People who have managed to teach themselves Dutch all seem to have the same keys to success.
I have been learning Dutch for years myself. And since I live in the Netherlands, I’m surrounded by plenty of people who are also learning. I love hearing the stories of others about how they learned Dutch.
On top of that, I have watched tons of YouTube videos from people who have successfully learned Dutch and have shared their secrets. All these people did these five things in common:
- Learn the most common vocabulary first
- Listen a lot (before you even understand)
- Practice all four parts of the language
- Speak before you’re ready, and
- Speak with native speakers and implement their feedback.
In this post I will go in more detail into each one of these tips so that you can teach yourself Dutch in a tried and true way that has been proven to work by people who can now speak the language!
1. Learn the most common vocabulary first
A common mistake that people make when they start learning Dutch is trying to learn a bunch of words in a bunch of irrelevant categories. For example: animals, items around the house, parts of the body, fruits and vegetables, and so on and so forth.
This is a waste of your time if you are just starting to teach yourself Dutch, and here’s why…
The most important Dutch words to know as a beginner are the words that you need to make simple beginner sentences.
- Telling someone your name
- Asking someone what their name is
- Telling someone what country you’re from
- Asking someone where they are from
- Asking someone how their day went
- Telling someone how your day went
- Placing a simple order at a cafe or restaurant
While there maybe some animals or parts of the body that you may use in every day language (depending of course on your job or what you study), it’s probably limited to just a few of the basics.
Learn the 1,000 most frequently used words
People who have learned Dutch will tell you that it is most important in the beginning to focus on the 1,000 or so most commonly used words in the language.
I know what you’re thinking… 1,000 words?! That’s a huge amount of words to learn!
And it is!
That’s why it’s so important to focus on these words instead of using precious space in your brain to memorize words that you’re only going to use once in a blue moon.
Bart de Paul offers a free video series on his website and YouTube channel helping students learn the 1,000 most common words in Dutch.
It is said that learning these words (along with a good understanding of grammar and sentence structure) will make it possible to have very basic conversations in Dutch, and understand more than half of the spoken language.
The majority of learners used flashcards to help them take in all this new vocabulary.
While I personally never used it, I have heard Anki suggested multiple times as it uses a spaced repetition approach. That means that over time it will get to know which words you have already committed to memory, and which ones you have more difficulty with and need to practice more often.
2. Listen a lot (before you even understand)
Listening to a lot of spoken Dutch is key when you are trying to teach yourself the language.
You can learn all of the vocabulary and grammar that exists in the language but if you can’t understand the Dutch being spoken to you in real life, it won’t be of very much value.
It’s important to start listening to Dutch before you can even understand what’s going on.
Just listening to the way the language sounds and the pronunciation of the words will help you when you start speaking yourself.
This is another great way to pick up on those 1,000 most common Dutch words. If you’re already studying the most common words with your flashcards then you will no doubt pick up on some of those words (and be really stoked when you realize you recognized a word and knew the meaning).
Organically you will come across commonly used words because you’ll hear them being repeated from time to time — write those down and add them to the commonly used word list (if it’s not already part of the list).
What should you listen to?
People who have learned the language offer many different suggestions on how you should listen to Dutch. This of course differs per person and what they find interesting.
In general these are the most common ways that Dutch learners listened to the language in the early stages:
- YouTube videos
- Television series
Find something that you like and enjoy coming back to every week, as this will help you stay on track and motivated to continue learning.
Check out these posts for suggestions to get started:
- 7 podcasts for beginner Dutch learners
- 30 YouTube channels to follow as you learn Dutch (2023)
- 19 songs that will help you learn Dutch
Listen in public
Listening to Dutch when you’re out in public (or at work or in a restaurant, etc.) is another great way to pick up new words and phrases. This works particularly well with repeated phrases.
If you’re at work and you repeatedly hear colleagues saying “werk ze!” to each other, look it up or ask someone what it means. For the record, it doesn’t have a nice direct English translation but it roughly means, “have a good day at work!”.
If you’re sitting on the tram and you keep hearing the announcement, “Vergeet u straks niet uit te checken”, write it down and break down how it translates to “Please remember to check out”.
Of course, if you don’t live in a Dutch speaking country you don’t have the advantage of hearing the language in public. This makes it a lot harder to teach yourself Dutch!
For more on that, check out my post for more tips on how to learn Dutch when you don’t live in a Dutch speaking country.
3. Practice all four parts of the language
It’s important as you teach yourself Dutch to spread your practice over the four parts of the language: speaking, reading, writing, and listening.
Each one of these helps you tap into a different aspect of the language and together will give you a well rounded understanding of Dutch.
If you set aside dedicated moment in your schedule to study Dutch, decide what which one of these four things you’ll do that day.
How to practice speaking Dutch as a beginner
- Do speaking exercises on a language app
- Record yourself reading a Dutch text and compare to a native pronunciation (e.g. Google Translate)
- Practice flashcards while saying each word aloud
- Listen to content of your choice and repeat
- Use your Dutch in the supermarket, bus, restaurants, etc.
