisle that convinces you to buy something you don’t really need; green olives stuffed with anchovies for example. I am also quite susceptable to strategic chapter breaks–a chapter that ends with something that leaves you curious. Not quite a cliff hanger, but enough of a pull that you rub your weary eyes, glance at the numbers on the clock face and plod ahead anyway. And author Gillian King has that “strategic chapter break” thing down.
Suffice to say she is hot right now. And I’m not the only one staying up late turning the pages: Olivia is on a seven day express loan. If only I could turn the pages a little faster. Problem is, I don’t just have this nice, sexy book with a pink cover (strategically designed to pull my female eye hither to scan it’s cover, read the back cover summary, and put it in the stack of library books), I also have my essential Dutch-English dictionary in hand to help me through.
As I read and get into the flow of the story, certain words start to lock in, expanding my vocabulary. Other words are road blocks, getting in the way of me knowing what else the lead character is doing to screw up her life. But wildly scary words such as zenuwachting (nervous) or ongemakkelijk (uneasy) are skillfully tamed by my Dutch English dictionary.
For those wanton words and expressions that my dictionary is just too dignified to translate, I have Arie Jan. Sure, I’ve picked up words I’ll never be able to use in my work at the church, but they’ll certainly come in handy watching Dutch television, startling my husband or eavesdropping on the ladies talking in conspiratorial tones at the next table during lunch.
Several people have commented over the last few weeks that my Dutch seems to be making leaps and bounds. I smile politely and say thank you. No real need to elaborate that I’ve been motivated by a fictional character having one night stands, out partying in Het Plein and thrashing her otherwise respectable life, and the desire to see if she gets that extremely hot guy in the end.
If you are beginning to grasp a second language and want to experience a sudden jump in understanding, read something in your foreign language of choice that is shamelessly compelling to you, whether it’s about companion plantings for your organic garden or a foreign espionage thriller. What better way to compel yourself forward. And you might be pleasantly surprised like I was; not only am I expanding my vocabulary, I am also discovering that happy endings are possible in other cultural writing as well.