So, you said something in Dutch… now what?

So, you said something in Dutch… now what?

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Has it ever happened to you? You said something in Dutch, such as “hallo, ik ben” (hello, I am), followed by your name or “ja, alles gaat goed” (everything is ok) and then, all of a sudden, the conversation stops. You would like to continue, but you don’t know what to say. You are looking for the (Dutch) words, but you cannot find them. Albert Both from Talencoach gives us a few tips that could make an enormous difference!

Know that you are not alone. It happens to many people, especially if you are taking a language course. You study a lot, you memorise many things, but when you want to apply your new knowledge in real Dutch life, somehow, you cannot do it! Even in simple situations and for simple things, you cannot keep a conversation in Dutch.

Don’t worry though; there is some good news. If you are willing to use a new strategy, great Dutch conversations could still happen!

First of all, what do you notice when you look at normal language courses? Usually, you have to repeat many dialogues about various situations you could encounter in life. The thought is very simple. Just listen to them again and again, memorise the dialogues and you’ll be fine. This is how the theory works, at least.

Having real Dutch conversations is not about reproducing sound files

But then…. once you apply this technique to real life, what is one of the first things that you notice? Problem number one: people do not stick to the official script! When Dutch people talk “real” Dutch, all of a sudden, they use different sentences and chances are high that they talk about different things too, things that your study course has not covered yet!

The idea that you can have real conversations, just by copying dialogues from a book, is something that I like to call “parrot learning”. When words come out of the beak of a parrot, it might sound impressive, but there is one big problem. Although these words sound convincing, the parrot has no idea what it is talking about! You do more or less the same if you try to learn a language by just memorising. If you do not really understand the things that you say, it does not make a lot of sense!

Understanding is key

So, here is the first secret: speaking a new language is not so much about memorising, it is far more about really understanding it! It’s important that you understand exactly how you can construct Dutch sentences all by yourself. So, instead of trying to remember a Dutch sentence that you have learned, it is far more important to be able to construct a Dutch sentence, all by yourself and preferably fast!

By the way, have you noticed that if you look at the chapters in your textbook that they only talk about one subject? Often, it starts with saying hello to other people, then you talk about the weather and then later, you’ll learn how to shop. It looks very logical, right? Unfortunately, it is – contrary to how it may seem- not effective at all!

First of all, if you need to go through different topics one by one, it will take you a long time before you have covered enough subjects for an interesting conversation. You’ll also try to remember things that you don’t really understand, and this is a big problem. If you only memorise a sentence without really understanding it, it means that you can only use it in one very specific circumstance and that means that you are extremely limited.

It is easy to free yourself from all kinds of limitations

Here is another question. What do you think happens in normal conversations? Are you going to talk about the things that you have rehearsed, again and again, or is there a chance that you would like to talk about things happening in that moment, new and surprising things?

When you realise that many situations are quite unique, it is easy to come to the conclusion that it has little sense to try and use sentences that you have learned in the past. If you like to have spontaneous conversations, you need to be open and flexible. You need to act on all the things that are happening right now!

So, here is an important insight. Instead of trying to remember different dialogues, the first thing that you need to do is to learn how to make sentences all by yourself in Dutch, about any subject that you like! These subjects could be anything from “economie” (economics) and “mediatie” (mediation) to “stroopwafels”.

Another important secret is to start with massive sentence generation first. The first thing that you do is start to create as many sentences as you can and… if the sentences that you create are nonsense and stupid, it is even better. The thing that matters most is that you can create many sentences fast, with absolute ease first.

If you think about it, it makes sense. Imagine that you can create at least 100 Dutch sentences all by yourself. Chances are high that among these 100 sentences, there are some sentences that you can really use, right? So, create many sentences first and be critical and selective later.

Here is one important thing that stops many people from having fluent Dutch conversations: many people think in their own language first and then they try to look for the right words in a very precise way. You can probably foresee that it might be very hard to find the right word in the first place and then all that follows are moments of silence.

So once again, the number one skill that you need to focus on is that you can create many small sentences first. It is the easiest way to unleash something that I call a Dutch flow. Once you know how to create hundreds of sentences with absolute ease, it will be easier to create other sentences that are more relevant and useful. If you also embrace the idea of improvisation, it will be easy for you to talk about new and surprising things.

Words are all around you

Here is another important tip. When you want to say something in a new language, words are all around you. They are not just in your memory. For example, any person you talk to uses words. If you can recognise them and if you know how to put these words in a sentence fast, it is a lot easier to have nice conversations.

It is a great trick that I use when I like to speak German. I let Germans speak first, and then I simply listen to the things that they say. Quite often, they are quite impressed by my huge German vocabulary, but all I do is copy words from the people that I am talking to. It is a great trick that always works!

Be critical

I need to give one important warning though. You have to be critical and you need to be able to think for yourself. If you are like most people, you’ll simply get tricked whilst following the conversations in your textbook. It is very easy to believe that it must be easy to have conversations if you simply memorise these dialogues, but if you would like to think in a smarter way, it is vitally important that you understand that you need to develop other skills first, skills that “normal” language books do not teach you.

So, make sure that you can create hundreds and hundreds of sentences, even if they do not make sense and even if they are total b#llsh#t. Only once you’ve created this flow of many Dutch sentences, can you start to select. Step by step you’ll learn how to use your own sentences in each and every unique situation.

And most important of all, make sure that you really understand the language first! Understanding the language simply means that you understand the structure and the vocabulary. Once you realise that Dutch words are often quite close to English and that they are quite logical, it will be easy to recognise them.

Keep a playful attitude

Once you recognise these words, it is easy to use them and then when you use them a couple of times, they will be in your memory before you know it! The key is also that you approach things with a very playful attitude, because this makes it far easier to have a sense of freedom. If you notice that you are becoming very serious about your language learning, stop for a while.

See if you can lighten up a bit, because if you can, it will be a lot easier for you to speak Dutch! And… last but not least, it is important that you love to make mistakes. If you understand that you can learn even faster if you make mistakes, you will be unstoppable. And then, step by step, you can experience for yourself that knowing what to say in Dutch and knowing how to say it is simply a skill that you can train. It can be completely in your hands, mouth, ears and brain, if you are willing to look at it in a whole new and different way.

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, March 24, 2019 in 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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