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Why speaking Dutch can be really hard… if your partner is Dutch!

Why speaking Dutch can be really hard… if your partner is Dutch!

Still not feeling confident when it comes to your Dutch language skills? Having a Dutch partner does not mean that you’ll learn the Dutch language fast. Albert Both from Talencoach explains why this is, and what you can do about it!

What is the fastest way to learn a new language in the most joyful way? One popular piece of advice is quite straightforward: just fall in love with someone from another country, start a relationship and before you know it, you’ll speak a new language!

It is great advice, because not only do you gain a partner, it can help you learn a new language fast. I know this is true from personal experience because I used this strategy to learn how to speak Spanish better.

But… for some reason it does not always seem to work when it comes to learning how to speak Dutch. Having a Dutch partner does not mean that you’ll learn the Dutch language fast. On the contrary, sometimes it might even seem to make it more difficult! So why is that?

Most Dutch people speak English

The first reason is pretty simple. Most Dutch people speak English, so if you fall in love with a Dutch person, it is easy to communicate. The golden rule is: if you would like to speak a language other than English, you’ll learn it faster if your partner does not speak any English at all. This way, you’ll be really forced to learn the other language like Spanish, French or Greek.

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Once you have started to speak English together, then, for some reason, many Dutch people get used to it. For Dutch people, English is relatively easy and they may even secretly like that they are speaking English with you instead of Dutch. They like the fact that, all of a sudden, there is an extra international dimension to their life.

Therefore, many Dutch people may even be surprised if you tell them that you really want to speak Dutch. Some Dutch people may tell you that, as it is ok to speak English with them, you don’t need to speak Dutch at all. That you just need a job in which you can speak English, and everything will be fine, at least, according to their thinking. In a certain way, this may be true. Of course, you will survive just speaking English and chances are high that, in English, both of you can talk about anything you want.

But, here is the thing… If you live in a foreign country, it will be really hard for you to feel at home if you keep missing out on all the things that happen around you. Here is one simple thing that you can do. Just ask Dutch people to stop speaking Dutch for one week; you’ll soon discover that they will kindly refuse. Sure, they may speak English with you, but your Dutch partner probably likes to speak in Dutch with other Dutch people.

Don't let your ability to speak Dutch depend on your partner

So here is the first tip: if being able to speak Dutch is important to you, don’t let it depend on your partner. Start learning and speaking it, even if your partner tells you again and again that you don’t really need to. You yourself know what could improve your life and understanding what is going on and fully participating with the world around you is a very normal desire. 

Speaking and teaching a language are two different things

Of course, there are also Dutch partners that will understand that speaking Dutch is important to you and they will react positively and… this is all that they will do. Contrary to the initial romantic ideas that you may have, chances are low that your partner is really going to help you learn the language.

However, before you start blaming your partner, there is one important thing to realise. Speaking a language does not mean that you can teach the language! This is a very important thing to understand, which is why I will repeat it again: speaking a language does not mean that you can actually teach it!

Speaking and teaching a language are two very different things! First of all, chances are high that your partner really does not know how to speak Dutch in a way that is easy for you to understand. Even if your partner speaks “slow” Dutch to you, chances are high that they still use words and constructions that are difficult for you to understand. It is important to really understand that teaching is a skill that your partner might not possess.

Dutch has no rules?

Here is another thing you can do if you want to drive your partner crazy. Keep asking why they say things in a certain way. As many people speak Dutch on an unconscious competent level, they will not know how to explain the "why". Even if they would like to share the rules, they will, most likely, not be able to find them.

Therefore, it is almost guaranteed that your partner will bluntly tell you that this is the way that Dutch is, or that Dutch has no rules and that everything is an exception.

As most Dutch people are not aware of the rules, they don't realise that the things that are simple and easy for them can be a real challenge for you. This is why they may easily lose their patience with you, and on top of that, even if you do make some progress, often they will hardly see it, let alone appreciate it.

Giving good feedback is a skill

Another important thing: don’t look for positive feedback from your partner if your partner does not know how to give it! Some Dutch people know how Dutch works, but… they lack all the educational skills to teach in you in a friendly and considerate way. Certainly, if your partner is a perfectionist and likes details, having them teach you often means great suffering.

Many Dutch people are very good at pointing out all the things that are wrong and incorrect and they never seem to be satisfied. Even if you move ten steps forward, they keep complaining, because they are so critical (also often of themselves). Just realise that giving feedback is a skill which many people don’t naturally have, certainly when it comes to teaching a new language.

They often forget that feedback should be encouraging and… it should be given step by step. Giving feedback does not mean listing all the things that are wrong; it is a long process of giving compliments and new tips and insights in a logical and consistent way.

Just five minutes a day

After reading this article, you may start to ask yourself if learning to speak Dutch is a good idea at all, and luckily, the answer is yes! The main thing is not to expect things from your Dutch partner that he or she cannot give you! Make sure that you find someone else that can help you understand Dutch before you start speaking Dutch with your partner.

If you like speaking Dutch with your partner, just start with five minutes a day. Start talking about simple and nice things and don’t ask them about grammar! Make sure that the setting is nice. Sit on a terrace in the sun if you'd like or have a glass of wine on the balcony and just start talking for five minutes every day about lovely and pleasant things.

Luckily, there is more good news. Once you start to learn more Dutch, all by yourself, you’ll find it easier to speak the language with your partner. The more you know, the easier it will be for your partner to help you. If you decide that you are simply practising, without expecting any teaching from your partner, what you learn over time can be truly amazing.

Speak all the languages

Last but not least, it is always an enormous advantage if you also speak your native language with your partner. There are many things that you cannot express in English or any other language. Certainly, when it comes to understanding humour in Dutch and the humour of your partner, knowing his or her language will make a huge difference.

You can always speak more than one language in your relationship, although I have to reveal one secret… I mainly speak Dutch with my partner nowadays, but… when my partner gets angry, all of a sudden, I hear a lot of Spanish!

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, October 28, 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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Joanna Hoyle 23:50 | 20 September 2018

This is so true. I was fortunate i had a baby and was pregnant when I arrived. I learned my Dutch by volunteering at the daycare once a week, before you knew it my kids didn’t accept English at home. I have a Dutch partner who speaks little English and some friends who love the opportunity to speak English so I have a lovely balance. And yes when I get mad it’s all English that comes out. But for the rest I am so intergrated that I even dream in Dutch.