Things you should know before you start learning Dutch

After learning Dutch for the last two years, I can certainly think of some things that I wish I had known sooner, or wish I had done differently. 

Thankfully the internet exists and you can learn from my experience!

Here are six things things I think you should know before you start learning Dutch.

1. Learn nouns with their correct article

This is my number one piece of advice for anyone who is learning Dutch. 

De vs. Het

If you have spent any amount of time on the language then you likely know the struggle between definitive articles “de” and “het”. Both words mean “the” — 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. And according to website onzetaal.nl it is because there are hardly any rules for how this is determined.

There are indeed some rules, like the fact that plurals always use “de” and diminutives or ‘verkleinwoorden’ always use “het” (when singular). But beyond this, the rules tend to have many exceptions. So when it doesn’t fall into one of those categories… how do you choose?

When in doubt — pick “de”

In the first course I took, our teacher told us that 90% of the time “de” is correct, so when in doubt, go with “de”.

I think this is a practical tip for spoken Dutch. There’s no need to stop yourself mid-sentence because you aren’t sure whether to use “de” or “het”. To a native ear, the wrong choice will sound strange but they will have no problem understanding the sentence. 

As you get further into the grammar rules you’ll find that whether a  noun is a de- or het-word actually impacts the spelling and pronunciation of preceding adjectives and some possessive pronouns.

Pick your battles

So if your goal is to really sound natural and grammatically correct when speaking, learning the correct article is important. 

If your goal is just to be understood (perhaps you only need to speak Dutch for the short term) then you can save yourself the headache and do as my Dutch teacher said — go with “de”. 

2. Dutch speakers will switch to English on you

It can feel like the ultimate slap in the face — you finally gain the skills and courage to speak Dutch out in the real world, but the cashier or store owner responds to you in English. 

Jammer!

I’m of the opinion that more often than not, this comes from a place of helpfulness and not irritation.

In the early days of learning the language there is the likelihood that the person is having difficulty understanding you (pronunciation is no easy feat). But don’t be surprised if this happens to you even after you’ve been practicing Dutch for months. 

Dutch proficiency with English

Many Dutch speakers, especially in large cities, speak English very well. The folks here have been speaking English and consuming English media years before Duolingo ever came into existence. In the Netherlands, many English-spoken movies and shows on television are not dubbed over with Dutch audio — Dutch subtitles are simply added on the original audio and video. This exposure (on top of learning English in school) seems to have aided in Dutch speakers’ proficiency in English.

So when a Dutch speaker switches on you, think of it as a courtesy — a gesture that says — no need to struggle through broken Dutch when we can communicate in English!

If you’re really disciplined and don’t want to give up on your efforts, just continue in Dutch. You can even go so far as pretending you don’t speak English. In the beginning, being a native English speaker myself, I always gave into the invitation to speak English back. But over time I have become confident enough to stick with Dutch. 

This will of course not happen everywhere you go. But do expect it in the larger cities which attract more tourism. At one point or another, a Dutch speaker will switch to English on you — but there’s no need to be discouraged by it! Now you know why. 

3. Proverbs, idioms, and expressions are everywhere in Dutch

I once took a Dutch course which had a section dedicated to teaching over 250 Dutch proverbs. They were considered prevalent enough that they would give us a much better understanding of the language. 

If you are about to embark on the Dutch language, I would also recommend becoming familiar with the most commonly used expressions. The problem is, there are SO many different expressions that you’ll probably discover new ones even after years of learning the language. 

You don’t have to learn them all at first, but focus on the most common ones. Take note and make a list of expressions that you hear repeatedly.

For a crash course, Dutch YouTuber Quentin Hyde made a series explaining some of these strange expressions:

4. Some things don’t translate well from your language

A natural inclination when you’re speaking your target language is to translate everything from your native language directly into the target language. I mean… how else would you do it?

Often times this works, but there are so many situations when doing this sounds completely unnatural, or even makes the sentence grammatically incorrect in Dutch. This usually has to do with how verbs are used differently across languages.

Differences in verb use

In English you say:
I take a lot of pictures of my cat

In Dutch you say:
Ik maak veel foto’s van mijn kat

Directly translated back to English = I make a lot of pictures of my cat

In English you say:
I am going to get my nails done

In Dutch you say:
Ik ga mijn nagels laten doen

Directly translated back to English = I am going to let my nails be done

Differences in preposition use

The same problem exists when it comes to prepositions.

A preposition is a word governing, and expressing a relation to another word or element in the clause, as in ‘the man at the table’, ‘the kids ran to the playground’, or ‘the portrait on the wall’.

