Sounding like a Dutch local: Your guide to mastering spreektaal

Sounding like a Dutch local: Your guide to mastering spreektaal

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Are you living in the Netherlands and learning Dutch? Have you ever wondered why you aren’t understanding the conversations around you, despite having studied hard? The answer may be simpler than you think! In many cases, it can lie in the difference between how something's written vs. how it's said in conversation. Here, Kate Aemisegger from UvA Talen explains what she has learnt in her years of studying Dutch, and how certain shortened words affected her ability to understand what she was hearing. 

Like any language in the world, written Dutch often differs from how it sounds in conversation. This isn't surprising, but it can catch you off guard when you are trying to speak or listen to a new language. A straightforward example is dropping the "n" sound at the end of Dutch verbs, like eten and lopen. Oftentimes, those small differences in sound make a huge difference in your ability to decipher words, especially if you are not yet fluent.

Writing this from an American's perspective, I realise that American English speakers often shorten words of their own. We become a bit lazy or informal when we speak our own language, and the result differs greatly from what's taught in textbooks.

Some examples include:

  • "Going to" becomes "Gonna": "I'm gonna go to the movies tonight."
  • "Want to" becomes "Wanna": "I'm gonna go to the movies tonight, wanna join?”

To take it one step further, we sometimes create a new sound when shortening others. Take a look at the example below and see if you recognise it:

  • "Did you … ?" becomes "Dijoo … ?: "Dijoo see that?"

Where did that letter "j" sound come from, you may ask? It's simply the sound that forms when combining the letter "d" and "y" in quick conversation. Things like this happen in Dutch, too. In my experience, these subtle differences often challenged what I learnt in my textbooks.

Try to keep the following examples in mind, as they came up in my own language-learning experience - and try to put some of them into practice in your next Dutch conversation!

From even to effe to 'ffe

Are you familiar with the word even in Dutch? Not only is it one of the many modal particles, but it is also used in a sentence to imply a short time / something that won’t take long. For example, “Ik ga even naar de winkel”, meaning, I'm going to go to the store real quick.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? That it is! But beware of the pronunciation and shortened sound of the word when spoken by one of your Dutch friends, colleagues or neighbours. The word even tends to sound more like "effe" or even "’ffe", without sounding out the initial "e" sound. Now just add some words around it in a sentence, and you've suddenly got a peculiar jumble of words starting with the letter … "f"?

Try it out for yourself! Read the following sentence as fast as possible and see if you can hear the shortened sound … "Ik ga 'ffe naar de winkel".

Although it's a subtle difference in sound, this word becomes harder to decipher when the speed of the conversation comes into play. It's good to keep this in mind during your own learning journey.


Hoe is WAT?

Hoe is het? Hoe gaat het? Hoe is het met je? Alles goed? These greetings are familiar ones if you live in the Netherlands, and typically phrases that you learn in your very first Dutch lesson.

I hate to break it to you … but helaas, the Dutch shorten these as well, depending on the region of the country. You often hear these greetings changed to:

  • "Hoe is het?" becomes "Hoe is 'ie"?
  • "Hoe gaat het?" becomes "Hoe gaat 'ie"?

When sped up even more, these words jumble together to make a sound similar to, "hoesie", or, "h'gaatie"?.

When you expect to hear het at the end and instead hear an 'eee' sound, this can really throw you off as a beginner. My initial thought was that I must have missed a word in between, and the question suddenly became more complex in my head. A feeling we can all relate to, right? At that point, if you’re anything like me, you start to question yourself before you even open your mouth to respond. But this is simply a shortened way of saying the original greeting, and one you will hear frequently in spreektaal.

This is a perfect example of how textbook-written and spoken Dutch can differ, causing you to question your level of understanding.

Do syllables really matter? Not really!

Did you know that the Dutch are magicians? It's true! They can make syllables *WOOOSH* disappear …

Similar to the English example, "Going to" becomes "Gonna", this next example is a flow-off-the-tongue sound that proves easier to say than the full pronunciation of the word. The outcome is therefore a one-syllable sound instead of two.

See the example below:

  • Gewoon becomes G'oon: "Dit is g'oon wie ik ben!"

In this sentence, the word gewoon means "just" as in, "This is just who I am!" Like the other examples, this shortened sound can make it difficult to decipher words in a conversation. You'd think the Dutch would find a way to shorten that rough "g" sound instead … but an expat can only dream!

Do you have any other examples of shortened words, based on your own experience of learning Dutch? Let us know in the comment section below!

Kate Aemisegger works and studies Dutch at UvA Talen, one of the biggest language schools in Amsterdam. They offer language courses from beginners to advanced levels. Want to improve your Dutch further, just like Kate? UvA Talen offers group courses, specialised courses and e-learning programmes if you want to concentrate on a specific aspect of the language.

Kate Aemisegger


Kate Aemisegger

Kate Aemisegger, employee and student at UvA Talen, the independent language centre of the University of Amsterdam, writes about her experience learning the Dutch language as an American living in Amsterdam. Her...

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