Why do many foreigners living in the Netherlands and Belgium shy away from learning Dutch? Is it because they think it is too difficult? Ruud Hisgen suggests that there are seven myths which may have something to do with the reason why so many expats are disheartened.
1. Dutch is difficult! As complex as German and as obscure as Old English
Dutch and German (Deutsch) may have similarly sounding names but they are two completely different languages. In the Middle Ages the languages of the Netherlanders and the Germans were called diets because diet meant “people”. Diets was used to distinguish the lowly language of the common folk from the highfalutin Latin of the Church.
Over time, Diets became Nederlands and in Germany, Deutsch, but the English have stubbornly retained the confusing word “Dutch” to this day. Old English has shed its grammatical intricacies and so has Diets. German still has cases and more intricacies. So forget about Dutch as a difficult obstacle and think of Nederlands as the sister of English, a language that you can easily acquire.
2. Nederlands is an insignificant language in the greater scheme of things
There are 23 million native speakers of the language in the Netherlands, the Flemish region of Belgium, Surinam, and several islands in the Caribbean. And some 15 to 23 million people in South Africa and Namibia speak its daughter language: Afrikaans.
You may think you can safely converse with your neighbours or relations in English, but never forget that the Netherlanders have the advantage because they can speak their own language among themselves. And you will have no idea what sneaky things they may be saying!
3. Dutch vocabulary does not compare to other world languages
Many Netherlanders are convinced that they can express themselves so much better in English, because they think it is a richer language. Is this a sign of modesty or ignorance?
Fact is that the largest dictionary in the world is the 45.000-page Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal (Dictionary of the Dutch Language). It has some 400.000 main entries and it took scholars 147 years from the first initiative in 1851 to 1998 to finish it. It is freely accessible online. By comparison the Oxford English Dictionary has approximately 300.000 main entries.
4. Mastering Dutch spelling takes years of practice
Again, if you were to believe your Dutch neighbours, they will tell you how miserably they fail in the yearly national dictation “Het Groot Dictee”. It is true that the average Dutchman makes 23 mistakes in 10 sentences and the winner wins with a “mere” seven mistakes. But don’t forget that some linguistic freak sadistically crammed them with tricky words. Don’t be misled by this national act of masochism.
Spelling is quite easy, especially compared to English. In principle this rule is valid: what you hear is what you write. In English you’ll write “knee” without pronouncing “k”. In Dutch you write every letter that you hear, so k-n-ie.
5. Dutch is an ugly unmusical language due to deafening harsh sounds
There are some 30 dialects in the relatively small area of the Netherlands and Belgium. And it is only in some of them that guttural and uvular sounds are prominent. If you don’t like these sounds, then you can easily avoid them by making a softer sound. The Dutch don’t mind and understand you just as well.
6. Dutch grammar will drive you insane
At first sight this proposition may look like a true obstacle. Indeed Dutch word order looks very complex.
Verbs seem to jump to the end of a sentence for no obvious reason, and the subject changes place with the verb.
“Though this may look like madness, yet there is method in ‘t.” Any decent beginners course should teach you these simple grammatical tricks in a short time.
7. Dutch is not culturally interesting, with insipid literature, bland theatre and silly films
In the BBC programme The Forum (22 May 2010) Dutch-born author Ian Buruma suggested that it would be a good idea for English speakers to learn Dutch as their first second language: “There are various advantages to Dutch. It has a rich literature. So there is a lot to read.”
It is true that there is a wealth of novels, stories, plays and poems to be discovered. Take, for instance, this little poem, which happens to be the very first poem written in Dutch. It is from the 11th century and you can see how closely related our languages were and still are. The only word that got lost in modern Dutch is hinase (except).
Here it is:
Hebban olla vogala
hinase hic enda thu
wat unbidan we nu?
In modern Dutch:
Hebben alle vogels
behalve ik en jij
wat verbeiden we nu?
(= waar wachten we nu op?)
Have all birds
except I and thou
what are we waiting for now?
So leave these seven myths behind and learn Dutch! What are you waiting for!
This article was written in February 2020 by Ruud Hisgen (Direct Dutch Institute), for IAMEXPAT in the Netherlands