What is it like to learn Dutch as an English speaker?

I recently watched a YouTube video entitled “How Much Dutch Can Brits Understand” by @Elise Across The Channel.

A native English speaker asks a native Dutch speaker a series of questions and the Dutch speaker responds in Dutch. The English speaker does his best to understand, and writes down what he believes the responses were.

I won’t spoil the results (you can watch for yourself below) but I found some of the comments interesting:

“It’s interesting that if I’m not paying attention I can almost understand him speaking Dutch”

“It’s crazy how similar Dutch is to German. I could understand 95% of everything he said”

“Wow, I’m a native English speaker but I’m studying German, and I felt like I could figure out the answers pretty well!”

“As someone learning German, I was happy when I understood parts of whatever he spoke”

“I’m surprised by how much I can understand. I don’t think Dutch sounds that similar to English but it is sooooo similar to German, which I do speak.”

Many of those that commented were referring to the similarity with German.

I unfortunately don’t speak German, but having English as my first language — it got me thinking about what similarities and differences I’ve come across in the process of learning Dutch.


For English speakers, I think pronunciation is one of the most difficult things to master when it comes to learning Dutch. 

There are a number of sounds in the Dutch language that simply don’t exist in English. For instance:

Example word (Dutch)English

You truly have to train yourself to make these new sounds in order to pronounce words properly.

And no, despite the spelling — “school” is not pronounced the same as it is in English.

People mostly mention how difficult the hard “g” is to pronounce. I tend to agree with this but especially when it is combined with “r” like in groen. 

But the “ui” and “eu” are also quite unique and challenging for me personally. Whenever I use the word leuk (fun)… which is often… I have to make a conscious effort to pronounce the “eu” properly because it is simply not a sound that comes naturally to me.  

Many courses even have a specific section for pronunciation because of how important (and challenging) it can be.

I’ve included one of those pronunciation courses on my list of 7 free Dutch courses you can take online.

Despite the challenges, I believe as an English speaker you can certainly learn these sounds and come close to sounding native. How close you come depends on how much effort and practice you’re willing to put in.

I recommend some good old fashioned listen-and-repeat with the words you find difficult. Either type them into Google Translate and use the Listen function, or ask a Dutch speaker to voice memo the word(s) to you.

Practice makes perfect!


English has thousands of words with a Dutch origin, but Dutch also borrows many words from English. This gives English speakers an advantage as there is plenty of overlap between the languages.

Once you start learning Dutch vocabulary as an English speaker, you’ll probably find many words easy to remember based on their similarity with English.

  • appel = apple
  • ijsberg = iceberg
  • kat = cat
  • bank = bank
  • vork = fork

Aside from that, there are tons of patterns in the two languages.

In English there are many adjectives that end in -ic. Oftentimes you get the Dutch translation of that adjective by simply changing the -ic to -isch. 


You can sometimes do the same with words ending in -ion in English but -ie in Dutch.


I could go on with so many more of these similarities, but as you’re learning you will start to pick up on these patterns yourself. 

This isn’t an absolute rule of course. It doesn’t work with many words like transportation (which is “vervoer” in Dutch). Even with “conversatie” it works as a translation but “gesprek” is probably the Dutch word you would go for sooner.

Regardless, this makes it possible to sometimes comprehend words that you’ve never seen before in Dutch, or alternatively, correctly guess a Dutch word by following the patterns that you already know. 


Simplified language

I won’t say that Dutch grammar is simple or straight-forward. However I do find that it can be more simplified than English in some cases.

In English you can either say, “I study” or “I am studying”. Whereas in Dutch you don’t have to make this distinction.

In English you would say “I have been living in the Netherlands for 2 years”. Whereas in Dutch you say “ik woon twee jaar in Nederland”.

Directly translated — I’m living two years in the Netherlands.

It’s simpler in the sense that it’s in the present tense, and you can skip the word “for” (in “for 2 years”) when you say it in Dutch.

With so many other unfamiliar and complex grammar structures in Dutch compared to English, I can imagine that these simplifying structures are appreciated by the average English speaker.

Word order 

I think many English speakers who learn Dutch (myself included) find the word order to be completely strange and unnatural.

It’s not so bad with simple sentences but once you get into longer, more complicated sentences, it starts to get crazy.

Take for example this English sentence:

I didn’t want to bake the cookies because it was too warm today.

In Dutch it would be:

Ik wilde de koekjes niet bakken omdat het te warm was vandaag.

But to directly translate it back to English in the Dutch order you end up with:

I wanted the cookies not to bake because it too warm was today.


Imagine trying to say this sentence in the right order spontaneously!?

It’s clear to see that the word order can differ quite a lot from English. And I think this is probably one of the last things you get the hang of as an English speaker because it takes so much speaking practice to be able to do it correctly in natural speech.

De vs. Het

In Dutch there are two different ways to say “the”. Both words mean exactly the same thing but knowing which one belongs to any given noun is more or less a matter of memorization. 

Most people who grew up speaking Dutch will usually be able to tell you if a noun is a “de” word or a “het” word, but they won’t be able to explain why. In fact there are hardly any rules for how this is determined.

Nouns don’t have a grammatical gender in English so as an English speaker this can seem like a huge challenge and source of frustration.

Namely, because as you get further into the grammar rules you’ll find that whether a noun is a de- or het-word can actually impact the spelling and pronunciation of the words around it.

My advice?

Actually this was the advice of my Dutch teacher in my very first course… 

90% of the time “de” is correct so when in doubt, go with “de”.

Dutch proficiency with English

Many Dutch speakers, especially in large cities, speak English well. 

This can be a blessing or a curse depending on your ambition to learn the language.

If you’re newer to the language and a Dutch person notices you might be struggling, they might switch to English to help you out.

This will not happen everywhere you go, but do expect it in the larger cities which attract more tourism. 

Understandably, this can be discouraging if you’re doing your best and don’t have native Dutch speakers in your circle to practice with on a regular basis.

Continue the conversation in Dutch if you’re comfortable and capable of it. Otherwise it can be stressful for both parties when it doesn’t have to be.

But if you’re a beginner and still learning the ropes, I would suggest finding dedicated speaking partners (potentially even paying for this on a service like italki) to practice your Dutch until you get to a comfortable speaking level.

Once I became conversational in Dutch and started telling my coworkers and boyfriend’s family they could speak to me in Dutch, they stopped switching to English. 

It helps when you can comprehend the language reasonably well and don’t need them to constantly repeat themselves or speak extra slow.

In summary

Overall, I don’t think knowing English will necessarily help you understand Dutch as a complete beginner — especially when it comes to spoken Dutch.

You will probably recognize some words in written Dutch at first, but you will need to learn the grammar to make any sense of the the word order.

As an English speaker there are definitely advantages when it comes to vocabulary due to all the overlap and repeatable patterns.

At the end of the day, anyone can learn Dutch with enough dedication and practice.

Leave a comment and let me know what your experience was like learning Dutch from English or your native language!

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