Where to start with learning Dutch (budget friendly)

Want to learn Dutch but don’t know where to start?

Firstly, great choice. Dutch is awesome.

Secondly, you’ve come to the right place!

I started learning Dutch passively about 4 years ago. I knew I wanted to one day live in the Netherlands and learn how to speak the language. 

A year and a half later I signed an offer for my new job in Amsterdam and made it official that I would move to the Netherlands. That’s when I really got serious about the language.

In fact I had signed up for an A1 course which started on the same day that I landed in the Netherlands.

After two years of really applying myself and studying, I can confidently say that I speak Dutch. 

There are of course many approaches you can take, but this is what I recommend based on my own experience.

Introduction

There are four basic language skills:

  • reading
  • writing
  • listening
  • speaking

When we learn language(s) as a child, we develop those four skills from thousands of different sources in our environment.

You have to look at the Dutch learning process in the same way. 

No single course or app, on its own, is going to get you to fluency.

Depending on your learning goals, the four skills might not all be equally relevant to you. Maybe speaking and listening are the only skills you are looking to develop in Dutch. 

If that’s the case — spend more time on those areas.

Regardless of your goal, I believe all learners can benefit tremendously from understanding basic Dutch grammar. 

Absolute beginner level

Language apps

Language learning apps are designed for absolute beginners with no prior knowledge of the language — making them a great first place to start.

Of course, not all apps are created equally. 

For beginners I recommend apps which include grammar explanations and not just vocabulary. 

I personally used Duolingo and do recommend it whenever I am asked for suggestions. Particularly on the web browser version of Duolingo, there are extensive explanations for many of the topics in the tree.

Consistency is the key to getting the most out of language learning apps. Make a schedule or goal for yourself — something realistic that you know you can stick to. Some examples of how you might structure this:

  • 1 lesson every evening before bed
  • 1 lesson on the bus to work/school and 1 on the way home
  • 1 lesson during lunch break
  • 1 lesson during every break at work
  • 1 lesson every other day at breakfast 

I think a daily routine is the most beneficial, but if that’s not something you can maintain, that’s ok! I set my goal to complete one lesson on Duolingo every day, which only takes a few minutes.

In reality I would do much more than the one lesson a day whenever I could find the time — but the low barrier of 1 lesson made the routine a lot more approachable.

Recommended apps and websites:

  • Duolingo
  • Memrise
  • Pimsleur

Make notes

Making notes (especially handwritten ones) can help with retaining what you learn. Whenever you come across a new grammar topic, try to make your own notes on it, explaining it in your own words.

Make 2-5 sentences using this new grammar structure. If you’re fortunate enough to know a Dutch speaker who would be willing to check and correct your sentences, this is of course the most accurate method.

You can also use Google Translate to check if your spelling and grammar is correct — however the tool often translates your sentence as intended, even if you made some minor mistakes.

It’s good to therefore check not only translate from Dutch to English (or native language) but also translate the sentence from English to Dutch as a double check.

The r/learndutch community on Reddit is also quite welcoming to anyone who needs help with proofreading or translations.

If you’re still stuck on a grammar topic after all this, there are plenty of great resources online offering free grammar explanations and examples. Check out this post for my top recommendations by topic.

Learn vocabulary and pronunciation

Grammar is an important foundation, but vocabulary is key in order to start actually using the language — being able to speak and formulate full sentences.

Next to using your app of choice, it’s good to also start incorporating new input which exposes you to vocabulary and pronunciation. At this stage it’s most important to learn the words which occur most frequently in conversation.

Learning the 1,000 most common 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.

I recommend Bart de Pau’s playlist on YouTube consisting of 40 video lessons on the 1,000 most common words in Dutch. You don’t only see the word and how it’s spelled, but you also hear the pronunciation. Repeat each word to get the hang of the pronunciation.

Flashcards are another great tool for learning and maintaining your vocabulary of the 1,000 most common words. I used an app/website called Quizlet but Anki also seems to be a popular one.

I must caution you about #1 of my 6 things to know before you start learning Dutch — and that is to learn all nouns with their correct article.

Nouns in Dutch can use either “de” or “het” (meaning “the”) as a definitive article, but you more or less have to memorize which words use which form of “the”. 

In the article I explain that if your goal is to sound natural and grammatically correct when speaking, you should definitely learn the correct article for all nouns you learn.

If your goal is just to be understood (maybe you only need to speak Dutch for the short term and don’t see yourself having to write much in Dutch) then don’t stress too much over this. 

Beginner course

An official Dutch language course can be an effective way to learn and also enter a community of other learners at your level that you can practice with.

However if classroom lessons are not accessible for you, you can find some free and/or affordable beginners courses online. A few examples:

Learn Dutch with Kim

University of Groningen

Learn Dutch with Alain 

Vivo Dutch

Learn Dutch with Bart de Pau

If you want to learn completely on your own with free content, use my guide: Topics to cover if you’re teaching yourself Dutch. Here I give an overview of the important topics for each level, and what you should aim to achieve in each one.

My guide to the best free online material is a great supplement to this DIY course.

Listening comprehension

The Dutch you hear in language apps is quite a bit different from the Dutch you hear in the media and from native speakers. Therefore once you have developed your vocabulary a bit, it is good to start incorporating some exercises in listening to and comprehending spoken Dutch.

Many people suggest children’s programs and I also think it’s a good place to start, and something that I found useful as well in the beginning. It is however easy to grow tired of this method seeing as the content itself isn’t very engaging.

