How to sharpen your memory while learning Dutch

How to sharpen your memory while learning Dutch

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Imagine you are trying to have a conversation in Dutch but there is one big problem: you can’t remember the Dutch words you need. While trying to memorise words might seem like a good tactic for learning a new language, Albert Both from Talencoach explains why recognising and experiencing the use of words in real life, is far more beneficial.

If you have been learning Dutch already, you must have found out that it has many challenges. One big problem that people repeatedly mention is that memorising stuff is very difficult. A new language can be very overwhelming and, even when you hear and read things over and over again, it is very easy to forget things.

Oops… don’t try too hard to memorise stuff!

If you struggle with speaking Dutch, it is very easy to blame your memory. If you remember things better, then you would probably speak better Dutch, right? One thing is certain: a great memory is always useful. However, it may be less important than you think.

The first problem is very simple. Many people believe that if you want to speak a new language, all you need to do is to memorise stuff: loads of information, long vocabulary lists and complex grammar rules. But, the harsh truth is, if memorisation is the only learning tool that you use, Dutch will never be yours.

Contrary to what many people believe, memorising stuff is just a very small aspect of what it takes to speak a new language. I often see this pattern with my students; they believe that they can only say things when they have memorised them, but the opposite is true. You can say many things, even if you see them for the first time. Then, when you say it again and again, you’ll eventually remember it. It’s that simple.

How a fruit test can be quite revealing

Instead of simply trying to memorise words, it's more important to recognise and experience words. Let’s start with een fruittest. Here you see a couple of words: appel, peer, frambozen, druiven, kruisbessen. Which words would be easy for you and which words would be more challenging? If you are like most people, then you would probably say that appel is the easiest and that kruisbessen would be the most challenging one.

However, there is a catch. Although appel seems to be the easiest one, many people will write "apple". The only thing is that, in Dutch, Apple is something that you use as a tablet or a computer, not something you will ever eat. That is why it is important to recognise that although Dutch is very close to English, there are differences, and often the differences can be quite small.

It is always a good idea to write a word down a couple of times. Something that certainly helps is understanding the rules of Dutch pronunciation. Dutch spelling always shows you how to pronounce a word – unlike English – and once you understand how this system works, remembering words will be a lot easier.

Recognising things in Dutch

In Dutch, many words look like English and, if you know another language such as French or Spanish, then you’ll have a great competitive advantage. For example, if you know the French word framboise or the Spanish word frambuesa, then it is easy to know that frambozen are raspberries. Remember kruisbessen? It literally means cross berries but in English, you call them gooseberries. We also have druiven, which means grapes.

So, imagine that you want to remember these words, what should you do? You could write these words on your list and then try to memorise them. However, there is a much easier solution: going to the market. Then you’ll see these words in real life. When you see words in real life, again and again, you’ll remember them. To get the words to stick in your mind faster, try whispering them to yourself every time you see them.

One thing to keep in mind: try not to make the mistake of trying to remember too many things from the same category, like fruit for example. In this case, appel and peer would be the first words that you pick up, probably soon followed by druiven. If gooseberries do not play a big role in your life, you won’t put too much effort into learning the word.

Learning from other languages

Many language books show you pictures of the whole body – except for two specific body parts – and, although it looks like the perfect way to learn, it is not how your brain likes to pick up new stuff. Your brain picks up more stuff at random.

The first Dutch words that you’ll pick up for your body are words that are close to English. Haar (hair), hand, arm, tong (tongue), lippen (lips). If you like, you could call these words “low hanging fruit”, so always make sure that you learn these easy words first. This way, it will be very easy for you to expand your Dutch vocabulary like crazy and you’ll feel a lot better about yourself.

Then, bit by bit, you can add new words to your list and then use different techniques. First of all, knowing a language like Spanish is always convenient. If you know ojo, it is easy to see that oog means eye. Or estómago – which is stomach in English – is clearly reminiscent of the word maag.

Association and rhyming techniques

Another great technique is that you associate a new word with words that you already know. For example, you can say: mag ik een stroopwafel in mijn maag? (Is it ok to have a stroopwafel in my stomach?). Or, you could say: mijn maag is magisch (my stomach is magic).

You could also use de rijmtechniek: simply rhyme a word with other words that you know. Let’s say that you'd like to remember "intestine", which is darm in Dutch. It is easy to make a rhyme now: ik heb een arm in mijn darm en het is nu warm. As you can see, this sentence is quite disgusting. However, if you use your filthy imaginations, you’ll learn a lot faster. A dirty mind is forever an intellectual joy!

Take time to learn

The first words in a new language are always the hardest to remember. If certain sounds don’t really make sense, it is harder to remember these words. However, the great thing that happens with each word that you remember is that you’ll get intuitively more familiar with certain word systems that every language has. That is why remembering new words gets easier over time.

Let’s take lichaam (body), for example. If this is the first word that you try to remember in Dutch, it will be a lot harder. Chances are high that you’ll pick up stroopwafel or bitterbal first. But, after some time, you’ll also notice that lichaam is easy to remember as well. If you like, you could write it on a piece of paper, where you can see it at least ten times per day or you could use it as a password.

Here is an important secret: if you try too hard to memorise things, then learning new words will be quite difficult. Another negative effect is that you’ll probably feel bad about yourself. Then, if you tell yourself that you are bad at speaking languages, it will turn into your reality before you know it.

If you want to sharpen your memory, the best thing that you can do is open up and start to play with words in a very relaxed way. Have the intention to simply discover and explore, instead of having to memorise things immediately. This will take away a lot of stress and, once you start to see that you can figure out many things by yourself, boost your self-esteem.

Open your mind to your new language

The problem when you only focus on memorising lists and information, is that you literally narrow your focus and shut yourself off from the real world. This is not what your brain likes. Make sure that you have lots of comprehensible input. One thing is certain: you can never really memorise what you don’t understand. By the way, the problem with many language methods is that they show things that are too complex and that they are all based on memory. Make sure that you use your language method wisely.

When you first hear or read Dutch, it little makes sense. But, if you dive into it and play with it in a certain way, then bit by bit, Dutch will reveal itself. Once again, don’t focus too much on memorising, just say things, experiment with things and things will stick. It is guaranteed!

Do you want to be able to express yourself freely and learn to communicate in Dutch quickly and effectively? Get in touch with Albert at or sign up for Talencoach’s Dutch Brainwash programme - an intensive seven-day Dutch course in the centre of Amsterdam.

You can also:

Download his e-book "3 Steps to Dutch flow"
Download his e-book "Why You Hate Learning Dutch and 7 Secrets to Change It"
Visit his website
Check out his Facebook page
Watch videos on his YouTube channel
All free of charge!

Albert Both


Albert Both

I help with an approach of learning Dutch that is completely different from any other language course. It is called Dutch Brainwashing. The immediate result is that you learn at...

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