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Practical tips for improving your Dutch pronunciation

Practical tips for improving your Dutch pronunciation

One of the biggest challenges of speaking Dutch seems to be the pronunciation. Sounds like “g” and “ui” drive many an expat crazy. Speaking Dutch is not that much fun if everyone looks at you funny and if no one understands you. Albert Both from Talencoach gives us some practical tips on Dutch pronunciation

There are many things that can make Dutch pronunciation a lot easier. Let’s play around a bit. First of all, look at the English word “debt”. How would you pronounce it? You probably will not pronounce the “b”, right? So, the next logical question is this: why would you write it with a “b” then?

The explanation is quite simple. In English, it is often important to show the history of the word. Debt comes from the Latin word “debitum”, so by adding the “b” that you do not pronounce, it is like honouring the origin of a word. In Dutch, there is a whole different approach to spelling. The most important function is that it tells you exactly how to pronounce a word.

Take the Dutch word “knie” and the English word “knee”, for example. In Dutch, you do pronounce the ”k”, which makes sense right? Otherwise, why would you write down the letter at all? So here it is: some letters in English words are pure decoration, but not in Dutch. In Dutch, if you write a letter, you will pronounce it.

Let’s take the letter “h”, for example. In English, you can say: our “hour” and our “house”. Now, once again, why write “hour” with an “h” if you do not pronounce it? In Dutch, this would never happen. If you start a word with an “h”, you pronounce it. Period.

Here is another great example. How would you pronounce the letter “h” in English? It sounds more or less like “age”, right? But in Dutch, it sounds like “ha” (as in laughing: ha ha). So, Dutch spelling shows you exactly how to pronounce a word! Great news, don’t you think?

Unlike English, Dutch pronunciation is consistent

Of course, there is also some bad news. Especially if you think in English all the time. Let’s take the “ie” in “babies” and “thief”. If you know the Dutch word “fiets”, you understand that “fiets” is the perfect way to spell it. However, if you say: “cries” or “dies” in English, can you see what happens? All of a sudden, it doesn’t sound like the other “ie” words anymore. Contrary to English, Dutch is always consistent. If you see “ie”, you immediately know how pronounce it.

Here is another nice letter combination. The word “ei” (egg) has another sound. If you know how to say Einstein, then you've already got the idea. But when you “receive” something, all of a sudden, the trouble begins… The “ei” sounds like “ie” in belief. Now, can you see that English is, as a matter of fact, quite inconsistent?

Therefore, if you would like to improve your Dutch pronunciation fast, looking at Dutch spelling from a different angle can already help a lot! It is a simple idea, right? Unfortunately, certainly for English speakers, applying this simple idea is not always easy. Chances are high that you feel the inclination to pronounce certain familiar looking words the English way.

Here is another test: can you pronounce the next few words? "The melon”, "the cherry”, 'the apple”, "the orange”. Did you notice something? There is a chance that you’ll pronounce the “e” in “the melon” and “the cherry” differently from the “e” in the "the" in “the apple” and “the orange” because these words start with a vowel. In Dutch, however, the “e” in the "de" in “de meloen” and “de appel” sounds completely the same.

It could be that, before you know it, you’ll say: “die appel” using the English “e” sound from “the apple”. Sure, your Dutch sentence may still be perfect grammatically, but you should be aware that often you will need to change your pronunciation because of your English habits. Just remember, "die appel" means "that apple" and "de appel" means "the apple". The pronunciation is a bit different!

Don’t focus too much on pronunciation

Here is another important tip: although pronunciation is very important while speaking a new language, my first tip is that you don’t focus on it too much. Too many people focus all of their attention on saying it right, but here is some other news which might be shocking…if you don’t know what you are saying, if the words look totally alien to you, you will not say them correctly anyway.

The more you really understand Dutch, the higher the chances are that your pronunciation is correct.

Here is a perfect example. Just look at the words “luister” and “zeester”. Although both words end with “ster”, you do pronounce them differently. The reason is simple. The word “luister” means “listen” and the “ster” sounds like Webster in English. The word “zeester” is a combination of “zee” (sea) and “ster” (star), which means star fish. You pronounce “ster” like the Engish “stare” (or stair). Because the word is a combination of two different words, the “ster” in “zeester” sounds different.

Of course, if you see “zeester” for the very first time and if you don’t know what it actually means, you would probably say it wrong. However, the idea that “ster” means “star” and “zee” means “sea” should not be too difficult to accept, right?

As an added bonus: when most people see “zee”, they tend to pronounce it like “see” in English. However, as you have already discovered, “zee” is different from “zie” (see). If you know the word “nee” (no), it will be easy to understand that “zee” should end with the same sound, because “ee” in Dutch sounds like “may” or “day”.

Sure, it may take some time before you can fully accept that Dutch spelling is quite logical. Quite often, you will see a word for the very first time and you can be pretty much sure on how to pronounce it! To speak better Dutch, you need to understand what you are saying, and you need to know how grammar works.

The wrong order

Let’s face it. Even if you pronounce all the words correctly, but you put them in the wrong order, it still sounds wrong. Let’s say that someone says this sentence to you with a perfect British accent: “now can I English speak” (nu kan ik Engels spreken). Sounds wrong, right?

So, if you would like to improve your Dutch pronunciation, never ever focus on pronunciation alone. Make sure that you know how Dutch really works and that you know how to say sentences correctly. If, for example, the order of your sentence is wrong, no matter how well you pronounce the separate words, Dutch people may still look at you with a confused face.

And here is the tricky thing. When the order of your sentence is wrong, most people will notice that something is wrong, but quite often they don’t know what it is. They will often tell you that it is because of your pronunciation, but this does not have to be the case!

Cherish your background

Last but not least, if you have a tiny accent while speaking Dutch, it can be more positive than you think. Dutch people will be impressed with your Dutch once they realise that your native language is not Dutch. Make sure that you cherish your background. Instead of hating your accent, see it as something that makes you unique.

Have fun

Also, once you learn more Dutch, you’ll certainly find that, quite often, a better Dutch pronunciation will take care of itself. Don’t be too narrowly focused or too shy. Go out and have fun while speaking Dutch. Laugh at the mistakes that you will inevitably make! Experiment and learn from each and every conversation in Dutch that you have and soon enough you can talk about all the things that you want, in Dutch!

Albert Both is a specialist in learning Dutch fast whilst having fun. Sign up for his free workshop "Finding Dutch Flow: Opening The Floodgate to Dutch Fluency" on Sunday, November 25, 2018, in Amsterdam.

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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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