What can possibly be more Dutch than … well, our language? And what is there to say about it.
Some time ago I heard a Dutch mom say: ‘If my children can learn Dutch, it can’t be that difficult.’ Besides stating the obvious, it did get me thinking:
Is Dutch an easy language to learn?
In order to answer my question I had to conduct a little research. All I ask of you is to sit back, relax and try to keep up with me (so please, stay off the booze for a few minutes) for it’s quite a lengthy article.
By the way, while doing my research I realised that this is the first time I studied my native language in English.
Where does the Dutch language originate from?
About 1500 years ago Dutch language, like English, was sprouted from the ‘West Germanic’ regional dialect and from there slowly converted into the language we have today. This means that English-speaking persons should have less difficulty learning Dutch than for example a Chinese person would. Take a look at the Language Tree to see how far your native language is from Dutch. The further away, the more difficult to learn.
When learning Dutch, the main topics you will probably encounter are:
Spelling, verbs, (pro)nouns, articles, adjectives, word order and pronunciation.
Seems a pretty straight forward list so how hard can it be? “Much harder than you think”, Maria says.
Who is Maria you ask? Well she’s an English girly girl (her words) who is currently learning our language and writing her experiences in her blog. That makes her a genuine hands-on expert in my book.
Let’s see if she can relate to the rest of this article.
Four reasons why the Dutch language is so tricky to learn
Like all languages, Dutch was spoken first before it was written. To have everything written down correctly, the art of phonetics (and later also phonology) was used.
What that means? Well, basically it’s writing down how a letter or word should be pronounced (i.e. those funny looking signs after each word in your dictionary which, strangely enough, seem really impossible to pronounce).
And that’s where the first difficulty lies. Dutch language contains a number of letters and letter combinations that are challenging to pronounce (like ‘g’, ‘sch’, ‘oe’, ‘ui’ etc).
To make things worse, we also created the hated (and completely illogical) ‘ij’ form. This can be written in three different ways (‘ij’, ‘ei’ and ‘y’) but are pronounced the same. Good luck explaining that to any non Dutch person.
Dutch grammar should be easy. Logically there are basic rules you must follow to be able to talk and write correctly.
But the Dutch have developed a nasty habit. For every rule there are a number of exceptions. And there it is: the second difficulty to learn Dutch properly.
Of course we wouldn’t be Dutch if we didn’t find a solution to that. We created special study-aids called ‘ezelsbruggetjes’ (donkey bridges). And just to show you how much we like ezelsbruggetjes; there are well over 100 of them.
I can hear you think; “Even more study material?” Maybe, but let me tell you that some of them are very useable and will help you to learn Dutch correct and fast.
For example: an absolute must-know ezelsbrug is called “‘t kofschip’. This one helps you to determine the endings of a regular Dutch verb in the past indicative/subjunctive and the ending of the past participle (Thanks Wikipedia).
The third difficulty on learning Dutch is ‘Word order and making good Dutch sentences’. Word order is difficult because there are complex and very strange rules about the order of verbs in verbal clusters. The basic word order rule is:
subject – finite verb – time – manner – place – other verbs.
Ik – heb – vandaag – met veel plezier – thuis – gewerkt.
(Today I have worked at home with great pleasure)
But at soon as you think you get the hang of it you’ll be faced with the ‘exceptions to the rule’, throwing logic right down the window again. So how to get the hang of this? Read lots of books, watch movies with Dutch subtitles and talk Dutch to people who can correct and educate you.
The fourth and final difficulty on learning Dutch must be Spelling. Don’t worry, even Dutch people struggle with this. And it’s very hard because there is often a big difference between the written and the spoken word and the many, many rules to explain this difference. Together with difficulty number one (i.e. pronunciation) makes learning Dutch a true challenge.
Based on the fact that both Dutch and English have the same roots, Dutch shouldn’t be too hard to learn for English speakers. You must be able to read and write some Dutch within a few weeks of training.
But if you want to be part of everyday life in the Netherlands you might struggle to get the hang of it. Why? I can think of three major reasons:
1. Dutch grammar rules, as explained in this article, are comprehensive and not easy (especially those exeptions).
2. Pronouncing Dutch words. I read somewhere that Dutch is like speaking with a throat illness. Now that sounds a bit harsh.
3. If Dutch people realize you struggle with the language they tend to switch to English, never to change back.
There are quite a number of blogs written by expats living in the Netherlands who describe the difficulties they have encountered over the years (and have overcome). Look them up if you want. It’s really fun reading and often tell tales that go beyond language barriers. Visit my Blogs I Follow page for some inspiration.
Tot de volgende keer.