8 Biggest Challenges for Learning Dutch

When I hear that people are learning Dutch (either with me or in another way), one of the first things I hear is that Dutch is difficult to learn. These 8 challenges for learning Dutch, even though a challenge, will prove Dutch is actually doable to learn. Like with learning anything, (some) things may seem hard in the beginning. And even though it is difficult, you are still on the right track! Once you are able to see that this is a learning process with obstacles and difficulties along the journey, you will soon see that you are able to get it!

So let’s dive into the 8 biggest challenges people face whilst learning Dutch.

1. Deciding you actually want to learn!

One of the things I often see is that people have a desire to learn Dutch, but they never get around to do it. They don’t find the time, the money or the motivation to learn and stay committed. I get it, we all have new habits that we want to create to make our lives better and just like eating healthier and exercise more, learning Dutch can fall into this same category. So just like with any habit building, you have to think about the following things:

  • Set a great goal and result. Why do you want to learn Dutch? How do you know when you have achieved it? What will your life look and feel like once you’ve mastered Dutch? Be really specific to really set and feel that goal!
  • Make a plan! I always say: if it’s not in the calendar, it won’t happen. Just like I put my work tasks and social activities in my calendar, I also put me time and time to learn a language (or anything new for that matter) in my calendar. I take time in my week to plan realistically so that I know for sure I can do it at that time. This could be an hour or learning Dutch with a teacher, some self study or even practicing on Duolingo.
  • Reinforce yourself again and again! By learning Dutch once, you can’t learn a language. Just like watering a plant once gets you a nice flower. No, it takes watering, time, love and care for a seed to bloom into a tulip ;). Same goes for your learning. It doesn’t mean you forcefully have to learn every day, but you reinforce yourself with love and kindness.

2. Pronunciation

Yep, it’s there! The pronunciation. The feared G and UI and even the O and R for some people are really tough to sound out. It’s a weird experience to say softly. Just like it’s hard for Dutchies to say the ‘TH’ sound perfectly in English, you may experience that the muscles in your mouth or the sound in your throat doesn’t feel quite right yet.

The risk with pronunciation is that you focus too much on it and you want to make it sounds perfectly. Aside from the fact that you sometimes can say things wrong when you don’t pronounce or articulate well (which can lead to some funny situations :)), focusing too much on it, will lead to frustration. And frustration will slow down your learning process. So what can you do instead?

  • You can learn what to do differently with your mouth, throat, jaws and voice to sound the letter the correct way. Having this knowledge can help you to know and remember the sounds better.
    One way to do this is through my Pronunciation Course! In this self-paced course, you will learn all the sounds from A to Z, giving you the knowledge and the kickoff you need to pronounce Dutch the right and fun way!
  • Focus on understanding and listening. Once you hear and speak more Dutch and you model other Dutchies saying the words, your pronunciation will improve automatically. So make sure you listen for understanding first and sound second!

3. Sentence Structure

Oh that sentence structure always seems to get people. If you are fluent in at least 2 or more languages, then you know that the sentences change per language. Where in English the verbs mostly follows the subject (the action word followed by who or what does it), in Dutch this is not the case. Here it’s more about the position of the verb (always in second place or last). This means that the subject sometimes goes after the verb, which confuses a lot of people. Once you get the hang of it and understand it through easier explaination and why it’s the way it is, you’ll see that you notice it yourself a bit more and more and before you know it, you speak like the Dutchies do!

For example: “Yesterday I (subject) went (verb) to the movies” will be “Gisteren ging (verb) ik (subject) naar de bioscoop”

4. Double meaning of words

Just like in English, we have a lot of words that have different meanings. Or in another case, where in English you use the same word for something, we use different words depending on the situation. For example: we use ‘bank’ for the bank as well as a couch. You could then say something like “I sit on the couch at the bank” which is “Ik zit op de bank bij de bank”. Or look at the English word time. You can actually address a time, or you can refer to the amount of times (multiply). In English you use time, and in Dutch you’ll see that people will use ‘tijd’ for both of them, whereas ‘keer’ should be used for the second explaination. Let’s illustrate this:

This is the second time today = Dit is the tweede keer vandaag
What time shall we meet? = Om welke tijd zullen we afspreken?

Sometimes it’s also funny to use double words in the same sentence like “De weg is weg” = “the road is gone”. It is best to know the different ways you can use a word and be curious about it, so you don’t have any surprises. It is the fun part to discover as this will teach you the actually Dutch culture and the way we use our language.

