Confessions of an advanced Dutch speaker
UvA Talen, the independent language centre of the University of Amsterdam, writes about languages and cultures, helping you to expand your knowledge of Dutch grammar and vocabulary.
Learning any new language is a challenge, but Dutch has its own special quirks and complications for expats. For me, though, the benefits have far outweighed the headaches. Here’s an insider’s look at the learning process.
Making somewhat a fool of yourself is part of the universal experience of learning a foreign language, a rite of passage if you will. Fortunately, those situations make for funny anecdotes afterwards!
› Loud parties make your Dutch seem worse than it is.
As a university student halfway into my first semester taught fully in Dutch, I was hoping to impress everyone at a certain party with my fluency.
The music was loud, and there were a lot of other people talking, so when a friend of my date asked me about my bachelor programme I had to ask him to repeat himself three times in a row. In the end I simply gave up.
Several months later and in a much quieter setting the same man commented: "Oh, so you can speak Dutch!" So much for impressing people.
› Prepositions are very specific, and differ from prepositions in other languages.
I was returning to the Netherlands and messaged a friend of mine: Ik zit op het vliegtuig! "I’d sit in the plane if I were you!" he replied.
The road to fluency can be a bit rough sometimes.
› Dutch people are "helpful"
One of the most frustrating moments in learning Dutch is when even the cashier at the Albert Heijn switches to English after your first Dutch word. Many Dutch people just enjoy showing off their English every chance they get.
It helps to have a Dutch ally who can assure the offending party with: Ze spreekt Nederlands! Echt! I’ve also responded by simply continuing in Dutch. After all, switching between languages is a special skill of its own, so I just stay in my groove, and let them figure out for themselves that I’m serious about speaking Dutch.
› It’s an apple and an egg (Or not)
The Dutch have a lot of weird idioms. The good news is that you learn the really common ones pretty fast, since they’re used constantly. For example, when I point out to my Dutch friends that in de gaten houden (literally: "hold in the holes", figuratively: "keep an eye on") is an idiom, the most common response is an amazed "I never realised that!"
The other good news about idioms is that they’re quirky and fun. In fact, a lot of Dutch people enjoy the game of translating these idioms literally into English, since hearing them in another language highlights just how absurd they are.
Tips and tricks for learning Dutch
Here are some helpful suggestions if you’re also working on your Dutch language skills.
› Don’t worry about correct grammar
While you’re studying you’ll spend a lot of time and energy thinking about conjugation, word order, and so on. But, don’t let this focus on perfect grammar get in the way of expressing yourself among friends. If you clam up any time you make a mistake you won’t get very far.
Think of it this way: to get to an advanced level you necessarily need to make a certain number of mistakes. Get those mistakes out of the way as fast as you can. Don’t be ashamed that it isn’t your first language!
Another point about grammar: like Spanish and French, Dutch has a gender system for nouns, but unlike Spanish and French there are few reliable rules; most of the time it’s just rote memorisation.
It’s actually so difficult to learn that Dutch children don’t master it until they are seven, years later than Spanish and French children master their language’s gender systems.
But here’s the good news: the Dutch are very sympathetic about this. I would recommend not spending energy on learning this until you reach an intermediate level. Simply use the more common "de" until you have basic conversation skills down, then you can start refining.
› Try to establish Dutch as the main language of your friendships
Explain that learning Dutch is really important to you and that you’d appreciate your friend’s support. Defaulting to Dutch will help you avoid falling into the trap of only speaking the language that’s the easiest.
It’ll be difficult and make communication harder at first, but forcing your way through these challenges will make your Dutch that much better.
› Take a class
Sometimes it’s hard to find opportunities to practice. Maybe it’s scary to vault into Dutch with close friends. A class is a great way to force yourself to take the first steps. A good teacher will make sure that everyone gets a chance to talk, and create a supportive environment where you can make mistakes and ask questions.
It’s not all hardship and struggle when you’re learning Dutch, and the rewards are priceless if you stick with it.
› Being able to eavesdrop
I love being able to navigate a party, avoiding the avid discussion of interest rates on house payments, and zooming in on the conversations I find really interesting. Plus, now that I speak Dutch I never have that awkward moment when the people around me have to switch to English.
When I’m on the metro or in the supermarket I enjoy overhearing the odd bit of conversation, or listening to a child interacting with their parents.
› Getting to know my friends better
Dutch people pride themselves on their excellent grasp of foreign languages, but still, there’s nothing like getting to know someone in their first language. It’s so interesting to hear the different ways my friends speak, whether it’s with a regional accent, a lot of street slang, or a bunch of "Dutchified" English words.
In any case, there’s a feeling of ease and authenticity that makes me feel I know something about them that I couldn’t have known otherwise.
Feeling more at home
Simply put, being able to speak Dutch makes the Netherlands feel much less foreign. I can confidently go anywhere. Knowing Dutch, I feel a certain kind of camaraderie: that of swearing back at cyclists and being recognised as belonging here during tourist season.