Classic mistakes I’ve made as an American trying to speak Dutch at work

Classic mistakes I’ve made as an American trying to speak Dutch at work

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Are you an expat living and working in the Netherlands? Have you ever worked at a Dutch company or with several Dutch colleagues? Having already described some of her experiences as an American working for a Dutch company, here are some examples of mistakes Kate Aemisegger from UvA Talen has made with her Dutch colleagues when trying to speak their native language!

Going to Albert Heijn to get a broodje

As we all know, Dutch lunches aren’t the most creative in the world. Some of you (like me) might find Dutch lunches rather simple and not very stimulating for the taste buds… Or perhaps you think it’s lekker - to each their own! No matter what you like for lunch, I’m here to help you avoid any humbling encounters when you try out your new Dutch vocabulary on your colleagues.

If you often work around Dutch people, I’m sure you will have heard the word broodje by now - probably around lunchtime. At first, I assumed that it was a term for what we’d call a sandwich in English, as I’d noticed my colleagues eating ham and cheese sandwiches, tuna sandwiches, and the classic Dutch (untoasted) cheese-on-bread sandwiches. But I was mistaken, guys… it could never be that simple! I learned the hard way that picking up a broodje at Albert Heijn can imply different things, depending on the context.

In Dutch, the term broodje mostly means a little piece of bread (from the bakery, for example). If you want to buy a pre-made sandwich, you usually have to specify the type of sandwich you mean, or else confusion can arise, followed by an embarrassing encounter with a group of colleagues who decide to choose NOW to comment on your American-ness. And no… I’m not still bitter about it!!

Anyway, here are some examples to help you avoid this mistake and properly identify your sandwich in Dutch:

  • Broodje = a piece of bread from the bakery OR a sandwich, depending on the context
  • Broodje kaas = a piece of bread with cheese slices inside (in other words, a very boring sandwich…)
  • Broodje tonijn = a tuna sandwich
  • Broodje gezond = a sandwich often filled with ham, cheese and egg
  • Broodje tomaat en mozzarella = maybe this one is a bit more self-explanatory, but just in case you aren’t yet sure - this is a sandwich with tomato and mozzarella.

The moment I accidentally labelled myself a workaholic

If you’ve reached the B and C levels of learning Dutch, you may have already come across the filler words used in Dutch sentences. These include words such as maar, toch, wel, nou, and the one I’ll be focusing on here: even.

In a recent interview I conducted with a Dutch teacher about her experience teaching Dutch to internationals, she explained the purpose of these filler words as being “used in Dutch to make something less direct and more friendly, although there are different ways of using them.”

Well, having a Dutch partner and working for a Dutch company brought me into contact with these filler words quite early on in my move to the Netherlands. I realised very quickly that they are used in everyday sentences and do in fact make you sound more like a local when using them. Maybe it would’ve been a better idea to actually learn what they meant in context before using them so confidently… oops!

One time when I was leaving the office at the end of the workday, I turned to my colleagues and said, Ik ga even naar huis! Although this sentence is grammatically correct, the context in which I’d used even was incorrect. In Dutch, the term even actually means “real quick”, or, “for a minute” (depending on the context), and it implies that the action won’t take long at all. So, what I really said was, “I am going home for a bit!”

To be honest, I thought it was just a filler word, used to lighten the content of my sentence… and the reaction from my colleagues - “Huh?”- said it all. “Why are you coming back to the office tonight?”, they asked. I could feel my face turning red, not knowing exactly where I’d gone wrong. It was only a week later, in my own Dutch course, that I learned what I had actually said.

Although this example is specific to one small word, to avoid being left red-faced, make sure you know how one little word in a sentence can completely change the meaning in Dutch!

Last but definitely not least

I wish I could tell you that it gets simpler than the examples above, but the following language error may in fact be the hardest of my habits to shake when trying to speak Dutch. It comes down to just two words: WORD ORDER! Yep, not only does one simple word, like, even, nou, or maar, change the meaning of a sentence, but word order also has a huge impact on what you’re saying. Double trouble!

During a one-on-one lunch with a colleague, I confronted the realisation that word order might get me in trouble someday… During this predominantly Dutch-speaking lunch, my colleague was explaining a fun story to me, but I didn’t fully understand some of the vocabulary she was using. I wanted to tell her that I didn’t quite get what she was saying, so I uttered with a confused facial expression, Ik snap het helemaal niet.

Like before, the grammar here is technically correct, but the word order I’d chosen brought my colleague’s fun story to a much harsher end than I’d intended! In this context, what I said to my colleague can be translated as, “I don’t understand that at all.” In other words, I implied that I didn’t get the content of her story, and therefore added a note of disagreement to the conversation.

The problem here is that I put the word helemaal in the wrong place in the sentence. What I should’ve said was, Ik snap het niet helemaal. In this context, this would translate back to her as, “I don’t quite understand.” That sounds MUCH nicer, don’t you think? Luckily, my colleague is very patient and was able to explain the difference between the two.

I hope this experience might help you be extra careful when wading confidently into the Dutch workplace, and also help you to avoid making the same mistakes!

Kate Aemisegger works and studies Dutch at UvA Talen, one of the biggest language schools in Amsterdam. They offer language courses from beginner to advanced levels. Want to improve your Dutch further, just like Kate? UvA Talen offers group courses, specialised courses and e-learning programmes if you want to concentrate on a specific aspect of the language.

Kate Aemisegger


Kate Aemisegger

Kate Aemisegger, employee and student at UvA Talen, the independent language centre of the University of Amsterdam, writes about her experience learning the Dutch language as an American living in Amsterdam. Her...

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Leave a comment

Mandoist 17:38 | 30 May 2023

It would be a huge help (even an improvement) if the Dutch language system would develop and incorporate some grammar 'rules'. For example, there is no rule for when or how to use "het" or "de". As it was sort of explained to me during my inburgering cursus, 'You just learn the differences'.

PieterJanLaan2 07:51 | 4 June 2023

The word order in some cases does work the same in English. For example: Ik snap het helemaal niet. Would be: I completely don't get it. And: Ik snap het niet helemaal. Would be: I don't completely get it. In both examples here the word order changed and changed the meaning of the sentence in the same way.

Oliver Hechtl 14:25 | 15 June 2023

Hey Mandolist! As a Hungarian, I could say that it would be a huge help (even an improvement) if the English language system would develop and incorporate some pronuncation 'rules'! It's a nightmare sometimes to guess how are some English words are pronounced! You just need to learn them one-by-one, right? At least Dutch is 100% consistent in pronunciation, without even one exception. It's also typical American from you that you want to change another culture's language just because you don't like it's rules. Actually, it's the other way around: No language has any rules, grammar is actually a summarization of different patterns that a language can take. No children learn their mother tongue by memorizing grammar rules. So you shouldn't either, just listen to thousands of hours of Dutch content, you'll get used to de or het.

wilmabumgardner2 09:58 | 28 June 2023

Hey "Oliver--as-a-Hungarion" SHAME ON YOU FOR STEREO TYPING Mandoist with an inappropriate & negative attitude towards the USA. It makes your own comment irrelevant. We are all interested and responding to Kate Aemisegger's experiences while she learns the Dutch Language! We can enjoy and learn from each other LETS KEEP IT FRIENDLY FOR ALL here!