As an expat, you can be forgiven for considering learning Dutch a daunting task! You need to perfect some strange guttural noises, wrap your head around an unfamiliar sentence structure, and persevere when your Dutch neighbors reply to you in perfect English. So how on earth do you learn, and is there any point? We think so! On this page, we will explain why mastering Dutch is well worth your while. Read about the various ways in which you can get to grips the language in NL. You can also find some tips on how to practice and improve. This will help you to form stronger and deeper connections with Holland and its people. Success!
Why Learn Dutch?
In the beginning, the Dutch will not expect you to speak their language. They will be accommodating, and happy to converse with you in English. But don’t be fooled into thinking that their own language is not important to them:
- Some expats think ‘I’m only going to be in Holland for a few years, and everyone understands me at work – why should I make the effort to learn a language I am never going to use again later in life?’
- If, after a year or two, your Dutch is still very limited, or virtually non-existent, the Dutch will become considerably less tolerant
- It signals to them that you are not doing your utmost to accept their culture
- They may begrudge you this, and express their resentment either implicitly or explicitly
- Some expats do not understand why the Dutch have this reaction
- We encourage you to recognize that you are a guest in their country, and not the other way around
- It is a mark of respect to learn your host’s language. If you plan to remain, and be welcome, in their country for a significant length of time you should at least try!
You will Benefit from Learning Dutch too!
Learning Dutch should not just be an obligation. You will benefit from learning the language as well:
- Experience shows that you will feel far more acclimated if you learn the language of your host culture
- You will generally be more accepted and appreciated by the locals, for having made the effort
- If you are the partner or spouse of an employee who has been placed in the Netherlands, or if you do not have a job, you run the risk of becoming isolated
- The nature and nuances of the Dutch language provide an insight into the culture, which you cannot get from simply living in the country
- In short, you will feel more comfortable with your life in Holland, if you can understand what’s going on around you
There are infinite practical bonuses to speaking the language as well. To name just a few:
In short, speaking Dutch in the Netherlands will just make your life easier!
Unfortunately, for English speakers, Dutch is not an easy language to learn! There are several reasons why it is so challenging for:
- English speaking expats have never had to use those throaty sounds before
- Netherlandish infants, on the other hand, are weaned on them
- Dutch sentence structure is the opposite to English sentence structure
Word Length in the Netherlands
The Dutch seem to have no limit on word length!
- ‘Levensverzekeringsmaatschappijen‘, for example, translates as ‘life insurance companies’
- ‘Projectontwikkelingsmaatschappijen‘ means ‘property development companies’
- At 32 and 34 letters long respectively, these are officially the two longest words in the Dutch language
- Moreover, there are even longer, unofficial, conglomerations of words used in colloquial Dutch
If your native language is similar to Dutch, or you’ve studied a parallel language, Dutch will be far easier for you to learn!
Learning Dutch: Step by Step
We’ve established that learning Dutch is a great idea but also quite a challenge. So, here are the steps you need to take, in order to master the Dutch language:
1. Dutch Lessons
- Decide whether you would prefer to follow an established course or take private lessons
- The Netherlands has a national network of language institutions that offer Dutch courses to foreigners
- Usually, these courses are referred to as ‘NT2’, which stands for ‘Nederlands als tweede taal‘ , meaning ‘Dutch as a second language’
- Your local city or town hall will be able to advise you on where the nearest institute is, so that you can make an appointment
2. Language School Interview
In order to attend an NT2, you will probably be interviewed. You are likely to be asked about the following:
- What type of school you went to at home
- Which diplomas you have
- Whether you interact with a lot of Dutch people
- Whether you have time to attend the school and do homework
3. Dutch Exam
You may also be asked to take a placement exam:
- This exam is used to determine which level of school you should pursue
- Depending on your level and your specific needs, the institute may suggest an intensive course, for quicker immersion
Dutch Phrase Books
It can be tempting to buy a phrase book, in order to get your Dutch journey started. We advise you not to do this!
