Double Dutch: the Language Challenge

I have to admit, I am quite disappointed. I really thought that I would be able to speak fluent Dutch by now. After all, it has been two years since I moved to Holland and during this time, I have studied diligently in hope of achieving that very goal. I go to lessons, I do my homework, I practice, but alas, Nederlands refuses to take to me.

I attribute this to 3 factors:

1) Everybody speaks English

The well-meaning Dutch will helpfully respond in English to your lame attempts to communicate with them in their native tongue. I consider it a victory on the odd occasion when I do get a Dutch response (not counting alsjeblieft/dankjewel). If I had moved to France it would have been a completely different story; you wouldn’t expect the French to speak English on any account. Speaking French would have been a matter of survival. I’m not really complaining; it is nice to know I don’t have to try and speak Dutch when I don’t feel like it, or when dealing with important stuff like banking. When I first moved here, I told a Dutch lady that I was learning the language and she said that was very nice of me in a tone that implied why would you bother? It’s not necessary; we will speak English to all you foreigners. But, damn it, I want to bother. To be able to slip effortlessly into a foreign language is a wonderful thing.

Just ask these two gentlemen, who are currently sliding their way into fluent Swahili.
Just ask these two gentlemen who are currently sliding their way into fluent Swahili.

2) Dutch is almost impossible to pronounce

(and sounds completely ridiculous)


Double Dutch is a fairly common British slang term for incomprehensible speech and writing i.e. gibberish. That should have been my first clue that I had not set myself the easiest of tasks. For one thing, it requires such an effort to pronounce; correct pronunciation of the letter ‘g’ resembles clearing one’s throat and carries a high risk of accidental spitting; the correct pronunciation of ‘uit’ is still unclear to me; and my attempts at the ‘sch’ sound are usually accompanied by gesticulating and face-pulling. Recently I attended a festival called Schollenpop, taking place in Scheveningen: two words as if deliberately combined to frustrate English speaking tongues… or flush out German spies.

Couldn’t have said better

I probably wouldn’t have picked Dutch as my second language, had I not moved here. The Dutch themselves admit it’s an ugly language, and yet, it’s not without charm; how can you not love a language that has a verb for eating sweets, ‘snoepen’ (I snoep, you snoep, we all snoep!), or, resist the cuteness of ‘rondsnuffelen’, my personal favourite, meaning to browse. And, no piece on Language would be complete without at least mentioning the famous, untranslatable ‘gezellig’, meaning well… you know, cosy or something.


3. I am British and therefore, foreign Language deficient

It’s not my fault, I didn’t grow up on mainland Europe, everyone speaks English anyway, my school was rubbish etc. Perhaps I am just not very good at languages because, surely, if it were down to sheer will and determination, I would have already achieved my dream? Oh, I’ve made progress alright; apparently I pronounce the sentence ‘I speak bad Dutch’ very convincingly. I can read and write to a fairly decent standard. It’s not too hard when I have time to think about it. When I listen to Dutch people speaking, I understand most of the words. But, speaking it myself, is a different story. It’s scary. Sometimes I start sentences, not knowing if I will be able to finish them. When I say things in Dutch, a lot of the time, I don’t understand the response; I panic and my brain freezes. So, I then have to ask for it to be repeated in English and feel like a total mafkees.

But, I’ll keep on trying. When I speak a simple sentence in Dutch, am understood and I do understand the response, I am elated. It’s…  geweldig!

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  1. I’ve been here 6 years, and barely speak any Dutch. The cost of taking classes is disproportionate to what I imagine I would take from the knowledge. In 6 years here, neither my wife (who IS Dutch) nor I have received a call from any of the people we know here saying, “fancy coming out for a beer?”. I find the culture here insular beyond belief. I have gone from running bars in the UK and speaking to several hundred people a day, to maybe speaking to 5 people a week on a good week, as I’m a house husband. The first couple of years I learnt to deal with it, but now I simply resent being here. 2.5x more for the price of a pint which has to be imported to the UK, but is made 30km from where I reside? 33% income tax base rate. A home which cost 3x more than an equivalent floor space flat in Wolverhampton.

    Nowadays, when I do encounter Dutch people, I find myself filled with loquacious sesquipedalian tendencies, scouring my command of the vernacular in order to find words so convoluted there is little or no chance of their comprehension extending to that which I’ve proffered. I know it’s cantankerous of me, egregious even perhaps, but it gives me pleasure, and the more inquisitive people also learn new words.

    While this may come off as not an attitude to be proud of, as I rarely encounter Dutch people it is of little or no consequence anyway, and to perhaps portray a slightly more fun side, I will furnish you with a link to a story about an experience I had here which may provide amusement


  2. OMG I can relate to EVERY word of this. I’ve been here a similar amount of time (a year and a half) and I have had all of the experiences you mention above!

  3. Honestly, I think you need to give yourself a little more time to get the hang of it. (I’d say don’t be so hard on yourself but that would make me a hypocrite… as an insecure pedantic language nerd grammar Nazi, I am way too hard on myself.) I moved to Gorinchem from Wolverhampton a year and a half ago, and I’m regularly told how incredible it is how quickly I’ve picked up the language. To be fair though, Dutch has its similarities to German, a much easier language I personally learned in school and college. My mother-in-law comes from Utrecht, and I personally find that adopting her accent a little makes my life easier because words like echtgenoot or terechtgekomen… I can’t pronounce the t in between the ch and the g, so that becomes one big ball of phlegm.

