Learning Dutch for the first time: How Dutch is ruining my German

When I was younger I really loved the English language and I thought it was super cool to be able to speak a foreign language fluently.

One of my goals was to be able to speak English at a high level and speak it a lot during my everyday life. So, I studied English and went abroad to speak it as much as possible. My track brought me to Finland and there I met my Dutch boyfriend. Since we both didn’t share the same language, we spoke English with each other — four years later we still do. I achieved my teenage goal of speaking English every single day.

Over the time I noticed that it didn’t take me a lot of effort to learn a language, and since I came back home from my exchange with a Dutch boyfriend I considered it a necessity to learn his language. So, two years ago I started learning Dutch, a language that has never been on my list of foreign languages I still want to learn, but I enjoyed it. The actual language learning process started once I started living in the Netherlands.

I moved here in July and started working as a German teacher in a Dutch school, so I was simply forced to speak and hear Dutch all day. There was no space for fears of sounding stupid or struggling with words while talking. The first couple of weeks was a lot of concentration and every evening I had the feeling that my brain was exploding. After half a year it started to feel natural to go to work and speak Dutch — not saying flawlessly. I learn a lot from my Dutch students and we help each other learning each other’s languages.

But one funny phenomenon I noticed quite soon. When Skyping with my parents, my mom regularly said that my intonation sounds weird, especially the way I say “No”. Often, I got to hear that I used the wrong preposition in German or that this is really not the way you can say things in German. Hearing wrong German all day in school also doesn’t help and I came to realise that I start forgetting words in German. Not really, but at the very moment, I could say the word in English or Dutch but not German. I blame it on the little amount I actually speak my own mother tongue.

I wanted a life full of English, which I got and additionally, I also got a life full of Dutch. So, just for fun, I figured that I start writing down the mistakes I made. Below you’ll find a list of things I said which are incorrect, how they should be in Austrian German (can’t speak for German German) and what the Dutch equivalent is:

Dutch, German, and English

What I saidCorrect AustrianDutchEnglish

Was denkst du davon?

Was hältst du davon?

Wat denk je daarvan?

What do you think of it?

Gehen wir eine frische Nase schnappen?

Gehen wir frische Luft schnappen?

Gaan we een frisse neus halen?

Shall we get some fresh air?

Neeeee

Nein

Nee

No

Ich bin morgen frei.

Ich habe morgen frei.

Morgen ben ik vrij.

I’m off tomorrow.

Auf der Arbeit

In der Arbeit

Op mijn werk…

At work

Was sagtest du?

Wie bitte?

Wat zei je?

What did you say?

Schönes Wochenende! – Du auch!

Schönes Wochenende! – Dir auch!

Fijn weekend! – Jij ook!

Have a nice weekend! – You too!

Ich weiß nicht, ob wir das können machen.

Ich weiß nicht, ob wir das machen können.

Ik weet niet, of wij dat kunnen doen.

I don’t know, if we can do that.

These are just a few and I must admit every week I can add a few more expressions to the list. But especially that makes me more aware of how complex language development is. To reach the top of confusion my boyfriend and I still mainly speak English with each other, in between we use Dutch terms and to round it up we sprinkle a bit of German on top.

My love for languages led me to live a life not speaking one language properly anymore. My mother tongue degenerates, my Dutch won’t ever be on a native level and my English starts to mingle with Dutch/German. But…

…macht nichts aus! – Das macht doch nichts! – Maakt niet uit! (That doesn’t matter!)

I’m curious to read about your experiences and in which way your language(s) change(s). Drop your experiences learning Dutch for the first time in the comments below!

Feature Image: Gabby K/Pexels
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in May 2019, but was fully updated in May 2021 for your reading pleasure.

Marion Boigner
I was born and raised in Vienna, Austria and moved to the Netherlands out of love. I am working as a "German as a foreign language" as well as "English" teacher. My passion for languages helped me to learn Dutch easily and at the moment I am speaking all three languages throughout my days. Furthermore, I am living and enjoying the wonderful but crazy life of having two homes in two countries. This goes along with seeing the beauty of two worlds and broadening my horizon and point of view.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Love this post! And I’d definitely would love to read more from you, since I am from VIE too and I think of moving to Holland because of…. the love 😉

  2. I know why! Three is just too much. If you drop 1 language you will be fine again. I had the same in central America with Spanish, English and my mother tongue Dutch. My boyfriend and I stopped talking Dutch and that really helped.

