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Where Learning Dutch Has Taken Me

Alumni of the Dutch program share about their experiences as language students and about where they are today
May 25, 2017
Tulips and Windmill in the Netherlands
Image credit: Daniël Cronk

Kellie (Holler) Soendergaard

I am 100 percent certain I would not be where I am today without Dutch. My passion for people and culture, plus my subconscious search for roots, pushed me to enroll in my first Dutch class at UMN. Since then, I completed a Dutch minor at UMN, completed a master's degree in the Netherlands at the University of Groningen, and, to my surprise, returned to the Netherlands again for another three years to work at a Dutch university, advising and recruiting other international students like myself all over the world. Even though that position was in English, knowing Dutch gave me the competitive edge needed to secure the job that changed my life forever. While working there, I met my husband and today I am a proud and grateful wife and mother. Furthermore, the Dutch way of life taught me how to take care of myself and live a balanced lifestyle, the key to my own happiness.


Caleb Hicks

Studying the Dutch language was among the most significant and personally meaningful decisions I made as college student. The language itself, with its close historical connection to English, was my first window into the lineages of words and sentence structure that would eventually compel me to achieve the most profound intellectual endeavor of my life: a doctoral degree in linguistics. While many of my peers opted to study a commonly-taught language, my attraction to one less-commonly taught has consistently afforded me the opportunity to highlight issues of language diversity and multicultural awareness in areas of academics and life oversaturated with the dominant languages of Europe.

The mindset I developed regarding the value of an underrepresented language in a college curriculum prepared me for my ongoing professional work advocating for marginalized communities in the university arena. Commonly-taught languages, whose presence on college campuses is taken for granted, enjoy a financial infrastructure that is not always, or even often, conferred on programs with less perceived “viability in numbers,” to use the cold parlance university administration. The paltrier resources sometimes allocated to less-commonly-taught language programs are almost always offset by professors who, by raw creativity and sheer personality, imbue their students with an unadulterated joy for their subject and so pass forward to new generations a passion for that singular property of human culture: language.


Julia Palokangas

Studying and learning Dutch has been truly important in my life in terms of relationship-building, familiarity of culture, and even my career in healthcare. I began my studies of Dutch simply because I fell in love with the energy of Amsterdam, from the culture of bicycles, to an openness in the human spirit. I wanted to become familiar with this culture, and by learning their language, I knew that I would learn about Dutch culture and history more intimately. I had no idea how much meaning and enjoyment this would bring to my life in various ways.

First, I have developed many wonderful lasting friendships, both which began in my very first Dutch course at the U, and also having met people in the Netherlands during travel. During a three-week course in the Netherlands, 15 people were in my class, every one from a different country and mother tongue. We were all able to connect in Dutch and learn about each other's lives and cultures in a different language than our own. I have also been able to read important historical literature in the native language of Dutch, which would have been very different having read an English translation

As far as my career, I would not have expected Dutch to come up as often as it has. I have met many aging patients who came to this country from the Netherlands, and being able to speak Dutch to them brought a trust and importance to the professional relationship that was priceless. I believe that learning a second (or third, or fourth) language enhances life in many waysboth expected, and unexpected. Being able to connect with a patient in her mother tongue (and certainly one that is uncommon to be studied in this country, such as Dutch) was truly a beautiful experience. I am grateful for my experience of studying Dutch and all of the opportunities I have had as a result.


Eric Tu

Growing up, I learned English as a third language; my grandma raised me with Chinese as my first language and Vietnamese as my second. Since I had to learn English in ESL classes, I was waived of my language requirements throughout middle school and high school. However, since I couldn't read in either Chinese or Vietnamese, I was required to take four semesters of another language in college. This led me to a path in which I took up both French and Spanish, for one semester each, but despite passing both courses with solid A's, I just wasn't passionate about continuing on with either one.