How to practice reading Dutch as a beginner
- Read simple children’s books and translate new words
- Read news articles for children and translate new words
- Read beginner texts and translate new words
- Read Dutch subtitles on a children’s television series or movie and translate new words
How to practice writing in Dutch as a beginner
- If you’ve learned a new grammar topic, write 10 sentences using the grammar structure
- Exchange text messages in Dutch with a Dutch speaker
- Join a language exchange discord server
- Do a free language exchange via an app such as HelloTalk
Casey Kilmore gave a great tip in this video about how to incorporate writing in her daily Dutch practice. She would write a short journal entry every day in Dutch about what she had done that day.
Of course you’ll need to look up some words but there’s a good chance these words will come in handy again in the future, given you’re describing something relevant to your day-to-day life.
How to practice listening to Dutch as a beginner
- Listen to Dutch podcasts
- Listen to/watch Dutch spoken YouTube videos
- Watch Dutch spoken television series
- Watch Dutch movies
- Listen to Dutch music
It’s totally ok that you won’t understand the majority of what you hear in the beginning. Like I said before, listening just helps with getting a feeling for the language — the rhythm, accent, and most common words.
On the other hand you can also find content out there aimed at beginners and thus spoken at a slower pace so that you can pick up more words. A great example of this is the “Say it in Dutch” podcast.
Here’s an example of an episode about Dutch pop music:
Again, it helps to find something that genuinely sparks your interest and will keep you coming back without feeling too much like you’re studying.
4. Speak before you’re ready
It may seem obvious, but each one of the people I reviewed or spoke to that learned Dutch said that they started using (speaking) the language before they were ready.
Learn using the Baby Method
This YouTuber who used the so-called Baby Method said it best when he compared learning Dutch to a baby learning its first language.
The baby doesn’t wait until it has learned all of the proper grammar and all of the words he or she will ever need to use in their lifetime. They just starts speaking using the limited number of words that they know.
This is a good way to teach yourself Dutch as well. Don’t get hung up because you cannot respond to someone using a full sentence. If you can give a one word answer and you know it will get your point across, that’s OK!
Over time as you learn more vocabulary and more grammar, you can continue adding these elements to make your sentences more complete.
I remember in the early stages of learning Dutch that I would often get caught up in not knowing the proper way to use a verb in the past tense. A perfect solution to this is just using the present tense and adding a word like yesterday or last year or last month to let the person know you’re talking about the past.
Don’t get too caught up in perfection in the beginning. Just try to make yourself understandable and apply what you already know.
How this looks in practice
In my first couple weeks living in the Netherlands, I tried to place an order at FEBO, a snack bar down the street from my apartment. I knew exactly how to ask for my order but it being my first time ordering there, I had no idea what follow-up questions I would be asked.
Not surprisingly when I was asked if the burger and fries was all I wanted, I had no idea what he said and had to immediately switch to English.
But this isn’t a bad thing! Now I knew what it meant if someone asked me “Dat was hem?” and could figure out how to answer next time in Dutch.
Each time I went back to FEBO I learned what questions to anticipate next and prepared myself on how to respond in Dutch.
Gradually, in what feels like very tiny steps, this is how you continue improving your Dutch.
5. Speak with native speakers and implement their feedback
This last one is probably the most difficult but most important thing to do as you teach yourself Dutch.
What all people who successfully learned Dutch have in common is that they spoke often with native speakers and welcomed feedback and corrections on their spoken Dutch.
I can tell you one thing, most Dutch people that I have come across in the last three years living in the Netherlands have been more than happy to help expats with their Dutch in the right setting.
So a busy server at a restaurant tending to his or her tables at peak dinner hours may not be your best bet… and rightfully so.
How to do this in practice
Many people who have learned Dutch have the advantage of a Dutch speaking partner at home like I did. But if you don’t have this, why not ask a coworker or fellow student if they’ll let you practice your Dutch on them?
You don’t have to commit to only speaking Dutch with that person from that point forward, but maybe start with 5 minutes when you catch up in the morning and progress from there.
Whoever you can convince to help you, let them know you’d like corrections so that you can fix your mistakes as early as possible and avoid turning them into habits.
A native speaker can help you out with your pronunciation and word order — and will be sure to let you know if that word you learned from Google Translate is never actually used in everyday conversation.
You can also ask your speaking partner to just speak Dutch to you from now on — so if the conversation gets to a point where you can no longer continue in Dutch on your end, you can at least keep trying to understand what they’re saying and learn new Dutch words while you’ve already switched back to your native language.
As you can see, this process is not linear and can look different for everyone. But one thing is clear, and that is that you just have to START.
Are you trying to teach yourself Dutch? Try implementing these five proven practices used by people who have successfully learned the language.
Succes! Good luck!