Is too much confidence a problem in learning Dutch?

25 November 2013, by

"I have been living in the Netherlands for quite some time now. When people speak Dutch to me, I understand most of it. I also know some words and sentences already, I just need to speak it more often. What I really need is more confidence, I guess…"

Sounds familiar? Sure! Is it always true? Sadly, no!

The overconfidence effect

The truth is that people sometimes believe that they understand more than they really do, assuming they know how things work when they are actually making some rather inaccurate assumptions.

Undeniably, arriving in a new country is not easy, especially in you don’t understand the "strange" local language. Just like the vast majority of newcomers, you will struggle for some time, but sooner or later your brain will make you believe that you do understand what others are saying (and they what you are saying), so you grow in confidence.

It’s not our fault. Our brains force us to do so. In simple words: we create an illusion in order to feel at ease, to feel safe. It’s the so-called "overconfidence effect." Unfortunately, this stops us from accomplishing numerous things, including learning Dutch.

Fabrications & Illusions

Let’s start with a simple example: let’s assume you want to buy cheese at the local market. Given that you already know a few words, you might say: "Nu ik wil hebben een kilo kaas" and a few moments later, you find yourself holding a kilo of cheese.

You did it! What a feeling, right? Doesn’t that round piece of cheese you’re holding look like pure gold? Are you ecstatic with the little prize you got for speaking Dutch?

But here comes the bad news: what you said was not exactly Dutch. Yes, all the words you used were Dutch and the stall owner understood what you really meant, but every Dutch person (and internationals who can speak Dutch) out there would say "Nu wil ik een kilo kaas hebben."

It looks less "golden" now, doesn’t it?

Practice makes perfect, NOT!

The irony is that you might have been going around for years using wrong sentences without being aware of it, since (most of the time) you get what you want. What’s even worse is that since you think it works, you keep using the same phrases.

Put simply, you are practising something that is not Dutch, and you might even be thinking that you’re good at it!

I bet I know what you are thinking now: "Well, people understand me, right?" This is the most common excuse, and it is partly true. However, here are two examples:

1. Reversal: a Dutch person asks you "Eat you cheese?" In Dutch you would say "Eet jij kaas?" and, just like you in the example above, he translated directly to English.

What would you think of him? Would you take him seriously?

confidence problem learn dutch
Original photo by Flickr user Jirka Matousek

2. You can satisfy simple needs like buying cheese or asking about the tram. Clearly, these are important, but your expat life will not become significantly better because when it comes to more complicated issues, the semi-Dutch you have been throwing around won’t be good enough.

I mean it’s good enough to order a coffee, but what about an interview or working with Dutch customers?

Be confident. And careful!

So, confidence is essential, but it’s not enough to solve your inability to speak Dutch. Neither is speaking more, if you continue practising a language that sounds Dutch to you but actually isn’t.

The only way to master the language and thus make your expat life more exciting and meaningful is first to understand how Dutch really works. After you do that, it’s time to go out and practise.

Then, and only then, will your confidence actually be your ally. Then, and only then, will you be able to learn by making mistakes.

And last but not least, don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know something. Don’t worry about feeling stupid - quite often it is one of the wisest things that you can do!

Albert Both is a specialist on learning Dutch fast while having fun. Download his e-book "3 Steps to Dutch flow" for free!

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Download his e-book "Why You Hate Learning Dutch and 7 Secrets to Change It"
Join his workshop "Finding Dutch Flow, How to Open The Flood Gate to Dutch Fluency"
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Comments arranged by date (Total 11 comments)  
November 25 2013, 11:42AM

Dear Mr Both, I love your article on learning Dutch. I have a lot of respect for non-Dutch persons trying to learn and the Dutch language! That being said, please allow me to adress your sentence; "Nu wil ik een kilo kaas hebben." I certainly don't mean to wreck your confidence, but that's probably not how a Dutch person would buy cheese. If you were to say; Mag ik alstublieft een kilo kaas van u?", that would make more sense. You can add the verb 'hebben' after 'u' but it's not an absolute necessity to do so.

The 'now' (nu) for instance implies urgency, right this instant, *bangs fist on the table etc. Putting 'nu' (now) at the beginning of your sentence can also indicate time like "Ik heb nu geen kamer voor u" (I don't have any rooms available right now.)

I hope you don't take offense and look forward to reading your next piece! I am off to water my tulips now ;-)

Kind regards,


November 25 2013, 12:30PM

I really like "Mag ik alstublieft een kilo kaas van u?" more :D

November 25 2013, 11:45AM

Ps. In my second sentence I meant to type 'learn and SPEAK the Dutch language. Sorry for the missing word!

November 26 2013, 10:07AM

Hi Rozemarijn!

Good to hear from you! And yes, you are right, if you say it with an agressive tone of voice, then it might sound a bit compulsive... At the same time there is another aspect of Dutch and that is that Dutch is context driven. Therefore it might also mean something like: this time I like.... You might say this if you know the seller and if you come back several times. Then it only sounds friendly, certainly if you say it with a smile :)
So once again, the word nu does not mean that you are banging on the table, it just depends on how you say it. I think that for me the most compulsive way would be: ik wil kaas. NU!
Anyhow, there are many ways to ask for cheese in Dutch. I just needed a construction that many people do wrong if they try to speak Dutch and I thought that these words would be easy to understand... I normally say: hallo, één kilo kaas... you see? Speaking Dutch can be very simple! :)

Cheers and all the best for your tulips!

November 26 2013, 10:10AM

Hi Amir! Keep your sentence! It is always a great idea to speak with the sentences that you like...
Just a small thing.... What you say is for 1000% correct and... there is a small difference with English. Mag in Dutch always implies that you are asking for permission, which is ok.... I personally never say it, because I assume that if someone has a shop, I already have permission to buy something... Nevertheless, many people use mag, so just keep doing the good thing!

November 27 2013, 10:32PM

Hi Albert!

Thank you for the feedback on my comment! Again, no disrespect on my part; just pointing out how I (as a native Dutch speaker) would order and / or make a purchase in a store, market or restaurant. Hope you will carry on coaching and spreading the Dutch word for a very long time!

Kind regards,


November 29 2013, 06:06AM

As a native English speaker this has not been my experience. I make many mistakes when I speak, but they are self-correcting to a large degree. Listening carefully to what is being said by the Dutch speaker and you'll hear all the corrections you need to make. And slowly but surely your brain incorporates those lessons and adds the correction to the language knowledge in you head.

December 02 2013, 02:23PM

Hi Albert,

While I do agree with most of your points, I felt your point about "Mag ik" was incomplete. "Mag" surely implies asking for permission, however so does "May" in English. And just as in English it's the more polite form to ask for something. The fact that one may be in shop and permission is already implied is irrelevant. The main difference in this between English and Dutch I would say, is that in Dutch the "Mag ik" makes the "alstublieft" sound more or less redundant, almost overly polite, while in English it sounds perfectly fine. It is nitpicking I know, but that's what makes language and culture so interesting. :)

December 02 2013, 04:30PM

Hi Etienne, keep netpicking! You have great points! :)

December 02 2013, 04:31PM

Hi James, you are on the right track, you rock :) Keep on doing the great work....

December 02 2013, 04:33PM

Hi Rozemarijn.... you are right..... there are so many ways to say so many different things... But, now that you are Dutch, a special sentence for you... doe de groeten aan je tulpen.... ik hoop dat ze nog leven :)

About the Author
Albert Both

I help with an approach of learning Dutch that is completely different from any other language cours...



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