How I learned English

In all these years that I’ve been blogging, in English, I not once explained how I got here. Because English is not my native language. I grew up speaking Dutch and didn’t properly start learning English until I went to secondary school. Since I ended up making my career out of it and my language skills are hence an integral part of my life, I thought it might be fun to tell you a bit more about how I did it.

how I learned english

How did you learn another language?

In the process of my learning English, there is a big gap between formal learning and casual learning. To be quite honest I feel I learned most by doing the second than by doing the first. In fact, I believe that one of the reasons why I had a knack for learning English started way before I ever set foot in an English class.

Early on

My first encounters with English was when I was very little (about 2 – 3) and my mother had me watch Postman Pat on BBC to keep me occupied while she did the housework. I was a strange kid and naps weren’t my forte. I simply decided one day I no longer needed a nap and just stopped doing that. So my mom now needed something to keep me busy so I would be out of her hair and this being the 80s and Dutch TV not offering any day time television, my mom had me watch English television instead.

Another experience learning English I had before learning it in school were my grandparents. When my granddad retired, him and my grandma took English lessons. I remember being fascinated with the fact that you could know a completely different language. Feeding my curiosity, my grandmother taught me to say my ABCs and count to 10 when I was 5 years old. So that fascination for language has been part of my system for a long time.


My first formal learning experience came in primary school. I remember being super excited to now finally be learning English. Aged 10, I was eager to try anything thrown at me. Unfortunately, we didn’t do very much other than say thank you for an hour and watch made for education language programmes.

After two years of agony and very basic things, I finally felt relieved when I got to secondary school. English soon became my favorite subject and while I quit reading Dutch books because I hated my Dutch teacher’s reading list, I found that through English I could keep on reading.

I also become highly interested in the UK and the US in my teens and dreamed of traveling there. Eventually my parents would decide on taking me and my brother to the UK three times for a family vacation. I ended up taking my first solo trip when I was 19, destiny: New York City.

Gaining proficiency

By the time I left highschool I was the most proficient English speaker in my year. I went on to study English at university and there I found out that being proficient at secondary school was completely different from being proficient at an English course at uni. I was told straight away I needed to up my language skills else I probably wouldn’t survive my first year.

And so I did! I read every letter on my reading list (seriously I hardly skipped anything and even read the recommended readings), watched as much English language television as possible and it is ultimately what also had me decide to take my trip to New York in my second year. I also enjoyed deciphering song lyrics and often I would pick my favorite song of the time and write the lyrics up by hand.

But studying and TV can only get you so far. My biggest leap in language proficiency came about when I went on exchange to the US in my third year at uni. I lived there for 6 months and learned more than I could have in a life time back home.


But that was all more than 10 years ago. I still try to maintain my language skills and I have definitely felt them fluctuate over the years. It helps that my last two jobs require me to communicate a lot in English on a daily basis and of course keeping this blog helps keeping up my writing skills. I still try to read and watch in English as much as I can. I feel that if I don’t, my English slowly deteriorates and after all that time and effort that would be such a shame.

How did you learn English?

10 responses to “How I learned English”

  1. Interesting read! I didn’t know you started off young. I think your fluency has a lot to do with your interest and that’s a great thing. A new language definitely expands your world. I did grow up multilingual with Dutch (Surinamese roots), English (American roots) and Surinamese, which growing up was a struggle and honestly, now that over the years I’ve learned to speak two new languages fluently (German, Portuguese) is still a struggle. My Dutch vocabulary isn’t very great because I hardly spoke any Dutch on a day to day basis for about 10 years. It does sometimes feel like it is holding me back in some ways but the interest isn’t there I guess. If I’d read more in Dutch or watch more Dutch tv, I might be able to improve that..

    • I very much feel like stuck between worlds sometimes. I know how to say things in Dutch and English but sometimes the two just don’t go together. You know what I mean? Also, ever since I’ve stopped communicating at a high level in English on an everyday basis, I feel my English is suffering. When teaching, I always find myself simplifying my speech, which helps students, but actually diminishes my actual fluency.

  2. Hi Maaike,

    I just watched your spring haul look book video and I just thought your English is so perfect and your accent so pretty, if I wouldn’t know it better I wouldn’t believe you are Dutch. Seriously! I’m German but have been living in Ireland/UK for more than 10 years now. I got my English from living and working here, you kinda have to speak otherwise you won’t survive. I took some Cambridge level classes too and read a lot, which really helps to soak up more of the sophisticated side of language. Nevertheless, I missed the academic side of it as I hated English class at school. So in a long conversation my concentration levels drop and with it my grammar skills and vocabulary. And to this day, after all those years, most people will recognise straight away that I’m German…*sigh*. Another interesting fact is that my German spelling gets worse while English spelling gets better. I also find there are certain moods, feelings, facts or things that are better expressed in one language as it doesn’t transmit or carry the same weight or preciseness in the other language and vice versa. My (also German) boyfriend and I speak D-e-nglish together, then it gets all mixed up and can be strange to switch to proper German and find all the right words when talking to my parents or German friends back home. I guess you don’t have that confusion-lost-in-translation-kind-of-thing, since you live in the Netherlands? Btw. I came across your blog just this week, never seen you before and I like the entire mix of it and that you keep it real. Thanks for that, dat is leuk! 🙂

    • Thank you for your compliment and sweet comment. I teach English which makes for a good start. My English isn’t as good anymore as it once was I feel. I have spent too much time speaking a lower level of English which isn’t very helpful. And I hear you on your language skills deteriorating when you’re tired or losing concentration. I have similar struggles.

  3. Hi I really liked your story. Here is mine. I started learning english when i was 15 years old when I moved to the United states. Actually I was born here (usa) my mom is american and my dad is mexican and when i was 2 years old my parents decided to move to Mexico. So I grew up there speaking spanish every single day. I guess my mom never talk to me in english because she nedeed to improve her spanish. So when I got in the usa. I could not speak any english. I lived there for about 11 months and now i am back in Mexico and I practice english everyday with my mom. My american friends tell me that i am learning really quickly. So my best tip to everyone is to do not be afraid of making mistakes beacause even native speaker make. Be confiendent.

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