    Also, let’s face it, some people just have it easier than others. Though, I can’t say it’s exactly helpful with all the English-language media we have. I find it a little counterproductive.

    • Hi Sophie, maybe you are right and my expectations are a bit high; I only have one hour’s private tuition once or twice a week. Someone once told me, matter of fact, that it takes 3 years to become fluent in another language, so we’ve still got time! Knowing a little bit of German certainly helps with structuring a sentence, if not with pronunciation. It makes all the difference having an encouraging listener though.

    • Maybe you are right and my expectations are a bit high; I only have one hour’s private tuition once or twice a week and don’t practice as much as I could. Knowing a little bit of German certainly helps with structuring a sentence, if not with pronunciation. It makes all the difference having an encouraging listener though.

  4. Well said! Been there, done that! After two years I was at the same stage as you. Now, three years here, my Dutch is still not fluent, but I handle everything in Dutch: bank, hairdresser, doctor.
    There are more stages by the way:
    1) speaking English
    2) speaking Dutch, but being responded to in English
    3) speaking Dutch, being responded to in Dutch, not understanding and asking to switch to English
    4) speaking Dutch, being responded to in Dutch, not understanding but somehow keeping the talk going in Dutch
    5) all talk in Dutch, but asking for words many times, still not understanding everything
    6) less conscious building of sentences

    I realized that reaching stage 3 is not about your accent! Don’t try to erase it completely. That’s not going to happen. Conveying effortlessness is the key. Takes some effort, though.

    • Hey good for you! I definitely fall back on English too much and it really is a conscious building of sentences. I have a slight variation on 4: not understanding but smiling and nodding.

      • I know it so well! I’ve been living in the Netherlands for two years and reached the level 3-4 of kon’s list. Also, I’ve noticed that once to switch to English it’s basically game over for you; they will never return to Dutch. So sometimes I was even pretending not to understand English in pubs and shops in order to practice the basic phrases in Dutch. I recommend that solution if you are irritated with the Dutch switching immediately to English.

  5. I’m sure you’re doing fine! The Dutch will appraciate your efforts. And don’t worry too much about the ‘ui’ sound. My Australian husband still struggles with that (and ‘eu’) and he lived in NL for over two years. I’ve lived in Australia for 11 years now and still can’t pronounce the ‘o’ like they do! (Sounds something like ‘oo-eu-uu’; impossible.)

    • Thanks, for the encouragement. Even though it’s a struggle sometimes, I enjoy it for the sake of learning something new.

  6. Ah I know your pain…but I am
    here 8 years and it is really embarrassing. I understand it all but I cant pronounce
    properly most of the words:(. I tried course at least 3 times…But due to all
    above mentioned reasons it is so hard to learn it. I still remember i tried to
    buy bread in the Turkish bakery and 10-12 years old boy wanted to help me so
    when i ordered in Dutch he talked to me English so not learning there:):)

    I guess it is time to move to
    small village when people would rather speak Dutch and English and then it will

  7. It’s about how much effort you wanna put into it, really. And the way in which you make this clear to the ‘locals’. My ex boyfriend, who is Bulgarian, and I always communicated in English. It just seemed the easier thing to do. After having lived in Belgium for 5 years he decided to plan a move to the Netherlands and study the language first.
    Watching tele, reading books and newspapers, following lessons but mainly making conversation with me in Dutch has brought him from scratch to a decent level of Dutch within 3 months.
    I have a linjustice background, so I must admit that he got lessons and insights more advanced than most other students, but I’m amazed by the speed in which he picked up a language that’s alien to him (Dutch shows none of the similarities to Bulgarian as it does to English).
    From the moment he decided he wanted to learn dutch, I’ve spoken and written to him in dutch. He told all the people in the shops where he buys his daily groceries that’s he’s learning dutch and everybody has been helping him, omitting English and speaking dutch to him instead.

    What I’m saying is: it can be done and you can get the locals to support you. The fact that we use English first is a matter of convenience: we’re trying to help, not because we dislike our speech (I for one don’t, I find dutch much more characteristic than English), but if you insist on being spoken to in Dutch, you will be.

    Good luck with your studies. I have a number of files I used to teach my ex boyfriend dutch. If you like I can review them and send them to you. I’m always open for questions.



  8. I second the advice don’t be too hard on yourself, learning to speak, listen (gesture 😉 ) understand and having a good time all packed into some interaction is quite hard and requires seemingly endless effort.

    Perhaps there’s not only a linguistic hurdle, there might be a cultural one too….

    As the Brittish (especially the English) have this culture of (avoiding) embarrassment, politeness and overly apologizing (just re-read your own article 😉 )

    Perhaps your language efforts will be helped by also adapting to some Dutch bluntness/directness. Just tell some people you trust and or interact with regularly “Ik wil graag mijn Nederlands oefenen, kun je het mij vertellen als ik grote fouten maak?”

    I’d be very surprised if they don’t help. Of course, some will be more helpfull than others. But at the very least your fear of failure should deminish somewhat, especially if you’re prepared to laugh at your own mistakes.

    Keep in mind that even though many Dutch people can speak English to a “certain” degree ;-), there’s actually only a few who’ll manage to completely lose their accent and those Dunglish sayings (you know what I mean! 😉 )
    Just put in the effort, make mistakes and ask for the feedback, after a while you’ll be looking back onto so much progress



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