Language Learning and Me: Dutch

Posted on 21/02/2012


Tiffany’s blog The Migrating Yankee is a great resource for expats. I asked her about her experience of learning Dutch. She has some good pointers about finding native speakers to speak to, and about the benefits of intensive language courses.

Why Dutch?

My husband is Dutch and we’ll be raising our daughter bilingually with English and Dutch, so I wanted to know the language so I wouldn’t feel left out! But the real incentive is that I now live in the Netherlands and speaking Dutch makes it so much easier and more fulfilling.

Have you learned other languages before? What were they, and did they help you with Dutch at all?

I studied French and Spanish in high school. There are a lot of words and sounds taken from the French language, but the language that’s helped me the most with learning Dutch has been English.

What are the particular challenges of Dutch, particularly when compared to the other languages you speak?

There’s the guttural “g” that took me months of hard work to get right. And the sentence structure puts the verb at the end of the sentence, which always sounds a bit off. Sound like Yoda, you do.

How did you go about learning Dutch? Did it differ from how you learned the other languages? With hindsight, do you think yourapproach was the right one?

Before I moved to the Netherlands, my husband and a Dutch exchange student at the high school where my mother taught helped me learn the basics.

Once I moved to the Netherlands, I took a 12-week intensive course followed by a year-long intensive course. In high school, I might be in class working on the language for 90 minutes at most, but in the first Dutch class I took, we met for three hours two days a week and the year-long course met for three hours three days a week, so it was far more intense.The other thing that helped speed the language learning process is that, because not all of the students had English as a first or second language, the lessons were taught entirely in Dutch. It was very much a sink or swim situation. But the key is that, once I left the classroom, I was still surrounded by Dutch. So, I’d go to class, studying Dutch for three hours and then head to a café for a cup of coffee where I’d communicate with the server in Dutch, then I’d hit the supermarket on the way home and talk to the store employees and other shoppers in Dutch, then my mother-in-law would call and I’d speak to her in Dutch, then I’d take my husband’s pants to the dry cleaner, where I’d have to communicate what I wanted in Dutch.

When learning a language, I don’t think there’s any right way as everyone learns differently, but, in my opinion, nothing beats immersion and intense study.

What resources would you recommend for someone wanting to learn Dutch? And what advice would you give them?

Find a native speaker to speak the language with you. With Skype, this is easier than ever. You can also host couchsurfers – the Dutch love to travel about as much as they love to save money! Hop on or a similar site and find Dutch people in your area. The Dutch really do get around, you’d be amazed. Watching Dutch television or movies in Dutch with Dutch or English subtitles (or vice versa) also helps, as well as listening to Dutch music and radio. On the internet, try Dutch Grammar, 2BDutch, or Laura Speaks Dutch. And, of course, you can take an old-fashioned language class!

Do you still deliberately try to improve your Dutch, eg by using a vocab book?

I plan to enroll in an advanced intensive course and my husband and I are making more of an effort to speak Dutch to each other. I also still read in Dutch, watch Dutch tv and movies, and listen to Dutch music. I really only use a vocab book when I need to look something up.

Do you think it’s important for expats to learn the local language? 

I think it’s imperative. Particularly in the Netherlands, it’s easy to get away with not learning the local language as most everyone speaks excellent English, but you will feel much less isolated and much more comfortable if you can speak the language. Even if the assignment is short-term, you will get so much more out of the experience and feel more at home in the country. And if you find yourself staying longer than originally planned, it’s much easier to carve yourself a place and make friends. It also enriches the experience.

What’s your favourite Dutch word or idiom?

Oh, where to begin! Their word for slug is naaktslag, which translates literally to “naked snail.” Another good one is granaatappel. The word means pomegranate, but the literal translation is “grenade apple.” My favorite expression is “dat meen je niet” (with extra emphasis on the “meen”), which is more or less the equivalent of “you’ve gotta be kidding!”

— for more hints and tips on language learning, buy Conquering Babel: A Practical Guide to Learning a Language here in the US and here in the UK.
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