learning Dutch – the best way to learn a foreign language

learning Dutch - Amsterdam

There are many ways to learn Dutch. The best way is to be born into a Dutch speaking family. In the cradle you hear Dutch all around you. Your first words are in Dutch. This means you are a native speaker. You’ll never reach this level when learning a foreign language later in life. Or will you?

Learning a language the natural way

A friend of ours lost her home, when my daughter was four years old. My friend – let’s call her Daisy – had come from London to Amsterdam. We offered her a space to crash out. She stayed for one and a half years. When she left us, my daughter spoke English. Her vocabulary was still small, but she had acquired a nice British accent. I had raised her – accidently – bilingual.
My daughter lives and works now in the UK. She handles the English language as a native speaker. No one can hear that she comes from Holland.

Speaking and listening

learning Dutch - rose
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Daisy was a very talkative person (she still is). She was talking all day long, also to my daughter. In English. Did my daughter understand all this? I suppose not. Did Daisy teach her to read and write in English? No. Did they study English grammar together? Of course not!

Daisy was just talking to her, and we were talking to Daisy. My daughter listened carefully. At a certain point she began to speak English back. It was not much, and it was not flawless. But the foundation was there. The foundation to be a (near) native English speaker.

Echo the natural process

Learning a language consists of several components:

  • reading
  • writing
  • listening
  • speaking
  • grammar

Very often when you follow a Dutch course, you learn all components at the same time. This is not always the preferred way. When you aim for a natural and fluent control of Dutch, we prioritise the following aspects:

  • listening
  • speaking

The other aspects (reading, writing, grammar) can wait a bit.

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Nowadays there are many courses to learn Dutch, that work with audio. Put on your head phones, listen well and repeat. Take care that you speak Dutch as much as possible, from the very beginning. Even when you speak just a few words. Ask your Dutch friends and colleagues to help you. Do you not know enough native speakers, or don’t they have the required patience? Then go to a conversation class to practice your Dutch. Take care that there is at least one (near) native speaker.

Help me, I don’t understand a single word!

Over forty years ago I had my first French class, at the Rijnlands Lyceum in Oegstgeest. (Who can pronounce the name of this village?) The class room was all set for the newest pedagogical learning method. We had to put on a head phone. I heard my first French sentence, while watching a projection on a screen of a man, entering a house. We didn’t get any instructional text. Nothing.

What did I hear? Mesjeu teebow abee townumerow dese (Monsieur Thibault habite aux numero dix). I didn’t understand anything of the class. At home I asked my mother what a townumerow was. She didn’t know either.

You learn much more than you realise

My French classes stopped after two years. I didn’t have great grades. I had learned nothing at all. At least, that’s what I thought.

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Five years later I went to France, and got stuck there for half a year. Within two weeks everything I ever learned came up. I started speaking French, with a nice Mediterranean accent. All the French could understand me!

My vocabulary was not very big, but I learned new words every day. Through reading and writing, and of course through speaking and listening. After a month I could have an intelligent conversation in French. It was (at least partly) because of my former classes, that speaking French went so smooth and fast.

The listening method on my former school, was far from perfect. What could have been better?

  • Text instructions. When I could have seen the words, I would have realised that aux in French sounds as oo in Dutch. I would have understood that the French string their words together in pronunciation, much more than the Dutch do.
  • Speaking French. Making our own sentences. We didn’t do that. I didn’t know any native French speakers, apart from the teacher.
  • More insights. It would have helped us students, if we had known why we had to study this way. We would have been much more motivated.

Language learning methods have improved a lot since my years at school. For me these methods have definitely proven their effectiveness. Study Dutch at a school that works with such a method. Emerge yourself in the language, even when you don’t understand a lot. You learn a language not just on the intellectual level. The subconscious works hard as well.

Do children learn a language faster than adults? Nonsense!

There is some word going around, that children learn a foreign language faster than adults. This is of course complete nonsense. A three year old child still has a very limited grasp of the language. Imagine what you could do in three years time: you could do so much more. Small children can’t read, analyse or put things together. As adults, we can use all these additional tools.

Do friends or colleagues tell you that children are better learners than adults? More often than not, this is their excuse for not being able to do something. By diminishing your hope and enthusiasm, they can feel better about their own inability to learn the language. But I tell you, you can do it!

Meetings on the airport

My daughter lives in England. That’s why I book a couple of times a year a cheap flight to London. On these trips I have almost every time a conversation with a fellow traveller, who speaks Dutch as a second language. For a language coach like me, this is very interesting. Where did they learn Dutch, did they like it, what type of mistakes do they make? I always learn something. Following meetings were particularly interesting:

Something went wrong

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Not long ago, I had a conversation with a nice blonde, while we were waiting in the queue for boarding. She spoke Dutch with a really strong English accent. She was on her way to London for a couple of gay parties.

Because her high level of Dutch is very unusual for an English native speaker, I asked her where she came from. She was a Swedish native, she said. Sweden is a country where every native can pronounce the ‘Dutch r’. Then why did she speak Dutch with an ‘English r’? She had apparently followed a course English – Dutch. That’s how she caught up her English accent.

This is such a shame, because it was not necessary with her background. If she would have followed a course Swedish – Dutch, or even just Dutch – Dutch, this hadn’t happened. She could have sounded as a Dutch native speaker. This drawback is one of the reasons that I am very reluctant in the use of English in my coaching.

She did everything right!

ticket EasyJet
The beautiful dark lady in the seat next to me, in the plane from Luton to Schiphol, had taken a different approach. When she put her luggage in the locker, she spoke English with a civilised British accent. When she took her seat, she greeted me in flawless Dutch, without a trace of an accent. She did make some weird (grammar) mistakes, though. Most of the time I can tell where people come from, by their accent and the mistakes they make. I didn’t manage with her. She told me she was native to Jamaica, but that she was mainly raised in England. As an adult she had come to Holland, where she had been living now for some thirteen years.

