Dutch Difficulty: Why It's Easier To Learn Than You Think

  • Fergus O'Sullivan
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Dutch Difficulty: Why It's Easier To Learn Than You Think

If you’re thinking about learning Dutch, maybe because you’re moving to the Netherlands or even just for fun, you might be put off by people saying it’s a hard language to learn.

Well, at first glance, they’re not wrong: Dutch definitely has some weird rules and pronouncing it is tough.

Still, though, look past these aspects and overall, Dutch isn’t that hard.

Let’s take a look at what you should know before getting started.

Dutch spelling and pronunciation

Let’s go over the hardest stuff first: Dutch pronunciation and the associated spelling.

There’s no two ways around it: saying Dutch words can be hard, no matter where you’re originally from.

This is because for a few reasons: for one, Dutch sounds are just plain weird.

Most languages will place sounds in one or two parts of the mouth and move between them.

Not Dutch, it moves sounds around a lot, from the front of the mouth, right up against the teeth, until halfway down the throat.

That’s pretty hard to get used to, and even foreigners who have lived in Holland for years often still have strong accents.

On top of that, there are also some unique vowel sounds and vowel combinations that are next to impossible to learn.

The weirdest ones are probably the sounds represented by ij or ei and that of au or ou (it doesn’t help that there are different ways to spell them).

Add to that some other fun diphthongs like eu and eeuw and you’re in for some tongue-twisting lessons.

Double vowels

These sounds are hard and there’s a chance you’ll never get them quite right. Still, though, that doesn’t mean it’s all bad.

For example, there are also some very simple rules: in Dutch, if you want to extend a vowel, you just write it double.

So bard and baard are two very different words (“bard” and “beard,” respectively).

The difference between them is that in bard you just “touch” the “a” briefly, while in baard you stretch it out a little more.

All the five basic vowels can do this (though “i” is lengthened by writing “ie”) and it’s easy to grasp.

Consonants and clusters

It’s not only vowels that will give you a hard time in Dutch: the consonants are no fun, either.

The big one is of course the “g” and “ch” a hard scraping sound reminiscent of Arabic — though the Dutch version can be even harsher.

Depending where you are in the country, the “g” can change a lot, though. As we talk about in our article on Dutch dialects, in the south it’s very soft, while in Holland it’s the same sound as gravel hitting the bottom of a barrel.

The hard one is tough to learn if you didn’t grow up in Holland and it’s made worse when combined with other letters.

For example, a very common combination is “sch,” which you find in words like scheef (“crooked”) and schaal (“dish”).

It’s tricky to move from the sibilant “s” to the harsh “ch.”

However, with enough practice you can do it, before you’re presented with something even worse: “schr.” This common combination, found in a word like schrijven (“to write”) is ridiculously hard to pronounce correctly, even for some Dutch people.

Dutch sounds

However, part of learning Dutch — and any other languages — is that you won’t be able to master all sounds.

Do that, and you realize something: most of Dutch is pretty easy, especially for people who speak other European languages.

For example, most vowels are similar to other languages (except maybe English), while most consonants are familiar, too.

The sounds may be a little sharper than English or Romance languages — though nothing like German, as I explained in this comparison of Dutch vs German — but you’ll get used to them soon enough.

Though it may take a little more effort than you expect, learning to pronounce Dutch is perfectly doable.

Dutch vocabulary

Learning Dutch vocabulary is a lot less hard than learning how to pronounce the words.

In fact, almost everything gets a lot less difficult from here.

Still, there’s some tricky stuff here, especially if you’re not coming from a Germanic language — English counts for this one.

Dutch vocabulary is strongly Germanic, so knowing German will come in handy, as will Scandinavian languages.

That said, Dutch has a lot of loanwords, from both French and English, so knowing either of those will help you learn Dutch all the quicker.

Add to that the fact that there are also plenty of words that share a common origin with other Indo-European languages, and learning vocab shouldn’t be too bad for you — it’s no Greek in this case.