  3. I’ve got it the other way around; five years ago I moved to Greifswald to study German and Scandinavian languages. Every time I came home to the Netherlands, my family laughed at my Dutch because German was so entwined in it. Now I’m studying to be a German teacher in the Netherlands and after half a year back in my country of birth I still start to remember words in Dutch I didn’t now I knew. But my German has worsened because I’m speaking Dutch now all of the time. It’s just the way it is, I guess. Also, because I speak Swedish as well, sometimes I say something not even my fellow students can understand because it was some kind of Swedish way to say something. I feel you

  4. I have a Dutch husband and living about a year with him made me speak Dutch so much better! Solid B2 I think. But then we moved to Germany for 8 months where German kicked out my Dutch and the language of the Low Lands was forgotten and abandoned… After Germany, we moved back to Holland and I noticed that I sounded harsher. Some pronunciation was difficult to me (even though mijn uitspraak was really smooth before). Now I am struggling to return my Dutch back but it’s not so simple as I thought… I don’t think I should mingle Dutch with German anymore. 😄

  5. Hallo!
    long story short:
    An Iranian (language: Perisan or Farsi) with English as the second language, learned French in school, learned German for work and personal preference (French got almost erased), having a Flemish partner (Belgian speaking Flemish-Dutch), learning Dutch now!
    Most of the time I’m enjoying all of these languages not only with people but also in my own brain! but sometimes I get stuck! Frozen and not even able to speak one of them correctly (the exploding feeling you mentioned!) A lot of times it’s also a mixture of all them!
    I’m trying really hard to keep my German in place and wish to find a platform which I can practice Dutch from Deutsch.
    Sometimes I wonder if we have kids, what will happen to their language :))
    Keep it up everyone!
    Grüße, Groetjes, Greetings!

  6. I’m from Ukraine – lived in Italy as a kid. Did my master in German and Ph.D in Spanish. Now I live in Amsterdam and as I learn Dutch my German really suffers. I never had this problem with Spanish and Italian. Yes, I can mix a couple of words here and there but it doesn’t cracks my brain. Ukrainian and Polish are also very close. I speak both and there’s no problem either. I disagree with previous comments that 3 languages are too much. I’m fluent in 7 (and I know people fluent in 10 or more). It’s just something with German and Dutch that doesn’t stick together. Ive now decided to always respond in German to my Dutch husband (our son is very confused!) and my B1 Dutch in gone…

  7. Well, I have exactly the same problem with the difference that I am native Italian speaker, so to me the risk of overwriting my German – the foreign language I love the most – when learning Dutch is even greater.

    As I am now learning seriously Dutch, I made the decision to resume exercising my German and, any time I learn a new word or sentence in Dutch, I ask myself: how would I translate this into German?

    This approach is facing strong criticism from my girlfriend, who finds my Dutch heavily polluted by the German language, but I prefer to keep on this way as I think that, when I will learn to think in Dutch, the German accent will fade. And anyway I prefer to speak an imperfect Dutch but a very good German rather than a perfect Dutch and a very bad German.

    But well, if you as a native German speaker, have now problems with your German, I consider your experience a confirmation that my approach is not only right but even unavailable.

    Tschüss

  8. I also speak three languages, Afrikaans being my mother tongue (closely related to Dutch). At the moment I live and work in north Germany, I used to be able to speak some Dutch but now if I even try, it comes out or flows into German! I also find that we speak a different type of Afrikaans, more similar to my grandmother’s e.g. “Ek neem dit” (Ich nehme es) rather than the more modern form of “Ek vat dit” (Ich fasse es [an] / I touch it). My kids also commonly mix the word order like “Ek weet nie of jy dit doen kan nie” in stead of “Ek weet nie of jy dit kan doen nie”essentially putting words like “kan” and “wil” at the end as in German. Ironically the other way around than your example “Ich weiß nicht, ob wir das können machen”. I guess the one we hear the most starts to dominate in the Brain. My South African english accent is also gone after 4 years – I sound like a German now :->

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