- Dutch phrasebooks tend to be geared towards tourists
- They often fail to accurately reflect common language usage
- We recommend that you invest in a good Dutch dictionary instead
- A basic ‘Dutch for beginners’ book can also be helpful, when you are starting out
When you are completely new to the Dutch language, the numbers are a good place to start. Here’s why:
- When you first move to Holland, you will quickly discover that knowing Dutch numbers is essential for everyday tasks
- Without some basic knowledge of Dutch numerals, it is easy to make mistakes when you are shopping or setting up appointments
- Dutch numbers require some mental gymnastics
- ‘21’, for example, is expressed as ‘eenentwintig‘. This literally translates as ‘one and twenty’
Advice on Learning Dutch
1. Be Upfront about Your Level of Dutch
- If you are a complete beginner, let people you converse with know that you speak little to no Dutch
- Do this before the person you are speaking to overestimates your capacity to understand him or her
- If you give the impression that you understand more of the language than you really do, your conversation partner is likely to speak to you far too quickly, in overly complicated language
2. Practice Practice Practice!
- Don’t insist on speaking English with your Dutch acquaintances
- This will prevent you from ever learning Dutch
- It can be useful to employ the following sentence: ‘Ik wil Nederlands leren’. This means ‘I want to learn Dutch’
- Expect responses to this to vary
- Some Dutch people will simply speak to you more loudly
- Others will revert to a type of pidgin Dutch, as if talking to a child
- Try not to be offended! These reactions are natural, and are intended to be helpful
3. Don’t be Afraid to Make mistakes
- Many expatriates want to be able to speak Dutch as fluently as they can their own language
- For this reason, it can be frustrating for them if they cannott pick it up quickly
- This is understandable, but we encourage you to be as patient as you possibly can be!
- Fluency in any language takes a time. Making mistakes helps you to learn, and being too hard on yourself can really set you back
4. Don’t Go too Hard too Fast
- Try to avoid complex subjects at first
- Keep your initial conversations simple
- From here, you can build up your understanding gradually, and make your conversations more sophisticated
5. Be Honest!
- When you don’t understand someone, and they have to repeat themselves several times, it’s easy to get embarrassed
- When your conversation partner has had to explain something to you twice already it is very tempting to nod enthusiastically, as if you get it!
- It is, however, best to just admit defeat and have them repeat it yet again
- You’ll never learn from pretending to understand something you don’t, and you risk being caught out and feeling even more embarrassed
6. Absorb all Day Long
Which Dutch Language?
You may be surprised to learn that not all Dutch people speak the same Dutch language:
- The standard Dutch language is called ‘Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands‘ (ABN)
- This translates into ‘General Civilized Dutch’
- Well-educated Dutch people who live in the Randstad speak ABN. The Randstad is the area of Holland comprising of Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht and everything in between
- ABN is the old dialect of the District of Holland
- ‘Holland’ was once the most powerful province in the Netherlands
- ‘Hollands’ thus became the most widespread dialect
- It went on to form the basis for the standard language that is spoken by the Dutch Royal Family, the members of Parliament, teachers and preachers, and radio and television presenters in NL today
The same language is spoken in all other regions in the Netherlands. The pronunciation, however, can be quite different and hard to understand at first. Residents of the following regions, speak with the following accents in the Netherlands:
- Zeeuws: Zeeland
- Twents: Twente, which lies in the east of NL
- Gronings: Groningen
- Drents: Drenthe
- Brabants: Noord-Brabant
- Limburgs: Limburg
To complicate matters even further:
- There is considerable variation, even within these dialects
- Locals of various cities all have very distinct pronunciation
- The Dutch can tell, having heard a single sentence, whether someone is from The Hague, Amsterdam, Limburg or Groningen
Language in Friesland
- In Friesland, a province in the northwest of Holland, a completely different language called ‘Fries’ or ‘Frisian‘ is spoken
- Those who live in Friesland do speak Dutch as well
- Frisians use many Dutch words. However, they pronounce a lot of them differently, and they have a unique vocabulary of their own as well
- Interestingly, Frisian is historically considered to be closer to the English language than Dutch is
- Unless you’re a die-hard linguist it would be highly unlikely for you to need or want to learn this unique language
- Of course, if you intend to live in that region for a lengthy period of time, it may help you to understand and appreciate Frisian culture
- Still, Dutch will suffice, as everything is signposted in both languages
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