Learning the Ropes: A Dutch Rock Climber’s Language Journeys

From the scenic mountains of the Netherlands to the Greek peninsula, Sascha Prinssen discusses how her love for climbing helped her cross language barriers.

Sascha Prinssen’s deepening romance with climbing has become her livelihood, in The Netherlands. And of late, it’s taken her across borders and cultures, to climb natural terrain abroad. As she’s learning Italian with Babbel, we caught up with her in Greece, to talk about how learning local languages serves her climbing adventures, and how climbing experience helps her overcome language-learning challenges.

You work in the industry that’s sprung up around climbing, and the fact that it’s an industry at all indicates a ton of people are getting into it. But not everyone is doing it in the outdoors, on natural terrain — much less traveling to other countries for weeks at a time, to climb. What makes that so compelling for you?

I think that has to do with how I got into climbing in the first place. As someone born and raised in the Netherlands – with parents who were more into sun and beach holidays – growing up I had never been into mountain sports. But when I kind of randomly ended up joining friends on a hiking trip in the Pirin mountains in Bulgaria, about ten years ago, I was struck by the majestic beauty of the terrain. So when I got back home, I started doing the thing which to me seemed most related to mountains, but was still accessible to me in the flattest country on earth: rock climbing, in a gym.

Even at the outset, I always saw it as a training or preparation for climbing in the mountains. I quickly became a real climbing enthusiast and got in touch with some other ‘hardcore’ climbers in my city. I started going on trips with them to climb outside, on actual rocks. That kind of deepened my sense that climbing outdoors is the “authentic” form. I’ve always enjoyed being outside in nature, so for me it’s also just a nice way to get out of the city and have fun outdoors with friends.

That being said, it’s true that these days a lot of people are getting into climbing purely by climbing in gyms. Especially bouldering –climbing short, tricky routes, without a rope, but with thick mats to catch you when you fall– is booming in the Netherlands, like it is everywhere else. Many people see it as a fun and challenging alternative to going to a traditional gym.

So, I know you spent a significant chunk of time climbing in Turkey, and as we speak, you’re on a three week stint in Greece. You’re learning Italian to do a sort of residency in Italy, right? Did those other experiences give you the sense that the experience would be deepened by a command of the local language?

Oh yes, certainly. Last year in Turkey and also right now in Greece, it really helps to know at least a few words in the local language. Going into the bakery, supermarket, a bar, or asking locals for directions, I feel a lot less like an annoying, ignorant tourist if I at least speak a few sentences in the language. And because I’m staying here in Greece for several weeks and not just a couple of days, it’s also totally worth it to invest some effort into learning basic vocabulary. That said, I don’t really expect to deepen my command of Greek beyond that, at least not on this trip.

But for next summer, I would definitely like to spend a longer period of time in Italy and ideally I’ll be able to really engage in conversation and daily life in Italian. I want to work the summer season in a refuggio in the mountains, and for that to be possible it’s actually more of a necessity to speak the language; not just a matter of courtesy and interest in local culture.

Also, on my trip to Italy I will be traveling on my own, whereas now I’m here in Greece with friends from the Netherlands, so that will be another driver for engaging with locals. I think speaking the language –or at least actively trying to — is really adding another, very interesting layer to the experience of traveling and spending time abroad.

So, the big question looms, then: How’s your Italian coming along?

In the beginning it felt like I was making progress really fast. I understand French and some Spanish, but Italian was always a bit mysterious to me. So when I started practicing with the app I had a lot of fun just discovering new words and phrases, and I spent a lot of free time studying. Then I dropped my phone in the toilet and I was kinda offline for awhile, after which I started preparing for the trip to Greece I’m currently on. So the last few weeks have been pretty slow and didn’t yield much progress. But when I get back home next week, I will start planning my trip to Italy in earnest, so I expect to get back to business with my Italian practice too!

Oh… or is this the part where I’m supposed to answer in Italian?!

Ha, no. It’s fine. But your ordeal kinda makes me wonder: You must have strategies for pushing past challenges or challenging moments during a climb. Do you have similar tactics for cracking a new language?

My most important tactic is definitely… don’t give up! And try not to let the frustration get to you! It’s hard to stay super-motivated and positive all the time, especially when you have to deal with setbacks, fatigue, moodiness, or whatever else. But these are all part of life, they’re unavoidable. So when I’m climbing and it’s not going the way I want it to, I allow myself to take a break. I either pause while I’m still on the route, hanging in the rope, or I go down and regroup and try a route again later. If I’m still on the route, I try calming my breath, thinking positive thoughts, visualizing my next moves. But sometimes it still doesn’t work and I know I just have to keep smiling and be more patient.

Learning a language is similar for me. Sometimes you’re motivated and disciplined, sometimes you’re not. But just because you may have been slacking for a while, it doesn’t mean that you have failed at learning the language. Don’t get frustrated or disappointed with yourself. Allow yourself to take some time off, and then come back to it with new drive and energy. One other tactic that could be applied to both cases is to be bold enough to make mistakes. It took me many years of my life to come to that, but I truly think that’s how we learn best.