Nederlandse conversatie

5 tips on Dutch small talk

When you are a high educated expat, chances are that you don’t like small talk at all. When you’re an introvert like me, you might not even know how to do it. Why would anyone like to engage in meaningless chitchat or even gossip?

I’ll explain why and how in this article: small talk is a very useful tool in learning Dutch (or any other foreign language)

What is small talk?

When my daughter was going to primary school, I spent hours and hours waiting for her at the schoolyard. Around me were other parents, all busy chatting with each other. Mind you, I am Dutch and so were they, so I could understand everything they were talking about. Those were things that seemed completely meaningless to me.

I understood though that small talk is a way of communication between people that do not know each other very well. With small talk you create a connection, that might or might not grow into something deeper, like friendship. So I developed my ‘small talk skills’, to be able to connect with other parents.

For a Dutch language student like you, small talk is a great way to practice your Dutch. We call this: ***een praatje maken***

But how to do it? Let me share:

5 tips & tricks on small talk

Most expats don’t know many native speakers with whom they can practice Dutch. And if you’re finally find the courage to address someone in Dutch, they answer in English. You don’t want that. And can guys – just like women – also walk up to someone (man or woman) to start a ‘praatje’? This is how we do it:

  1. identify your target
  2. topics to talk about
  3. prepare at home
  4. do not use the English backstop (free cheat sheet)
  5. men need to be extra careful

1 – Identify your target

Check out all people that you see more often. This can be on the train or metroto your work. Start with greeting them, just by nodding or smiling to them. Later on, once there is a connection, you can talk to them. People from a shopare mostly willing to talk to you. They have to be polite to the customers, and most of the time they like the diversion you provide. You can also talk to the other customers. Are you so lucky to have a Dutch colleague? This definitely is target numero uno. And do you know your neighbours? Time to find out!

2 – Topics to talk about

In a shop you can ask the staff or other customers for help. Where can you find certain products, but also: how do I prepare this?  and what else would you advise me to eat with it?

To your fellow travellers you tell where you’re from, and that you’re busy learning Dutch. Let them know you appreciate them speaking Dutch to you.

When you meet your neighbours on the street, you can just walk up to them and introduce yourself.  Tell them where do you come from, what’s your job or study,  and  how long you’re planning to stay. Do you click?Then ask them for a coffee at your place or in a bar.

3 – Prepare at home

Maybe you want to talk to a neighbour, to a vendor on the market, or to a new colleague. If you want to have more at hand than the usual Ik kom uit …. and ik werk …  and hoe gaat het met jou?then you have to prepare this praatjeat home.

First of all you decide on what you want to ask and tell them. If you want to tell the market vendor that you always like their veggies, then look up the relevant words in advance. Finally you can make some sentences  with those words. Do not overdo this preparation. It is meant for you to have some words at hand, not to write a speech.

Please check your pronunciation.  One time I failed to understand a waitress who managed to pronounce every Dutch word so English, that everyone thought that she was speaking English. Only after the third time it dawned on me that she was trying to speak Dutch. That’s why pronunciation is very important. If even a Dutch language coach cannot understand you, then no one can.

4 – Do not use the English backstop

Resist the temptation to speak English when you get stuck. Just pretend not to speak English, if you have to. This is the easy part. The hard part is to stop the Dutch from answering you in English. Tell them kindly that you are learning Dutch, and ask them for their understanding. I created a cheat sheet for this type of situations. It is yours for free, when you subscribe to my mailing list.

Subscribe and download your free cheat sheet

5 – Men need to be extra careful

When practising Dutch, you don’t want to make the impression that you come on to someone. (If so, you are reading the wrong article) Women mostly have the intuition whom they can address safely, so I’ll leave that there.

For men it is harder. Be very sensitive when addressing a (wo)man in public space. This might feel very threatening for your subject. Shops are mostly safe spaces. Just ask advice about anything at all, to start a conversation. People like to help. But of course bars and festivals are also good: people go there to connect. Feel free to strike up a conversation there.


Sooner or later you’ll want to engage in more meaningful conversations in Dutch. You’ll want to exchange ideas and maybe impress others with your knowledge on certain subjects. Be patient with yourself.

The beginning is hardest when learning a new language. Don’t get stuck on theory and abstractions, but engage in conversation right away. A nice way to do that is through private lessons, classes and MeetUps. Subscribe now!

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