Cheese shop window in the Netherlands
Image credit: Daniël Cronk

In the summer of 2012, I was accepted as a transfer student at the University of Minnesota, which came with the wonderful news that Dutch was being offered as a language course. Being an avid music collector, I naturally fell in love with music the world-over, with a particular fondness of pop and jazz music from the Netherlands. My initial reason for learning Dutch was to comprehend the song lyrics of the albums I imported from the Netherlands, but I was quickly intrigued with Dutch culture, social policy, and all the amazing foods including Stroopwafels and Pannenkoeken!

After two semesters of Dutch and one semester of Dutch Social Policy, I studied abroad in the Netherlands in May 2014. I was grateful to be in the country that is consistently rated as the world's happiest country. Amsterdam is known as the biking capital of the world, and I rented out a bicycle from a shop close to my dorm and rode the trails every night before preparing for the next day's class. I continued on with my Dutch studies and even came back for an additional semester after passing the Language Proficiency Exam.

During my time in the GSD department I won two awards: one for merit in helping with the film festival, and a second for academic excellence. I was also on the CLA Dean's List a total of three times in my two years at the University of Minnesota, which I credit largely to Dutch and poetry, because they were the only courses that I enjoyed so much that I never minded the workload! Now that I've graduated, I'm a poet and spoken-word artist based out of Midtown Minneapolis, and I have used interpolations of Dutch pop culture and language in my writings. I really love Dutch language and culture and I would recommend it to anyone looking to learn a fun and beautiful language!


Steven Smith

My experience in GSD at the University of Minnesota was amazing. The faculty made the experience of learning a foreign language and culture not only interesting and engaging, but also very rewarding. Every language course I have taken facilitated a further understanding in all other areas of my academic career. I now use my foreign language skills every single day in my work with sponsors from all over the world, facilitating financial agreements between several domestic and foreign institutions. Learning a foreign language creates a more efficient way of thinking and immerses you into a completely new way of living and communicating. The skills that I have learned through GSD have lasted and remained useful throughout my career and I would recommend that everyone expand their personal and professional lives by enrolling in any of the courses or programs offered.


James Jenkins

I took four semesters of Jenneke Oosterhoff's Dutch courses at the U of M in 2001-03, and even after all these years I still remember how much fun she made learning Dutch. But what I couldn't have predicted then was that I'd still be using Dutch almost fifteen years later.

I decided to take Dutch after traveling to the Netherlands and Belgium, and even though many Dutch speakers are fluent in English, I can say that being able to speak Dutch when I returned to visit those countries again made the experience so much more enjoyable. Being able to speak Dutch has also helped me to discover great TV shows, films, and books I never would have known existed. And this year I took the trip of a lifetime, visiting the former Dutch colony of Suriname, where I was able to spend a week in the jungle, a truly unforgettable experience!

Studying Dutch and other foreign languages has enriched my life in many ways, leading to great friendships, memorable travels, expanded cultural horizons, and has even been useful in my professional life as a literary editor. The only regret I have today about studying foreign languages is that I didn't study more of them!


Heidi Raatz

Amsterdam at night
Image credit: Daniël Cronk

I've always loved and been fascinated by languages. To date, I've formally studied four: French, German, Italian, and Dutch, achieving proficiency in both French and Dutch. I also love travel, and using a language other than English makes travel so much more rewarding.

Language studies are definitely an asset when you work in the cultural heritage sector. Increasingly museums, such as the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where I work as a visual resources librarian, are following new strategic directions emphasizing equity and inclusion. Language inclusiveness is definitely part of such a strategy. The ultimate goal may be a more meaningful visitor experience, but in actively building, or encouraging language capacity among museum staff, our own connections to the various cultures and languages of the museum are greatly enhanced.

Lastly, in my work handling image rights requests at the museum, I literally receive emails from all over the globe. Though the majority of these requests are translated into English, it is incredibly helpful to understand nuances too often "lost in translation" from the language of origin. Also friendlier! Stronger relationships result when there is a human connection and language can be a powerful bridge.


