DUTCH: HOW HARD IS IT TO LEARN? – Part I

Nout standing on the left with the hand placed on his chin and thinking "Is Dutch a difficult language?"

IT’S ALL RELATIVE

It’s a question many hypothetical students have asked me: how difficult is it to learn Dutch? Before we plunge into some of Dutch most darkest secrets, let me put things in perspective for you and tell you that there’s no such thing as an “absolutely difficult” language. Whether you find Dutch, or any other language for that matter, difficult will very much depend on a great number of variables: your own native language, what other languages you speak, sheer raw talent and knack for learning a new language, the amount of study time you devote to it and your goal.

For example: if your native language is Danish but you also speak English, French and German more or less fluently, chances are that you won’t struggle so much with the pronunciation, vocabulary or the syntax and will get to a decent B1 level relatively trauma-free. If, on the other hand, your mother tongue is Korean and you speak just a tiny bit of English, chances are that you’ll find everything about Dutch to be a Mount Everest. As a rule of thumb: people who speak only one or maybe two languages in general tend to struggle a lot more to learn a new one. If the few languages you speak are also family-wise far removed from your target language (Dutch in this case), you’ve got quite the challenge cut out for yourself.

WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT PRONUNCIATION

When people say that Dutch has a difficult pronunciation, then they’re often talking about the fact that they’re struggling to physically make the sounds. This would especially apply for those whose native language doesn’t belong to the same family tree of Germanic languages, which share similar sounds among themselves.

In comparison to English, Dutch is way easier because the way of writing in general guides you to the correct pronunciation: for the most part, you pronounce the words as you would write them. There are three pronunciation rules that will help you pronounce roughly 90% of the vowels and vowel combinations correctly. The five vowels in Dutch only have 2 configurations (long or short) and there are only 5 more vowel-based combinations. That means that the large majority of the words are generally composed of only 15 possible vowel-based sounds which need to be pronounced consistently. Easy, isn’t it? Granted, if you want to speak Dutch from the Netherlands, you’ll still need to dig deep into your throat to pronounce that exorcist harsh “g” sound correctly. So sorry about that by the way.

SYNTAX, SCHMINTAX

The syntax in Dutch might come as a bit of a shock to some and it’s substantially different from English. There is however method in the madness. There are generally only three (!) possible ways of structuring a sentence: main clause, infinitive construction with “om te” and subclauses that rarely ever vary in structure. It might seem counterintuitive that we have a tendency to put most important verbs at the end in most cases. However, I guarantee that after overcoming that first initial trepidation, you’ll see that if you’re a person who appreciates structure, predictability and stability, you and Dutch will be a perfect match for each other. Also, if you know German syntax, your bed is pretty much made because it’s roughly the same. And we don’t have those stupid cases. Come on.

WORDS FOR LOAN!

Historically, Dutch was influenced by French: France and the Low Countries were one country from 1810 until 1813 and French was until roughly 1930 a very prominent, economically important language in Flanders. It was also the upper class bourgeoisie language of choice and it shows in the vocabulary. From the pedestrian “café” (yes, means café) to “cliché” to the colloquial Flemish exclamations of “allez” or “soit”, to this day you can find French everywhere in Flemish Dutch. The Dutch language still has an incredible amount of French loan words and French-inspired expressions. 

This also goes to show that Dutch speakers are lazy. They will basically copy, steal and lute from whatever language they find lying around and are not too proud to basically keep the words as they are. Especially when it comes to the technology and software realm where English is king: chatten, Skypen, computer, laptop, e-mail… Yes, we’re just that easy going.

Finally, we also make composite words that will slim your vocabulary list down, “aardbei” means strawberry, “taart” means pie. A strawberry pie is just an “aardbeientaart”. Any other fruit cake you want, means that you just put the fruit in front of “taart”. And that’s really the icing on the cake. Easy? You bet.

BUT WHAT ABOUT “DE”? OR “HET”? WHAT IS IT???

Yes, the rumours are true: the amount of rules for when you should use the article “de” is small and don’t get me started on the unwieldy list of words that take that other damned article “the”. You’re basically best off studying “de” and “het” together with its respective owner. That sucks. Let me however soothe your pain: you can pair approximately 80% of the words in Dutch with “de”. If you have to guess, go for “de”, chances are that you’ll get it right. Also, all of the plurals in Dutch are with “de”. All of them. How easy is that?

Actually, between you and me: it’s not that important. Whether you use “de” or “het”, it does not affect the clarity of your communication all that much. The implications for the grammar are also relatively limited. The only real consequences you could find in a limited amount of grammatical topics such as relative subclauses, adjectives and demonstrative pronouns. But even in those cases, there are far more serious sins to repent and bemoan than saying “de meisje”. (*) Although you should really know that it’s “het meisje” because that’s a diminutive and diminutives are always with “het”, so then you’re just a bad student.

Check the second article of this series.

(*) it would however be advisable that you do get all of this right if you want to pass an official exam, because that’s just how the cookie crumbles.

1 Comment

  1. […] faced with the Dutch verb past tenses. I get it. I’m here to help.  After the terrors of our last post, let’s continue our deep plunge into the grammatical crevices and monstrous traps lurking in […]

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