Interview: What’s it like teaching Dutch to internationals?
Are you an expat in the Netherlands and trying to learn Dutch? Are you struggling to apply those confusing grammar rules and wondering how you’ll ever fix your mistakes? Don’t worry, you’re not alone! Kate from UvA Talen, an American who’s also learning Dutch, interviewed a Dutch teacher to find out what it’s like to teach the language to a wide range of nationalities. What does she consider the most effective way to master the language?
The confronting truth about learning Dutch
Being an expat in the Netherlands has been an incredible, yet challenging experience. It’s also been humbling and confronting, not least when it comes to learning the language - toch?
Many people find learning Dutch extremely taxing. Whether it’s the confrontation with your own foreign-ness, the need to embarrass yourself every day in order to learn the language authentically, or the harsh reality that we expats will continue to make mistakes even after becoming near-fluent due to *cough* unfair *cough* grammar rules … When it comes down to it, it’s simply a tough language to master.
But have you ever wondered what it’s like to teach the language from scratch, and what the tricks to learning Dutch might be? I interviewed Nienke, a Dutch teacher, to hear her perspective on the Netherlands, learn about her teaching style, and get the low-down on the trickiest aspects of the language.
As a language teacher for over five years, Nienke was able to give me a breakdown of what it’s like to teach Dutch and her favourite levels to teach: “I like teaching all the levels, because it’s nice to have a little variation. But in group lessons, I really like the beginners because they start from zero. They’re nervous and cannot do very much, but every week they progress and learn more and more. They listen very carefully because they need to build the structure. I always feel proud that I can be part of their language journey.”
I couldn’t agree more! Being a beginner is all about focusing on your teacher and listening attentively. That’s especially important because the next level, level B, is the meat and potatoes, as Americans would call it and considered the most fundamental parts of the language. It’s therefore important to prepare yourself really well.
The most common mistakes from a teacher’s perspective
I say that the most common mistakes must be the classic "de" vs. "het" rule or the pronunciation of the harsh "g" sound, right? Well, although these are undoubtedly common challenges when learning Dutch, Nienke was able to give her a deeper insight into what she’s found to be the most commonly made mistakes at each level.
“With the beginners, a very consistent mistake is when you ask how’s it going (Hoe gaat het?) and they say I am good (Ik ben goed). I always explains this as, yes, I know you’re a good person, but I want to know how you’re doing. Then, of course, they don’t hear the subject here is “het”, so you have to reply with, “It’s going well” (Het gaat goed).” In other words, the problem stems from wrongly identifying the subject and verb used in the question in order to formulate the right answer. The translation becomes too literal as a result. As Nienke explains, this happens “especially with people who learn from English to Dutch.”
“As you progress, the mistakes often occur with adjectives. We all know that adjectives normally have the suffix "-e", such as “het rode boek” (the red book) or “de rode pen” (the red pen). But when we specify een (one), the first becomes “een rood boek”, but the second remains "een rode pen” … and you have to revise all the little rules. I think those are the main mistakes.
But you also have the subclauses (bijzinnen) where the verb needs to go to the end like in "Ik ga naar huis omdat ik ziek ben" (I’m going home because I’m ill). All those little mistakes don’t necessarily mean that it’s difficult to understand somebody. As a Dutch speaker, you hear that it’s the wrong order, but it doesn’t really matter because you know exactly what the other person is saying. As a teacher, though, those are the mistakes I am correcting all the time.”
Ok, ok, that’s enough to look forward too, right? Luckily, there are ways to fix all these errors.
Nienke goes on to explain that the best way to master these difficult grammar rules is to write, write, and keep writing!
“For people who really want to avoid making mistakes, they should practise writing, as it’s easier to reflect. When you’re enthusiastic and you’re speaking about something, you’re allowed to make those little mistakes, right? You cannot really rephrase your sentence every time you start speaking.
If you really want to understand where your mistakes are, then I would suggest writing a lot, because then you see it on paper. When you get feedback, you have a bit more time to digest the comments. It helps to be more aware of your construction of the language.”
The hardest aspects to learn
What are the hardest aspects of learning Dutch? That question can be answered in so many different ways. It can also be very dependent on the course level you’re taking, your work (whether you have a lot of contact with Dutch colleagues), your social life, and so on. However, there is one aspect of the language that Nienke finds particularly difficult to explain, and that’s the filler words. The filler words are the extra words within a sentence, such as maar, even, toch, wel, nou.
“The little filler words are all context related. Take this sentence for example: "Ik ga maar even naar huis". Your basic message is still "Ik ga naar huis" (I am going home), but now you’re including these small words. They have a strict order as well, even when you use more than one in a sentence, and they are untranslatable. Even if you translate the little words individually - "maar" being "but", "even" being "just a minute", in a different context they can mean something else.
They can be used in Dutch to make something less direct and more friendly, although there are different ways of using them. They are taught to the students doing the C1 level. Sometimes, I think we should do these exercises in B1, because people really wonder about them, but on the other hand, they are so context-related and precise that if you were to offer them earlier, it might be too difficult.”
On my journey to learn Dutch, she’s found that listening carefully to the Dutch people around her has been a great way to hear how these filler words are used - both at work and in social settings. Now that you know they exist, try listening to your peers in the office or on the street and spot the sentence structure!
What you can learn from others
As expats living in the Netherlands, you can similarly relate to what it’s like to be surrounded by Dutch language and culture every day. In some ways, the experiences expats have here are what bonds this community together. That being said, I couldn’t help but wonder what it’s like to be on the other side of the situation: to be constantly surrounded by internationals. She spends every day speaking with expats and teaching them ways to express themselves in another language, as if she herself were living in a different country. Ironic, isn’t it?
Furthermore, I was curious to know whether Nienke’s work as a Dutch teacher has altered her views or given her a different perspective on her own culture, considering all of the non-Dutch people she meets. When asked about this, she explained: “First of all, it’s a really rewarding job, teaching someone and seeing all their progress. When you get on to the higher levels, you have all the conversations, so you also learn a lot about other people and how they live and their cultures. But I’ve also learned a lot about my own culture by hearing other stories.”
Nienke explained how she’d heard both positive and negative feedback about the Dutch, and had soon realised that it’s all about different perspectives. “There are many different perspectives. For example, there are some people who come because of a war and they feel really at home and safe here. So, just being aware of how many different perspectives you can have is important.
I think I’ve become more neutral and more knowledgeable about what is going on. I think that’s a real advantage of teaching Dutch. I also feel less shy and more at ease; when I go on vacation, for example, or if I am meeting new people. By speaking to so many different people, I know that everyone is equal, and you don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not.”
And that process - gaining perspectives, acquiring knowledge and becoming more open - is also a by-product of learning Dutch, not just teaching it. Regardless of whether you ever manage to correct all those language errors, that’s something that all internationals in the Netherlands can all aspire to.
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 in Dutch, English, and 11 other languages. Want to improve your Dutch, just like Kate? UvA Talen offers group courses as well as specialised courses focusing on specific aspects of the language, such as creative writing, business writing, or presenting.