I have taught Dutch to private students in Yerevan for almost five years now. I am not a (language) teacher by profession and teaching languages is definitely not my calling in life. I don’t see myself standing in front of a classroom full of pupils or students, for example. I taught German and English for a while, but I decided to quit, because I am not finding nearly as much satisfaction in that as I am in teaching Dutch. You might be wondering: are there so many people in Armenia who want to learn Dutch? There aren’t masses of people, but there’s a steady trickle finding me. Ninety percent, if not more, of those who want to learn Dutch are women getting married to someone in Holland. Since 2006, citizens of most states need to pass a language exam to get a residency permit for Holland with the purpose of marriage. I will write a separate post about the sense and especially the nonsense of this exam, but in this post I will focus on my students, because they are the reason I enjoy teaching my native language.
So who are these students? In the five years I have tutored, I have yet to help one male student prepare for the language exam; all my students so far have been women. In fact, in all those years I have heard of only one Dutch-Armenian couple where the woman is Dutch and the man from Armenia. With one exception the women I taught were all university-educated. Some were still in university, some had a job or had worked until they decided to prepare for the exam and their move to Holland. Apart from these similarities, my students fall into two categories. One is the group who met and fell in love with someone from Holland, whether Dutch-Armenian or native Dutch. The other are the women who are getting married to a Dutch-Armenian guy who wants a wife from the motherland – in Dutch they are called ‘importbruiden’, imported brides. As far as I know, these men were all born in Armenia or Baku and ended up in Holland as refugees, either for economic reasons or because they fled the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Either way, these men all hail from this region; they don’t have roots elsewhere in the Armenian diaspora.
The following are my own observations, but they were confirmed by others who teach or taught Dutch in Yerevan. There are some differences between the two groups. The women in the first group – the ones who fell in love with someone who happened to be from Holland – are all in their mid to late twenties and they all visited Holland at least once before they decided to move there permanently to be with the one they love. Some met the love of their life while they visited friends or relatives in Holland. The second group, the ones I call the “Armenian brides”, are younger, in their early to mid-twenties. None of them has ever been to Holland before: when they board the plane to live with their new husband, that will be the first time they go to Holland. From what I can tell, these marriages all follow the fairly typical Armenian pattern (especially outside Yerevan) where dating doesn’t happen and the wedding follows the engagement fairly soon, generally within a few months or whenever the bride-to-be has received her residency permit.
In my experience the women in the first group seem more independent, want more out of life than just to be someone’s wife and mother, they are much more set on finding a job in The Netherlands. The women in the second group seem more modest, more reserved, quieter maybe, probably more ready to fulfill the role which they’ve been brought up to fulfill, that of wife and mother. I have to state very clearly, though, that none of the women I taught from that second group come across as if they can’t fend for themselves or won’t manage (there has been one exception of a girl who is worthy of a blogpost of her own, but that’s one I’m not going to write for privacy reasons). There’s just something in the character and behavior of the women in the first group that those in the second don’t seem to have, a certain independence, feistiness, readiness to think out of the box – I don’t know what to call it. I have a huge amount of respect for every single one of these young women, who are prepared to start a new life in a different country, where they don’t speak the language (quite a few of my students don’t know English either). I’ve been there, done that. It isn’t easy. In a way, I have even more respect for the ‘import brides’, because they are off to build a new life in a country they have never been to before with people they might not even know that well, they usually haven’t spent that much time with their future husbands and might not even know (all) their in-laws.
Invariably, at some point during the classes my students and I start talking about things not related strictly to the exam and to learning Dutch. Usually, my students start asking me questions about Holland and about life there or I have to explain something ‘typically Dutch’ that comes up in the teaching material. With a few of my students our discussions went way beyond migration and I more than once I found myself discussing not just life in Armenia or the position of women in Armenia, but also much more intimate topics like differences in dating and relationships, and even sexual education and the use of birth control.
Throughout our classes and conversations, I can sense how all my students are each in their own way mentally preparing for their move to Holland: they are thinking about building up a life there, how to make friends, whether it is easy to find a job. Sometimes I share something relevant about my life in Armenia or my students will ask me questions about how I learned Armenian (I now teach all my classes in Armenian), what it was like for me to move to and start a new life in a different country, though I didn’t move to Armenia to get married and chances are big that I will leave Armenia sooner rather than later. In fact, I think one of the reasons why I am successful as a Dutch tutor is because I know what it is to move to a different country, to build up a life there, to have to learn a new language. I know where my students are coming from and where they’re going to – in more ways than one. I put my own experiences into my teaching.
Two of my students became especially good friends and, after both moved to Holland about a year ago, we are still in touch through Skype and Facebook. I met both since they moved and plan to see them again during my visit to Holland later this year. I am so proud of them when they tell me about their big and small achievements, how one of them had an exhibition of her paintings recently, how they only speak Dutch now when they go shopping, how they feel comfortable taking public transport from one town to another on their own and ask the way if necessary – in Dutch of course! They may seem small and insignificant things to you, but, believe me, when you just moved to another country and are only just learning the language (and you don’t speak English either), these are significant steps. I am talking from experience.
My students don’t know this, but they give me so much more than just the money they pay me for their classes. I get a kick out of talking with them and observing the steep learning-curve they go through in the two-three months that we work together. I am still a bit nervous when one of my students takes the exam, though at the same time I am confident she will pass. By now I know the teaching material by heart, so in itself teaching those exam prep classes is not very exciting. It is my students who make my classes. I learn from them as much as they learn from me.
My students rock. Every single one of them.