Lost in translation: Nobody said learning Dutch was easy

Lost in translation: Nobody said learning Dutch was easy

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Dutch and English are quite similar. However, your knowledge of English might not be as helpful as you think... UvA Talen explains!

If you live as an expat in the Netherlands, there’s a big chance that your English is reasonably good: English is the main language spoken in international companies and in the expat community.

If you’re planning on learning Dutch , your knowledge of English could be an advantage because the languages have certain similarities. Still, there are pitfalls in which your knowledge of English will be everything but helpful. Here are five areas in which you will be tested to the extreme: 

1. Expressions

Although you may be pleased to hear that some expressions are largely the same in both Dutch and English, unfortunately, you won’t be able to count on this all the time.

An example where you can pretty much rely on the translation to be understood both in English and Dutch is: “the grass is always greener” even though in English this is followed by “on the other side of the fence”, while in Dutch it ends with “at the neighbours”. In both cases, the meaning is the same: Somebody always seems to have a better life elsewhere.

Sometimes, there is no literal translation or English equivalent. An example in Dutch is “De kat uit de boom kijken” (looking the cat out of the tree), which means to wait and see how things turn out.

2. Vocabulary: false friends

For language learners, there are times when it is safer not to think about the English word for something. Beware of an accidental slip of the tongue or be prepared for some serious misunderstandings.

False friends are when you accidentally use your mother tongue in the target language. If a Dutch person is on the hunt for biological items, chances are that he is not attempting to acquire biological weapons of mass destruction but is more likely to be searching for organic food.

Moving with the times, words like “checken” from “to check” and “chillen” from “to chill” are common in Dutch. Conversely, English has taken words from Dutch over the years. Knowing these will make your life easier: “coffee” is derived from “koffie”, “cookie” comes from “koekje” and “gin” from “jenever”.

3. Politeness vs directness

While some cultures are known for their politeness, the Dutch have a reputation for being direct, which is sometimes misconstrued as being rude. This cultural difference also finds its way into how language is used. In Dutch, it’s more common to use active constructions instead of passive, indirect ways.

By way of illustration, in English “do you mind if” is a rather indirect way to ask a question. In Dutch “kunnen” or “mogen” are far more common and accepted. For example, to a waiter in a restaurant: “Kunnen we bestellen?” or “Mag ik de rekening?” are absolutely fine to use.

4. Prepositions

As you will become aware, Dutch prepositions don’t always match their English equivalents. In English, you have at (i.e. specific places and times), on (i.e. touching surfaces) and in (i.e. within enclosed spaces). In Dutch, however, it is a different story altogether: You’re not “at school” but “op school”, which sounds like you're actually on top of the school.

There are also times when there is only one Dutch preposition, while there are more in English: phrases like “on time” and “in time” only exist in this form: “op tijd”. This will take some getting used to.

5. Word Order

In English, the following order (who-does-what), i.e. “I eat apples” is a basic way to ensure your sentences make sense. The time phrase (every day) mostly goes at the end unless the when is more important than the what; this is second nature to English, Russian and Spanish speakers, for example. While in Dutch, on occasion, time phrases can be added like this: “I eat every day apples”. Thus, this quirky sentence structure becomes challenging to decipher.

When learning Dutch, you might also find it odd that job titles seem to be the wrong way around. Take a Dutch teacher: in Dutch this is a “docent Nederlands”.

Top tips

If you speak another language besides English, find out what the similarities between that language and Dutch are. Grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure or pronunciation might be related. Try to use your language to your advantage.

Don’t be afraid to try out your Dutch in shops, information centres and restaurants, for example, and persevere. Be curious and find out what things mean. Ask to be corrected if possible, write down your mistakes and learn from them, watch Dutch TV and films, read newspapers, magazines and books and / or do a course.

Explore the culture, read about the rich history of the Netherlands and, above all, immerse yourself in the language!

Daniel Israel works for UvA Talen, the independent language centre of the University of Amsterdam. Their fast-paced courses help students make rapid progress in learning English, Dutch and ten other languages. Visit their website or follow UvA Talen on Facebook for more information.



Daniel Israel

Daniel Israel is a British expat who lives in the Netherlands and works for UvA Talen as an English teacher. Daniel writes articles, blogs and books on learning languages...

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