Idioms in Dutch

One thing that makes it a little harder again, though, is Dutch’s common use of idioms.

Once you start paying attention to them, you quickly realize that even a short casual conversation is rife with peculiar turns of phrase and odd expressions.

That’s just the way it is, though learning all the different weird idioms is probably the biggest fun of learning Dutch.

Stuff like saying schots en scheef to say crooked instead of just scheef, or to claim that something costs handen vol geld (“handfuls of money”) instead of just saying it’s expensive.

Dutch is full of expressions like that, and you feel real accomplishment when mastering a few of them.

Dutch grammar

Dutch grammar shouldn’t prove too difficult, either.

Nouns don’t change form like they do in German or Slavic languages, for one, and Dutch rules for word order and the like are fairly intuitive.

The only real issues you’ll face are the verbs, which can be a bit weird as there are a lot of irregular verbs which have some misleading tendencies.

The best way to handle those is to just sit down and learn them, it’s not fun, but it’ll save you in the long run.

The most persistent problems you’re likely to have are the use of articles in Dutch and a special type of verb that has a preposition baked into it.

Definite articles

Articles are the trickiest of these, and even educated Dutch people will occasionally mess them up.

There are two articles, de and het.

De is for gendered words — masculine or feminine, doesn’t matter — so de man and de vrouw (“the man” and “the woman,” respectively).

Het is for neuter words, like het schaap or _het raam _(“the sheep” and “the window”).

Here’s the problem: there’s no clear way of seeing which words are gendered and which are neuter, so you just need to know.

There is one exception, thankfully: any words that end with a diminutive (-tje, -je,-ske) are always neuter. That’s it for hard and fast rules, though.

This makes it extremely confusing at times, even for native speakers, so get ready for some odd moments.

Verb and preposition combinations

The other issue is that many Dutch verbs can have prepositions attached to them, which alters their meaning, sometimes drastically.

English and German do this too, though English not as much.

So when you “hang a painting up on the wall,” up is part of hang.

In Dutch (and German for that matter), it works a little differently, though: the preposition becomes part of the verb.

It sticks to it in the infinitive, and then detaches when conjugated. It takes a sec to get your head around.

For example, the word afhangen means “to depend,” and is formed by the words hangen and af (the verb “to hang” and the preposition ”off”).

Told you the meaning can change!

Now, if you want to ask something along the lines of “what does it depend on?”, it works out to waar hangt dat van af?

“Af” just took a massive trip all the way to the end of the sentence, while the verb part stayed put close to the beginning, where it belongs.

It’s pretty trippy, and is a tricky part of learning Dutch, no doubt about it.

Speaking Dutch

Those little technicalities aside, though, Dutch isn’t too hard to learn, especially when coming from English.

Then again, there’s no such thing as an easy language to learn anyway, you’re always going to have to sit down and just study.

However, there’s one last issue we need to discuss if we’re talking about learning Dutch and that’s, well, the Dutch.

For some reason, many Dutch people will revert to English or another foreign language when learners try to speak Dutch to them.

It’s a really odd quirk, but every Dutch learner I know has remarked on it, the Europeans especially.

It makes it hard to practice Dutch when not everybody you try to communicate with is speaking Dutch back to you.

Thankfully, there’s a second kind of Dutch person: they will only speak Dutch to you once they find out you’re learning the language, even going so far as to pretend not to speak English when you try to switch over.

Almost all Dutch people fit into these two categories: try and maximize your time with the second group; hang out with them for a few months and your Dutch will be excellent, idioms and all.

They’ll probably also teach you to swear in Dutch, a valuable skill.

Though it may seem hard, overall Dutch is a fun language to learn, with many odd quirks and funny turns of phrase.

There’s nothing to be scared of, just have some fun with it and you’ll be fine.


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Cardinal MezzofantiCardinal Guiseppe Mezzofanti was a 19th century polyglot who is believed to have spoken at least 39 languages!Learn more
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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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