Andy Fekete

I had no idea until I tried it, but after taking a language class I discovered that being able to speak another language is one of the most rewarding feelings ever. It has opened a world of possibilities, adventures and, most importantly, friendships to me, which constantly remind me both of how much fun my language classes were (thanks to my teachers!) and how fulfilling it can be to learn another language. Of course it can also be challenging, but I honestly have nothing but the fondestand often funniestmemories of learning together with groups of other students who are just as curious and motivated. I have even met some of my best friends in my language classes, just by virtue of the unique experience of learning to communicate together. Outside class, speaking another language can turn even the most normal of vacation experiences into an adventure! Whether buying postcards, booking a hotel, or helping someone take a selfie, everyone will be surprised and really appreciate the fact that you can speak another language!

There's no conversation starter like starting the conversation in another language! I always wanted to learn another language and when I finally did, my language classes turned out to be the best classes I ever took! Being able to speak another language has brought me so many new experiences, adventures and friends around the world that it has even broadened my understanding of my own culture and country. I really feel like I have been able to learn as much about myself as about the language and cultures I have studied—and I didn't even major in a foreign language! All it took was one class which opened my eyes to another way of communicating, expressing oneself and experiencing life. I feel truly lucky to have had so many teachers who are so passionate about sharing not only the languages they teach but the culture, history and traditions that come along with them.


Eric Iverson

To learn a foreign language is to seek adventure, test your comfort zone, and unleash your potential by unlocking parts of your brain you didn't know you had. At the University of Minnesota I studied Arabic, French, Norwegian, and Dutch. (I already spoke fluent German from a high school exchange program.) I now live in The Netherlands and work as a war crimes prosecutor at the International Criminal Court. At work and at home, I use at least one of my foreign languages every day; often I speak all of them in the span of one day.

KLM airplane over a Caribbean beach
Image credit: Jenneke Oosterhoff

It is no exaggeration that learning foreign languages has brought me to where I am today. Knowing foreign languages has enriched my life in immeasurable ways. To name but a few examples: I used my knowledge of Dutch to impress a girl (who later married me); French to help a Togolese refugee unite with his family; German to help lost Americans out of a sticky situation in Germany. I was able to give a clever response in Arabic to a pushy shopkeeper in Marrakesh, speak to elderly long-lost relatives in Norway, find humor in my countless mistakes, mispronunciations, and mishaps, and help bring justice to victims of brutal war crimes. Without having put forth the effort to study foreign languages at Minnesota and elsewhere, my world would be much smaller today.



Paul Vig

Learning Dutch has proven to enrich my work and life more than I could have hoped when I first began. What started as an instrumental approach to the language in order to access archival documents for my dissertation research (in Afrikaans in South Africa) quickly morphed into a cultural and social adventure that seemingly has no end. Not only was my instruction in Dutch enjoyable and the classrooms rigorously lively, but beyond the classroom I have found more uses for my Dutch, as well as for the very practical skills of learning a language.

I pick up on more nuance and variety in language, even in English. I find myself listening and reading more carefully, making connections across languages and cultures more quickly, and the serendipity that reading across languages brings is beyond compare. In my most recent research trip to South Africa I happened to stay at a guesthouse owned by a Dutchman. A simple greeting and short conversation from an American, speaking Dutch in South Africa, led to a wonderful weekend of evenings spent chatting over dinners and coffees. I plan to stay there whenever I can when back in Cape Town.

In my dissertation research I have more confidence in my ability to communicate with colleagues in South Africa and have developed lasting friendships over the learning of language itself. Learning Dutch continues to surprise in incredible ways and I cannot credit it enough for the role it plays in my work and my life.


Marynel Ryan Van Zee

Foreign language-learning has been fundamental to my success in so many ways that it is difficult to imagine a life without it. My study of Dutch, French, and German enables my ongoing research, and has enriched my capacity to teach and advise. From Minnesota classrooms to study abroad programs in European cities to working with applicants for fellowships and scholarships, my knowledge of languages other than English allows me to bring in perspectives and source materials that I could not otherwise and to offer diverse learning opportunities to my students.

On a more personal level, as the study of language opened up the world outside and helped me become interculturally competent, it also opened up a world inside and helped me question my own cultural assumptions and ideas rather than accepting them as natural. It is clear to me every day that the critical thinking that flows from attempting to understand another language and culture is a powerful tool in an increasingly complex world and an essential part of an effective and relevant education.