It’s a question many students have asked me: how difficult is it to learn Dutch? I notice the voice trembling with fear, I see the shakey hands, the insecurities. The questions, ah the questions and the struggle for the general meaning of life when 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 the shadows.
DUTCH DIALECTS & ACCENTS: A BUFFET OF LINGUISTIC CONFUSION
Let’s talk about the dialect & accents situation. This is not gonna be an easy conversation. Here’s the deal: both Flanders and the Netherlands technically speak the same, standardized Dutch which in practice differ quite a bit but mostly in terms of pronunciation. Then, each little town of each province in both Flanders and the Netherlands has its own dialect or regionalect, spoken variations of Dutch each with their own light to heavy differences in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.
To make things worse: there’s the Flemish linguistic phenomenon of “tussentaal” (in between language) which is sort of in between the dialects and the standardized Dutch and which you’re likely to hear at work, on informal television programs and dialogue-heavy series. In the Netherlands, people would in general talk a more standardized variation of Dutch (maybe with some local pronunciation thrown in there for good measure) in these situations, except for the dialect-inclined countryside and provincial towns.
A real clusterfuck of language variation then. What does that mean, for you, the student? It’s simple: learn the standardized Dutch (either with a Flemish or Dutch accent but don’t worry about that too much when you’re a beginner) and once you live there, ask people to speak standardized Dutch with you (“Kunnen we alstublieft standaard Nederlands spreken? Ik spreek geen dialect / tussentaal.”). A good private tutor worth his/her salt, will also be able to provide you with extra material, vocabulary and general tips on how to deal with the local gibberish / tussentaal, etc. You can also consult this Flemish dictionary here if you’re really in too deep.
DON’T TALK TO ME ABOUT THE PAST
People often complain about the past tenses in Dutch. I wouldn’t disagree with these people. The past tense, the irregular form of the simple past (imperfectum or “onvoltooid verleden tijd” as we were taught half asleep on our school benches) and the present perfect (perfectum or “voltooid verleden tijd”) is far from fun to learn. Dutch has an incredible amount of high-frequency verbs with a rebellious, punky past that nobody likes to look square into the eye.
You do have to know these irregular forms because if you don’t, it can definitely cause misunderstanding. That’s the bad news: it’s “komen” going on to “kwam” (simple past) to “gekomen” (present perfect participle) for no good reason whatsoever, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Having said that: there are patterns that will make it easier and less random to study. Also, most of these verbs are high frequency that repeat very often so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice them.
Thankfully, the structure of the past tense fits completely into the structure of a normal main clause. The choice of which past tense to use is also not the huge endeavour that it is in English: present perfect is the tense you use to describe your weekend, what you did on your holidays or what you watched on Netflix last night. The simple past you would use for stories, anecdotes, monologues and causally linked actions. Sure, there’s also still the past perfect, but if none of my students give a damn about that tense, then why should you?
I LIKE IT WHEN YOU TALK DUTCH TO ME
One of the major difficulties you might experience moving to one of the bigger cities in either Flanders or the Netherlands is that your confidence will likely collapse like a badly made soufflé a couple of days after landing in the Low Countries. You might try out your very best Dutch, display your knowledge of tenses or despairingly tell random strangers about what you did last weekend. Still, the chances are that as soon as someone hears an accent, they will respond to you in English.
Is my Dutch that bad? Simply put: probably not, however, whenever we Dutch hear someone speaking Dutch with an accent, our motherly instinct takes over and we feel like we need to help out that poor human being who’s had to suffer his way through our language. We appreciate your effort and as a reward, we accommodate, not because we think your Dutch is so bad, we just want to meet you in the middle. However, that is where you, the ambassador of the Dutch language as spoken by foreigners (also called the “ADLSBF”), step in and insists to continue the conversation in Dutch: “Ik spreek Nederlands hoor, kunnen we Nederlands spreken?”. And if that doesn’t work: “Ik spreek geen Engels.” You’re welcome.
WRITE IT, SAY IT, IT DOESN’T MATTER
One major advantage you have going for you is the relative minor gap between formal and informal Dutch. In Romance languages like French or Portuguese, the gap between formal and informal version of the language can have quite a substantial impact on your e-mail conversations. Dutch on the other hand, is a relatively easy language to use in written communication.
There are no other tenses or secret structures that are specifically related to formal, written Dutch. Sure, there might be expressions or turns of phrases that you’re not used to. Thankfully, that’s why the Almighty created dictionaries. Putting it differently, if you can speak Dutch well, chances are that you’ll be able to write fine. Don’t worry too much about some of the weird or archaic vocabulary of the natives. Just use the Dutch that you know to explain yourself and you’ll be well on your way without sounding impolite.
I SPEAK BOTH ENGLISH & GERMAN, WILL I STRUGGLE?
Yes, but probably less than other students who only speak English or German or none of these. Dutch is basically German with a very, very similar sentence structure. There is also some very, very similar vocabulary with sometimes substantially different meanings and without the cases. Ideal to get confused.
With regards to English, Dutch has simplified use of past tenses. It also has taken on a great deal of English vocabulary. Finally, it has a more consistent and straightforward correspondency between writing and pronunciation. You’ll find it relatively easy to get to a very acceptable A2 level. Do bear in mind that the higher you want to get, the more effort it will take. There’s a chance that you’ll just laugh your way through the first levels but get stagnated at an intermediate level. Unless you work hard. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.