There are a number of podcasts created specifically as a resource to help new Dutch learners. These are typically focused on the Netherlands — history, holidays, traditions — and are spoken in slow, clear, Dutch. 

Many of these also offer episode transcripts for those that find it useful to follow the text while listening. 

In this post I list 7 podcasts for beginners, in order of difficulty. My personal recommendation is the ‘Zeg het in het Nederlands’ podcast.

You will begin to understand and pick up on familiar words in that podcast rather early on in your Dutch learning study. And these early wins are very important to keep motivated to continue learning.

Elementary level

Dutch content

Now that you’ve spent time improving your vocabulary and comprehension, it’s a good time to add in more native Dutch content to everyday life.

It’s ok if you don’t understand 100% of the words. That’s actually the point. 

Incorporating Dutch this way is an awesome way to immerse yourself in the language and pick up vocabulary without feeling like you’re studying.

This is especially true if you can find something that interests you. It goes without saying that it becomes much easier to consume content that you’re interested in on a regular basis and stay engaged. 

Instead of stopping the song or movie constantly, grab that notebook and jot down a few of the words that are new to you.

The more content there is (e.g. a series instead of a movie), the more likely it is that you will come across repeated words, expressions, and themes. This will help you solidify and master vocabulary.

I used to watch a lot of First Dates when I first moved to the Netherlands (I have written about that here). Now I have a couple YouTuber vloggers that I watch on a weekly basis.

I have picked up many colloquialisms this way, but I also believe it subconsciously helps with grammar. Sometimes when I’m speaking Dutch I don’t know what the correct article is for a word, or I’m unsure of the preposition to use in a certain situation. Often times when I go with my gut, I make the right choice. I am convinced this is due to hearing a lot of spoken Dutch and getting a feel for those tendencies this way.

Intermediate course

An intermediate course or conversation course (if affordable for you) is good to add in at this point.

Some examples to be found online:

Learn Dutch with Kim

Learn Dutch with Alain 

Learn Dutch with Bart de Pau

The Dutch Online Academy

Speaking Dutch

Throughout this entire learning process, it is good to start speaking Dutch from the very beginning. Notice I say “from the very beginning and not “when you feel comfortable”.

You will most likely not feel comfortable at the beginning, but you have to start somewhere. If you’re lucky enough to have people around you that are also willing to give you feedback and corrections — even better.

If you’re at the intermediate level then you might feel like you are starting to understand a lot more, and can make basic sentences, but having a conversation takes a lot of energy and you can’t quite express yourself the way you would like to.

This is why I suggest at this stage to add in a conversation course or a language partner.

This will help you to pick up on (and correct) any of your repeated grammar or pronunciation mistakes. By having to spontaneously discuss new topics and answer questions, you’ll also (with the help of your partner) learn new vocabulary.

It’s also a good idea to record yourself speaking in the early stages. Play back yourself speaking and you may already pick up on some mistakes in word order or pronunciation.

Since progress in language learning can feel slow, it’s also fun to play the recordings many months later to take note of the progress you’ve made.

Finding a language partner

Your language partner can take many forms.

I was lucky enough to have a Dutch speaking partner who was more than willing to fill that role for me. I also picked a couple Dutch colleagues and told them I was learning and asked if they could speak to me in Dutch at work.

Someone in my team at work was also learning Dutch and we used each other as language partners as well — occasionally meeting up and agreeing to only speak in Dutch.

Fortunately there are solutions for those of us that cannot easily find a language partner:

  • Ask around the r/learndutch Reddit community (you may also be able to offer a language exchange for a Dutch speaker looking to improve in your native language)
  • Visit a language cafe 
  • Join a language exchange discord server
  • Take lessons with a community tutor on italki for as low as € 7 per hour
  • Do a free language exchange via an app such as HelloTalk

I personally liked taking lessons with a tutor on italki. I started with hour long lessons but eventually found I preferred 30 minute sessions.

Expect to try a few different tutors before you find someone that you connect well with and that helps you learn in the most beneficial way possible.

Writing Dutch

As with speaking, it is good to start practicing writing in Dutch early on. It can be as simple as a few sentences describing what you did that day.

In my experience, writing (and improving on your written Dutch) works best with a language partner that can help give you corrections and feedback.

I personally took conversation lessons on italki but would also write a short passage each week and ask my tutor to give me corrections on what I had written.

You may also opt for language exchange in a discord server or via an app, in which case you can ask for corrections on what you write while you chat.

Intermediate level (and beyond)

Once you’ve reached an intermediate to upper intermediate level, you might feel like you’re at this level for a while. An intermediate might have around 2,500 or 3,000 words in their vocabulary, while an advanced speaker has between 4,000 and 10,000. 

Needless to say, it will take time and a lot of practice before you quadruple your vocabulary from intermediate level to advanced.

Speak with as many people as possible in Dutch, and continue consuming as much Dutch media as you can handle (both reading and watching/listening).

It’s not uncommon to grow tired or unmotivated throughout the process. This can especially happen if you’re only using one method (e.g. Duolingo) to study Dutch. When this happens, it’s fine (and helpful) to take a break or add some variety to your routine.

Remember that this process can take years so try to be patient and enjoy the ride! Learning Dutch will open you up to new experiences and opportunities, and I assure you it’s worth it in the end.

What other budget-friendly resources are essential for learning Dutch? Leave a comment and let me know what else should be included in this list!

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