Why your Dutch could be crap, even if it sounds great

Why your Dutch could be crap, even if it sounds great

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Speaking a new language is always challenging and speaking Dutch is no exception. While you might be able to pick up the language quickly, speaking in a way that can be understood by native speakers can be difficult. Luckily, Albert Both from Talencoach explains the mistakes you might make when speaking a new language, and how you can improve your speaking.

Have you ever said something in Dutch that you know is right, but people just stare at you as if they see water burning? No matter how hard you try, they simply do not understand you and then, chances are, you’ll find yourself asking, who is stupid here? Is it the Dutch people or me? Of course, it’s much nicer to jump to the conclusion that your speaking is perfect but is it really true?

Learning to speak

Here’s the thing, even if it sounds right to your ears, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are speaking properly, even if you think you sound natural, comprehensible and logical. So why is it that Dutch people don’t understand you? Well, let’s see how learning a language really works.

These days, a lot of people believe that learning a new language is something that you can simply pick up by listening to interactions around you. For example, you might hear "goedemorgen" every morning and come to the conclusion that it means good morning, or you might hear people say "tot ziens" when leaving someone or someplace and realise it means goodbye. All you have to do is repeat the things you hear around you and you’ll be fluent in no time, right? Well, unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

Practice proper pronunciation

A number of problems arise from simply repeating what you hear. You really need to listen very carefully, and you need to copy words exactly as you hear them. However, many people do not really listen closely enough. For example, when a Dutch word is close to an English word, chances are you’ll still say it the English way.

Here is a perfect example of a mistake that Dutch people make when they learn Spanish. “Wat kost een bier” sounds almost the same as the English: "what does a beer cost?" However, in Spanish, you would say "cuanto cuesta una cerveza?" Instead of saying cuesta, Dutch people will often say costa, because it is so much closer to the word kost. The funny thing is, that even when you tell Dutch people 100 times that in Spanish you say cuesta and not costa, many Dutch people will be quite persistent. It seems that old habits really do die hard.

Another thing to consider is that the Dutch language is spelt phonologically. This means that if you see a word for the very first time, you can accurately predict how to pronounce it because you say the word as it is written. However, you have to understand that there are many letters that you pronounce differently in Dutch. For example, if you pronounce "week" the English way, it changes into wiek, which is a spade of a mill.

In Dutch, there is a simple rule that says that you always pronounce IE the same. This is an important difference with English, in which you have "thief" and "babies," but also "cries" and "dies." So, if you see "week," you would pronounce it as the English word "wake." You would never ever pronounce EE as IE, but, if you keep thinking in English, you’ll keep getting the pronunciation wrong.

Sentence structure

If the only language you know is English, you may find it hard to believe that the way you put sentences together in another language can be completely different. If you speak other languages, you’ll have a competitive advantage.

When learning English, this can cause problems for Dutch speakers, especially in the beginning. "Drink je koffie?" means "Do you drink coffee?" Initially, when learning English, Dutch speakers might say “Drink you coffee?” which makes perfect sense to Dutch ears. You’d probably understand what they were trying to say, but it’s still wrong.

So you might believe that you can pick up a language by simply copying, but now that you have thought about it, you know that this can only be partially true. Not a single native English speaker would say “drink you coffee,” right? So, how come you might say things that you’ll basically never hear from native speakers? Well, chances are you do not really listen and keep thinking in the patterns of another language that you already speak.

Which of these two sentences sounds correct to you? "Here comes the rain again," or, "Here the rain comes again." Many of you will prefer the first one because it sounds better. However, if you are learning a new language, then the notion that something just sounds better is not something that can help you a lot. It would be far more helpful if you knew what the rules are. Then you can reason rationally why something is correct or not.

Speaking like a local

Last but not least, one of the biggest challenges is accepting that people talk in different ways when they speak in a new language. "Kan je dansen?" means "Can you dance?" So, what would you reply in Dutch? "Ja ik kan" might make perfect sense to your mind, however, not a single Dutch person would say this. Instead, you may hear: "ja, ik kan dansen" or "dat kan ik!"

So, here is a revealing question: would you be willing to say "ja ik kan dansen" or "dat kan ik" instead of "ja ik kan?" If the answer is yes, then congratulations, the chances are high that you’ll master Dutch fast. However, if the answer is no, check what is stopping you. Sometimes there might be some form of resistance. Maybe you find it stupid that you have to say "ja ik kan dansen," because you don’t like the idea that you need one more word. Or maybe you think that "dat kan ik," does not make sense, simply because you would not say that in English.

So, the moral of the story is that you’ll learn a lot faster if you really listen to a new language with an open mind. It may take some effort and energy to really open up and to let go of your own thoughts and ideas but, once you do it, you’ll find that somehow learning and speaking is a lot easier and, if you are like me, you'll simply get fascinated by all the different ways people in different cultures and languages can look at the world and communicate!

Do you want to learn Dutch quickly and comprehensively? Get in touch with Albert at, or sign up for Talencoach’s Dutch Brainwash programme – an intensive Dutch course in the centre of Amsterdam.

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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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