The importance of reading when learning Dutch

The importance of reading when learning Dutch

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There is no better way to improve one’s vocabulary than to read books. In his latest book ‘De lezende mens’ (The Reading Human), written together with book historian Adriaan van der Weel, Ruud Hisgen of the Direct Dutch Institute makes a strong plea for renewed attention to the future of reading. We’re all aware that reading is important and yet, people all over the world are reading less than ever before. In this article, Ruud Hisgen explains why reading as a language learner is so important, while also giving you some tips and handy Dutch phrases. 

There is no better way to improve one’s vocabulary than to read books. We’re all aware of this fact. And yet, humans all over the world are reading less than ever before. In this article, I want to explain exactly why you should not forget to read when you are a learner of Dutch, while also giving you some tips and handy Dutch phrases. 

1. Ik lees dus ik denk (I read therefore I think) 

Reading is a fundamental skill. We owe our knowledge and thinking ability to reading. But deep and attentive reading is under pressure. There are just too many distractions. Smart phones, computers, television screens, they’re all champions at drawing our attention to whatever seems to be urgent at any time of the night or day. All of this comes at the cost of our ability to concentrate. We lose ourselves in social media, cute YouTube videos, venomous tweets and flirtatious TikTok dances.

2. Het belang van het boek (The significance of the book)

With so much scrambling for our attention, the printed text loses out in the battle for scarce free time. Although we as a society are concerned at the increasing rate of “laaggeletterdheid” (functional illiteracy), we take reading itself for granted. We overlook the fact that everything we’ve achieved in our culture – science, art, justice, medicine, philosophy, politics – was handed on to us and our children by means of books.

Reading seems to be second nature to us. Yet, the history of reading is a relatively short one: humans have moved from deciphering clay tablets to printing books and then swiping on e-books in a relatively short space of time, and at each stage opened up more possibilities and opportunities to us humans. Reading skills and the rise of democracy in the 19th century, for example, went hand in hand. Texts and books brought profound changes to individuals and society. Reading is significant for our wellbeing and our democratic society.

3. Vul je woordenschat (Fill up your vocabulary)

When you’re learning another language, the most efficient way of memorising new words is by reading texts in that language. The Dutch have two words for “vocabulary”. There is the Latinate “het vocabulaire” and the word of Germanic origin: “de woordenschat”. This lovely word is a compound of “woorden” (words) and “schat” (treasure). By reading new words and seeing them in context, you add valuable items to your mental treasure chest. Collecting words will multiply your prospects of communication and make you a “richer” person.

4. Gebruik een woordenboek (Use a dictionary)

Reading a text in the language you are learning should always be done with a dictionary and a pencil in hand. The word “dictionary” in Dutch is “woordenboek”: a book of words. And the Dutch language has a lot of them. “Het Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal” (WNT, The Dictionary of the Dutch Language) was compiled in the period 1851-1998. This book has about 400.000 main entries whereas the famous Oxford English Dictionary has about 291.500 entries. Unlike the OED, the WNT can be consulted free of charge on the internet.

5. Vergeet je potlood niet (Do not forget your pencil)

When reading, you should always use “een potlood” (pencil), because by underlining and making notes you force your brain to memorise the words. Of course, you can read from the screen, but research has shown that this kind of reading is much more cursory and superficial than reading a printed text.

6. Letterkunde, sleutel tot een cultuur (Literature, key to a culture)

It does not matter what you read, as long as you read. Whether it is “een krant” (a newspaper), “een tijdschrift” (a magazine), “een roman” (a novel), fiction or non-fiction, choose whatever attracts your interest. 

Dutch-born author Ian Buruma suggested that it would be a good idea for English speakers to learn Dutch: “There are various advantages to Dutch. It has a rich literature. So there is a lot to read.” And it is true that there is a wealth of novels, stories, plays and poems to be discovered. Reading helps you to get a better understanding of Dutch culture and history. 

7. Ik denk dus ik lees (I think therefore I read)

When learning Dutch, do not merely focus on speaking and listening - don’t forget to read. Reading will give you a lot of fun, help you to think in Dutch, enlarge your vocabulary and give you a greater understanding of the mysterious culture of the Dutch.

Want to take your Dutch reading skills to the next level? Then check out the Dutch courses at Direct Dutch! They offer courses for every skill level, as well as free resources and articles to help you develop your Dutch quickly and easily.

Ruud Hisgen


Ruud Hisgen

Ruud is teacher and managing director at Direct Dutch, he is also an author.

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