I was very impressed by her Dutch language skills, and I complimented her several times. How had she learned Dutch? On a language school, with headphones on, she said. At her job she was one of the few Dutch speakers, so she managed the accounts of the Dutch clients. Good, because that gave her a lot of practice in Dutch.

She told me hesitantly that she almost never read books in Dutch. She preferred to read in English, for leisure. To her surprise, I didn’t disapprove at all. On the contrary. One of the pitfalls in learning Dutch is reading too much and speaking too little. She had effectively avoided this trap. This woman really had done everything – intuitively – right. That’s why she spoke so fluently Dutch, apart from some minor mistakes (that no one else would have noticed, probably). Her achievement is extraordinary for a (near) native English speaker. This means that you too can learn to be fluent in Dutch.

Pitfalls in learning Dutch

If you already speak a second language, you know you had to work for this. Learning a new language takes time and effort. This insight doesn’t come natural to someone who has never learned a foreign language. A lot of English native speakers encounter this issue and therefore give up too soon.

1. Don’t give up – beginnings are hard!

Your first Dutch words are probably Hoe gaat het? and doei! After this, you are busy learning more and more sentences. You feel happy and you’re proud of yourself. But when you try to talk to a native, you have a rude awakening. You find out that you still cannot communicate in Dutch.

The Dutch simply don’t understand you, or they don’t have patience with your beginners Dutch. They switch over to English. Now you can communicate. You think: Why ffs would I learn Dutch? It takes too much effort. Everyone over here speaks English anyway!

This is phase you have to go through. Everyone that has ever learned a foreign language, knows this as a fact. Accept it. Learn to speak Dutch by reading out loud your study material. Take conversation classes, or a language coach. Check MeetUp.com for cheap of even free MeetUps with peers for Dutch conversation. Take care though: there are not always (enough) native speakers on these events.

In Amsterdam you’ll find big MeetUps in a crowded bar, or small MeetUps with a high learning slope. What type of MeetUp suits you? Why not try them all? My own group is the Dutch Language Conversation group.

learn Dutch
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2. Highly educated? Beware of this:

When you were studying, you used to read a lot. This was required for your study. Now you are learning Dutch, you do exactly the same. You read as much as possible in Dutch, with the dictionary on your knee. You assume that this is the way to learn Dutch as fast as possible. It’s a pity though, that you still cannot speak with the natives. You’ve learned hundreds, maybe even thousands of Dutch words. Unfortunately these words are stuck in your head. They do not come out of it.

You need an active vocabulary if you want to speak Dutch. By reading a lot, but speaking only a little Dutch, the gap between your active and your passive vocabulary grows. So does your frustration.

I’ve seen it more than once: highly educated expats with a passive vocabulary of maybe 2000 words, and an active vocabulary of just 20 words. Often these people have an extensive knowledge of Dutch grammar. They are overthinking every sentence. What is this word? I know how to say this, but I don’t remember. Do I have to use the subjunctive in this sentence? Those people are much too aware of all their mistakes. They can’t say anything at all, out of fear of shame.

Throughout the years I’ve seen that lower educated people learn a foreign language faster than higher educated people. Lower educated people are less afraid to make mistakes. Therefore they learn to speak a foreign language much faster.

I actually made this same mistake myself, when I studied Icelandic for foreigners. As a result I’ve got two certificates from the University of Reykjavík, but I cannot speak Icelandic at all. When I’m in Iceland, I can proudly show the natives my certificates. But as soon as they want to speak to me, I’ll have to run! Needless to say, that I’ll never make this mistake again.

How do you avoid this trap? Take care that there is a balance between your passive and your active vocabulary. Follow some conversation training, or find yourself a language coach. This way you learn to speak Dutch in a safe environment.

3. If you have a Dutch partner

learning Dutch - tulips
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A couple of years ago I met a future Romanian friend at the MeetUp. She was pleasantly surprised that I spoke some Romanian. I was less happy to hear that she was married to a Dutch guy for six years already – and still didn’t speak Dutch. She and her husband spoke English together.

They are no exception. You’ll find thousands of international couples in Amsterdam that are speaking English together. Why is this happening?

Communication is hard enough

A (romantic) relationship is about trust and communication. You expose yourself to your partner, in all your vulnerabilities. It can be very painful to be misunderstood. When you communicate in a foreign language, there is a chance for even more misunderstandings. Just because you don’t master the language. You misjudge what your partner says. And they misinterpret your words because they fail to understand you.

Discuss important things in a language that you’re mastering both.

Helping consumes time and energy

Do you expect your partner to always be there to help you with your Dutch? That can be very tiresome for them, especially in the beginning. Your partner also doesn’t always understand what you need to advance your language skills. Agree instead of speaking Dutch for one hour every day. Set an alarm for this, and stick to the rime. This way you don’t burden your partner too much. Follow a course, take a language coach or go to a conversation class to get more practice.

Speaking Dutch

Speaking Dutch is completely different from reading or writing. You can read and write on your own, in your own tempo and at ease. Speaking – to have a conversation – is only possible in the company of other people. This requires confidence and courage, especially when you start. It get’s easier on the road.

Look for a safe environment to practice your Dutch conversation. Then you’ll notice that it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s a natural part of the process. My own conversation classes never count more than 4 or 5 persons. This way you can be sure you’ll get all the attention you need.

Check out my conversation classes for learning Dutch. You will be surprised how fast you’ll learn!