Sometimes the preposition that you think you should use (or would use in English) is not what is used in Dutch.

In English you say:
I’m on the train

In Dutch you say:
Ik zit in de trein

Directly translated back to English = I am (sitting) in the train

In English you say:
I’m afraid of spiders

In Dutch you say:
Ik ben bang voor spinnen

Directly translated back to English = I am afraid for spiders

At the office becomes on the office in Dutch. At the airport becomes on the airport. At school becomes on school.

The list goes on.

There are a number of verbs which have a fixed preposition (e.g. bang zijn voor) and it’s good to learn the ones where the preposition differs from what you would use in your native language. 

But you will probably learn primarily through trial and error while speaking. Similar to the “de” and “het” topic, the wrong choice of preposition will sound strange to a native ear, but they will most likely have no problem understanding the sentence.

If you really want to get this right, just tell your language partner or the Dutch speakers around you that you would like to be corrected until you nail this down.

Collocational knowledge

As a word of caution, this is a notoriously difficult aspect of language to master. If you don’t have a ton of exposure to Dutch yet, then you aren’t familiar with what words have a tendency to appear together in natural language (known as collocational knowledge).

Prepositions have many of these tendencies, and a lack of knowledge or exposure to them is what leads us to making errors. 

Immersing yourself in as much spoken Dutch as possible is the best way to slowly but surely build on this skill.

I recommend finding some Dutch series or YouTube channels that you like, and immersing yourself in the language as much as possible to become more and more familiar with preposition combinations in spoken Dutch. For some ideas, check out my post with 30 Dutch YouTube channels to follow when you want to immerse yourself in Dutch.

5. Some Dutch words have uses that cannot be directly translated

At one point or another you will plug a sentence into Google Translate because you want to better understand the use of a particular word in the sentence — only to find that when it’s translated to your native language, that word disappears.

I dare to say that more often than not, these words are modal particles. 

Zichtbaar Nederlands has a useful explanation of these terms. They say that you often cannot translate them to other languages, but they are frequently used in spoken Dutch. Here are some examples of modal particles you will frequently come across:

  • maar
  • even
  • eens
  • toch 
  • nou

These words can add emotion or a specific tone to what’s being said in the rest of the sentence.

Words that ‘soften’

Take for example the phrase, “doe mij maar een biertje”. I have heard the explanation that without ‘maar’ it’s like saying, “give me a beer” and with ‘maar’ it’s like saying, “I’ll just have a beer”. ‘Maar’ softens the request and makes it sound a bit friendlier. 

Words that are neutral

Take another example of “kijk eens aan”. You sometimes hear this when a server places your food in front of you at an informal restaurant or café — as a way of saying, “here you go” (or voilà). By saying “kijk aan” it doesn’t change the meaning or tone at all, but “kijk eens aan” or even “kijk eens” are just simply said more frequently thank “kijk aan” in spoken Dutch. 

Words that ‘harden’

In Dutch you can say, “hou je mond” in a neutral way to ask someone to be quiet (for example because you heard a noise and want silence to listen for the noise again). If you instead say “hou toch je mond” it is suddenly more like saying, “ohh be quiet” to someone you disagree with.

I don’t know about you but I found it frustrating at first that such words could not be translated. Which is why I decided to write this article. It’s good to know in advance that you’ll run into these words a lot in spoken Dutch and won’t always be able to translate them 1-1.

6. If you know some English you already have an advantage

While it may not seem like it at first, Dutch and English are actually similar in so many ways. It’s easier to see with written Dutch, but once you become accustomed to Dutch pronunciation, you can pick up more similarities in spoken Dutch as well.

Not only does English have thousands of words with a Dutch origin, but Dutch also borrows many words from English — making for plenty of overlap between the languages.

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

romanticromantisch
chaoticchaotisch
allergicallergisch
dramaticdramatisch
electricelektrisch
historichistorisch

Many words ending in -ion end in -ie in Dutch.

vacationvakantie
informationinformatie
situationsituatie
functionfunctie
reactionreactie
organizationorganisatie

I could go on with so many more of these similarities, but I’m sure you will start to pick up on these patterns yourself. This makes it possible to sometimes comprehend words that you’ve never seen before in Dutch, or vice versa, correctly guess a Dutch word by following the patterns that you already know. 

These six points hopefully gave you some key insights which might save you time and energy as you begin learning Dutch.

Leave a comment and let me know what you wish you knew before learning Dutch!

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