Four mistakes I made as an American expat trying to speak Dutch

Four mistakes I made as an American expat trying to speak Dutch

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Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the Dutch language rules? Has your Dutch partner ever collapsed with laughter at your attempts to speak the language? Let Kate from UvA Talen be your linguistic guinea pig and tell you about four hilarious mistakes she made as an American learning Dutch.

Am I right? Or AM I right?

Let me start by asking: have you ever tried to tell a Dutch person they’re wrong? Or that you just simply know for a fact that you’re right in a given debate? That in itself is tough … but then try saying it in Dutch (completely incorrectly, I might add!). From personal experience, I know that you’ll instantly lose any credibility you might have had. Not only that, but your efforts will be rewarded with a deep, from-the-belly laugh, and it will never be forgotten. Regardless, this mistake is one that I still stand by.

When I was in my student years, I vividly remember walking around campus with my Dutch boyfriend, having a debate about the food we had just eaten, when I worked up the courage to apply a bit of his mother tongue into the conversation. “IK BEN RECHTS!” … I said, meaning, “I AM RIGHT!”. He started laughing so hard that he nearly fell over. At that point, I couldn’t help but laugh too, since I knew he appreciated my attempt, but let me help you impress your fellow Dutchies by correcting this mistake before it even happens to you.

Although my boyfriend explained my error to me at the time, I didn’t feel confident that I’d really understood it until I followed an A1-A2 intensive Dutch course. Then it was explained to me as follows:

In the Dutch language, you are not defined as “right”, therefore, using the verb zijn, to be, is far too literal in the translation. Sometimes, it can even imply that you are right-handed, depending on the context. In this case, the verb gelijk hebben is the correct usage. Therefore, the proper way to say “I am right!” in Dutch is thus to say, “Ik heb gelijk!

We are angry together… in the same room

In all honesty, this next mistake makes me wonder why we use certain terms in English, rather than the reverse. English speakers use a multitude of ways to describe how we feel anger towards someone else. I, for example, tend to say: “I am angry with you right now because of … blah, blah, blah”. That sentence could be rephrased in many ways, though, and it would still be correct.

With this being said, during an argument with said Dutch boyfriend above, I snarled, “Ik ben zo boos met jou!” which directly translates to, “I am so angry with you!”. Little did I know that I was saying it wrong for three years, and I never got corrected because it sounded… CUTE? Well, I finally learned the error of my ways, and now I am here to explain why this phrase is incorrect.

In Dutch, it does not make sense to use the word “met” – which means “with” in English – in this sentence. You are angry WITH someone? In the same room? Together, just sitting there, angry? The phrase that Dutchies use: “Ik ben zo boos op jou” (“I am so angry AT you”) is far clearer and something we could also say in English. Hearing this truly made me wonder why we often say that we are angry with people in English. Is it a way to be less direct in our confrontation? Does being angry with someone lessen the blow of our anger? I guess we’ll never know.

I am the depiction of hunger… obviously

If you have read other articles about learning Dutch as an expat, you’ll probably know about this mistake already. It’s a very common error and one that I constantly made while learning Dutch, so I felt it was important to share. If you already know a few words of Dutch, it’s easy to think that “Ik ben honger” meaning, “I am hungry” by using the verb zijn in the place of "to be", is the best way to describe this feeling. But unfortunately, this means committing another comic linguistic offence!

For Dutchies, saying “Ik ben honger” means that you ARE hunger; you are the definition of it, and your face might as well be in the dictionary next to the word hunger. That doesn’t make much sense, does it? You cannot BE hunger. You HAVE hunger. The correct way to say this in Dutch is thus “Ik heb honger”, using the verb hebben, "to have". Luckily, this one makes a bit more sense in translation and it is also applicable in English. Score!

The, but not the right the, even though it also means the

My fourth and final point is one of the most important things to grasp when learning Dutch, and something that may continue to reveal your expat-ness even at the highest level of language learning. Grammatical rules like the one I’m about to explain make me feel so appreciative of how simple English can be at times. Yes, I am making my way to the dreaded de vs. het discussion.

Many native English speakers will never realise how lucky we are to have one, and only one, way to say “the”. The girl, the boy, the bike, the street... Always the same, no matter the subject. That is not how it works in Dutch (or several other languages, for that matter). It really does come down to a few key rules and a lot of memorisation to get the hang of this aspect of Dutch grammar.

In Dutch, there are two ways to say “the”: de and het. Het meisje, de hond, het seizoen, de tram (the girl, the dog, the season, the tram). Unfortunately, I’ve had to accept the fact that I may not master the trick of which word to use with which term for a long time – or ever. But here are a few tips that I was taught in my Dutch classes that helped put some sense to things…

Plural words in Dutch are always used with de; for example, de mensen (the people). Diminutives, which can be spotted by the use of –tje or –je at the end, such as biertje (beer), always use het. I promise that keeping these two key rules in mind will really help when you set out on your Dutch language journey.

Kate Aemisegger works and studies at UvA Talen, one of the biggest language schools in Amsterdam. They offer language courses from beginners to advanced levels. Want to improve your Dutch further, just like Kate? UvA Talen offers group courses and specialised courses 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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