5. The Past Tense

The past tense has the same sort of structure as the English language, yet it does face some extra challenges along the road. Rather than one tense, we have about 4 different ones (-de, -den, -te, -ten) and also the irregular ones. It helps to know that once an English verb is irregular, the Dutch verb will most likely be too. And just like the vowel changes for English verbs, so do Dutch verbs. But, it still can be really overwhelming to learn all of these. I mean, look at a native English child when they are about 4-6 years old. How often and for how long will they still say ‘swimmed’ instead of ‘swam’ or ‘buyed’ instead of ‘bought’? They’ve seen and figured out the regular pattern and it takes some time to get used to all of these irregularities.

It’s important to know that trying to learn all of these at once, will probably leave you overwhelmed. It’s like sitting with your child and continously correct them and teach them how to say the past tense properly. I recommend to play around in knowing the most common present tenses first and using these confidently. Then, it’s time to take on the past tense. Good luck!

6. All the Dutch accents

The Dutchies love their accents and dialects and you will notice that one Dutch person can sound totally different than the other, based on where they are living. The fun part is that, once you become more understanding of our language, you will actually hear and recognise where someone is from. A true scavenger hunt ;). The most common difference is the ‘hard’ and the ‘soft’ G. In the northwest, you will hear a stronger and more harsh sounding G, whereas in the southeast the G sounds more subtle and soft. Another common one is that in conversational Dutch we talk different than that we write. For example, we hardly say the ‘n’ when it’s the last letter of the word. Or we say z’n (zun) instead of zijn (his). Just like any language has abbreviations like this, so does Dutch. It can take a bit of time and energy to get used to listening Dutch.

That’s why two strategies help with this: it’s good to hear the same conversations by different people and accents and listening to different people in general. That’s why I use different audio whilst teaching to get my students used to hearing other voices aside from mine. It’s also important to try and understand the context of a conversation rather than trying to hear and understand every single word. In this way you recognise words that are already in your vocabulary or are like English and you can in that way see what someone has said.

7. Those spelling rules…

I always chuckle a little bit when I hear people talk about the spelling rules. Because it reminds me of the time that I was learning English. I explain that it was really hard for me to spell “through, tough, though and througout”. When I tell my students this, they laugh with me and acknowledge (another hard one!) that English spelling is indeed hard. It helps to destress and see that every language probably has this problem. I also remember that as a child we had soooo many different spelling list that we had to learn. I still remember spelling rule number 1: write as you hear it. If only!

For this one I recommend the following and again I go back to your childhood. You probably could speak before you could write. There is a reason for that. It often helps to speak a language first before you really go into writing the language. This is mainly because you know what the sounds are like and can recognise when something is not quite right. Then you can apply spelling rule number one and have fun in writing it as you hear it. Or as you know it, as you’ve by know have seen many words written, stored and memorised. Once spelled, I like to read it back to you to so you can hear what’s not quite right yet.

For example: boten (long O sound and means boats) and botten (short O sound and means bones), have one letter difference but mean something totally different. Hearing this spoken back to you, you will soon hear the pattern and pick it up.

8. The Dutch culture in the language

Even tough this is perceived as difficult, it’s actually my most fun one. This makes a language real and authentic. Knowing that some people say certain things a certain way based on their location, generation or even on a family base, is so much fun. Even within the Netherlands, there is always some teasing around how we say hot chips or fries. Based on location, you either say ‘patat’ or ‘frietjes’. I say the latter and to me ‘patat’ sounds really gross! Then there are also the idioms that we have and love. ‘Helaas pindakaas’ (unfortunately peanutbutter) is one I love and we say when something just didn’t go quite the way you planned. It’s a light, supportive way of saying, this is unfortunate, but it’s okay and we’ll move on. You won’t say this when someone’s relationship just got broken up, for example. And of course, there is the Dutch humor. Once you are able to understand this and even make Dutch jokes, you know that you have truly mastered the language!

Challenges to learn Dutch

I hope that these 8 challenges will give you a bit of a look see into the language, and helps you to embrace the idea of learning Dutch. If you want to learn more, feel free to join me on Instagram. Yes it’s a challenge, but it’s a fun one! Be openminded and excited to learn, like you would learn anything. And most importantly: don’t be afraid to make mistakes. This is how you learn. These are the necessary steps you need to take to climb those stairs. Step by step!

What do you think is the most difficult about learning Dutch? What is it that you don’t seem to get?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *