So! You have made the Netherlands your home. Congratulations on this very smart choice!
Aaaah what a country the Netherlands is, with its rain, its cities, its people, its cycle lanes… and its crazy language. You may have probably already noticed it: Dutch is a really, utterly, immensely, ridiculously, hopelessly hard language to learn.
It. Just. Makes. No. Sense.
Don’t worry, Dutch people know this. It’s hard for them too! In their endless kindness they have learnt English, and they often make spelling mistakes or grammatical errors in their own native language, so that us foreigners wouldn’t feel left out. How sweet.
Now. Let’s say you have fallen in love with a handsome, tall local, and want to bond with your schoonfamilie (“in-laws”). Or it could be that you need Dutch to advance your career. Or, maybe, you simply don’t want to be that person any longer, the outsider to whom Dutch just sounds like an awkward drunk-German-style jibber jabber.
Well, you have come to the right place. What follows are 8 proven tips – we have tested them for you – to learn the Nederlandse taal, and to have fun doing it. Tick them all off and you’ll be fluent in no time.
Ben je er klaar voor (“are you ready”)?
Tip 1 – Use the wonders of technology to get a good grasp on the basics.
When you are a total beginner in a language, knowing where to start can feel rather overwhelming. So overwhelming in fact, you might be discouraged to learn the language altogether. Do you make up a list of words to memorize? Do you read the dictionary? Do you buy all the grammar books you can find? Do you offer your soul in sacrifice to anyone who is willing to teach you a sentence? No, of course not.
You do what you already do for everything else: you use your smartphone. Download a language learning application and take up some of your daily Candy Crush time to teach yourself the Dutch basics.
There are several language apps available out there, among which HelloTalk, Memrise or Babbel, but our favourite by far is the amazing Duolingo app. It is free, intuitive and thoughtfully designed. The Dutch course is incredibly complete with a very smooth progression between levels. By the time you finish the course, you’ll have a good vocabulary knowledge in a wide variety of subjects (food, animals, holidays, nature, home, transports, etc.), and you will have developed a strong instinct on how to construct a sentence.
The best part: you will have made quick progress almost effortlessly. Duolingo feels like just another game you will get hooked to, where you get XP points and achievement rewards after each lesson and can compete with other learners in “leagues”. There is also a cute owl that encourages you when you answer correctly!
Tip 2 – Don’t be too cool for school.
Although Duolingo is indeed very intuitive and will give you a good overview of the Dutch language, nothing can help you navigate through the complex Dutch grammar like a qualified teacher.
Natives themselves might not be able to explain to you why they use sometimes “ligt”, sometimes “staat”, sometimes “zit” or sometimes “is” to mean the SAME thing. But teachers who have dedicated their lives to the language can answer all of your wildest questions. Except if you want to know whether the article in front of a word is “de” of “het”. This particular thing seems to be completely random and might forever remain one of the biggest mysteries in human history.
Your first option is to hire a private teacher for one-on-one lessons. There are many pros to that approach. You will get ultra-personalised attention from your teacher, who will adapt their teaching to your interests, limitations, and speed of progress. Another advantage, you’ll likely be able to enjoy your lessons in the comfort of your own home, as many private teachers offer to come to you. Private Dutch teachers are easily findable on specialized tutoring websites such as Apprentus and on local expats social media pages (check out the expats Haarlemmermeer Facebook page here). On the other hand, private language teachers in the Netherlands are often freelancers who pay their own taxes, which means that they charge rather high fees. Private lessons will cost you on average €35 – €40 per hour, with most teachers requiring a commitment of minimum 20 hours, paid in advance.
The second option is of course to join group lessons in a language school. These work out usually a little cheaper than private lessons and offer extensive courses for all levels. Sharing the lessons with other learners can help you feel less alone in your language learning journey and make the learning more fun, which will definitely boost your motivation. The negative points of group lessons include lesser flexibility – you do not choose the lesson times – and slightly less personalized attention from the teacher. Language schools are easily findable online; check out for example Talenmeester in Hoofddorp, or the nationally recognized Dutch language school Taalthuis which has a branch in Haarlem.
Last but not least, if you are struggling to learn by yourself but cannot financially afford lessons, the gemeente (“municipality”) Haarlemmermeer and the central library of Hoofddorp are there to help! In the Bibliotheek (“library”) Hoofddorp-Centrale, a program called the Taalhuis was opened in 2016 for anyone who needs help with learning or practicing Dutch. Through the Taalhuis program, the library gives you advice on all Dutch courses and schools that exist in the region; they provide you with free study material and access to the library computers to practice the language; and they direct you to free courses taught by volunteers.
Tip 3 – Read, Forrest, Read!
A lot of reading is indubitably the best way to make sure words (and their correct spelling!) will stay in your head. With only your Duolingo and school basics though, you may not be able to read ‘War and Peace’ in Dutch right away. You’ll have to start from scratch and go back in time, as if you were in first grade learning to read and write, all over again. In other words, you’ll have to start with the easiest reading there is: children’s books.
Lucky for you, Dutch kids are eager readers and there are a lot of awesome stories to choose from in your local book stores.
For your first reads, we recommend that you don’t bite more than you can chew and just pick extremely simple baby/toddler books: our favourite is the iconic ‘Nijntje’ series (you may know Nijntje as “Miffy” in English). The cute little stories are written in a very simple, rhyming language. Another must-read are the adventures of the two puppies ‘Woezel en Pip’.
Once you feel a little more confident, you can move on to the ultimate classics of Dutch children literature. Namely, pretty much every book ever written by the one and only, Annie M.G. Schmidt: ‘Jip en Janneke’, ‘Pluk van de Petteflet’, ‘Minoes’, etc. A little more modern are the world of ‘Dolfje Weerwolfje’ (“Dolfie the werewolf”) written by Paul van Loon, and the fantastic universe of ‘De Gorgels’, cheeky little night creatures, created by the young Dutch comedian Jochem Myjer. That last one, we can’t get enough of!
Your level of Dutch should have significantly improved by now, which means you are probably ready for teenage literature. No Dutch kid has gone through childhood without at least hearing about ‘Kruistocht in spijkerbroek’ (Crusade in Jeans) by Thea Beckman. Finally, if you grew up with the millennial generation and have, too, spent many years waiting for your Hogwarts letter, do make sure to read the Harry Potter books in Dutch. Since you already know the story, you’ll be surprised at how much you can understand!
Tip 4 – Accept pop culture as your best ally.
Books are great, but they won’t help you master the tricky Dutch pronunciation. Music, movies, TV and other Dutch-speaking entertainment will.
Unfortunately, Dutch music is mostly ear-destroying (do yourself a favour and do NOT look up ‘Ronnie flex’ or ‘Bitterballen donder op’ on YouTube), unless of course Carnival folklore is your cup of tea.
Jokes asides though, there exist some really cool television programmes for you to watch. We strongly recommend ‘Zondag met Lubach’, for instance, a weekly satirical news show broadcasted on NPO 3 (also available online). It’s easy enough to understand and the jokes are a great reflection of the Dutch mindset and way of life.
Podcasts and radio shows are another great way to improve your Dutch listening and understanding skills. Try ‘Zeg het in het Nederlands’, 20-minute long podcasts in which Dutch is spoken a bit slower than normal to help listeners fully understand the stories, or ‘SBS Dutch’ which offers quick overviews of the latest Dutch news, in Dutch, during podcasts lasting from 5 to 15 minutes. Best of all is probably the ‘Echt Gebeurd’ podcast, which might require a more advanced level of Dutch, but is totally hilarious with people telling crazy and unique stories that really happened to them.
Tip 5 – Make Dutch friends to learn the street lingo.
Dutch people go out in packs, often staying between themselves, hence it can feel somewhat intimidating for us foreigners to try to establish friendly relationships with the local fauna. But you should try anyway. As hard as you can. It’s worth it!
Dutch people – most of them – aren’t only super sweet, and fun to hang around, and lovely to look at, and open-minded. They also have a very particular way to talk… with idioms and little language perks that you’re not going to learn from books. As we all know, usage is as much a part of a language as spelling and grammar, and Dutch usage by Dutch people is, to say the least, quite interesting. And ever-changing.
You must spend time, a lot of time, around Dutch people to pick up awesome language parasites like toch or tjonge jonge or weet je wel. And swear words of course, which won’t be listed here, sorry hoor, gozer (“sorry dude”).
To succeed in making Dutch friends, there are several steps you can take. Invade Dutch people’s natural habitats, such as Yoga and Zumba classes, festivals, snack bars or anywhere that has beer. Or use your native language as a trading currency: a lot of Dutch people will be happy to practice Dutch with you in exchange for some help with a language that they want to learn (there are many language exchange events organised all over the place in Haarlem or Amsterdam, join one!).
Tip 6 – Out of your comfort zone you go: work Dutch.
“I can’t find a job in Dutch unless I speak it perfectly”. Hum, wrong! It’s the other way around. You will only ever speak Dutch perfectly if you force yourself to use the language, even when your level is low. ESPECIALLY when your level is low. And forcing yourself also means finding a regular activity where you have no choice but to speak Dutch.
There are a lot of jobs you can do on a part-time basis (on the side of your main English-speaking expat job) where you can use Dutch in a non-stressful way. Being an oppas (“babysitter”) to Dutch-speaking children is probably the best idea. Children are so very helpful: they speak slower than adults, with simpler words, less slang and fewer abbreviations; they don’t judge, don’t make you feel shy when they don’t understand you; and they are patient, they will repeat what they mean as many times as it takes for you to get it. Actually, they don’t even see you as a foreigner, they’ll just think you are “that slow kid” they should be nice to.
Other jobs you can do with limited Dutch proficiency include service in cafés or restaurants, and retail. These sectors are in critical staff shortage in the Netherlands, so jobs are easy to come by.
(Bonus tip: this expression literally translates to “work them” and is used all the time as a nice, encouraging phrase for people who are on shift. The English equivalent would be more like “go get them”. You could say werk ze to your cashier at the supermarket when you leave, to which they would reply dank je wel, “thank you”. It doesn’t get much more Dutch than that.)
Tip 7 – Explore the country, move around and open your ears to accents.
Dutch sounds different, very different, whether you are in Friesland up there in the great north, or in Limburg near Belgium, or in Amsterdam. And just like in any other country, every region of the Netherlands claims to have the best accent and to speak the best Dutch and to be the best in everything, always. While of course, that’s not true. People of Limburg can keep dreaming.
Chances are, as a Haarlemmermeer resident, that you are learning the Amsterdam / Haarlem kind of Dutch right now – that’s the one they speak on TV. But, should you want to take your Dutch understanding ability to the next level, it is very good for you to get used to all the other accents too. We recommend that you have a little trip away to Maastricht, capital of Limburg. It’s a lovely, historical city with a lot to offer – including one of the most breathtakingly beautiful book stores in the world, the Dominicanen – and everyone there speaks with a weird up and down melody, like they are constantly being tickled or something.
Go to Rotterdam as well, but whatever you do, do NOT pick up the Rotterdams accent, it’s probably the worst in the entire world. It truly hurts the brain. Actually, Rotterdam is one of the top 5 places on planet Earth where they speak the best English as non-English natives. Coincidence? We think not. They were failing so hard in Dutch they just moved on to an easier language. Sending much love to our friends in Rotterdam!
Tip 8 – Repetition is key. Practice every day and do not ever give up!
Dutch can escape you as fast as it came to you, if you forget about it for a while. Language is funny like that. The only way to make sure you maintain a steady progress is by using Dutch, every, single, day.
There will be times when you will get headaches. Times when you will be so close to being done with it all. Times when you’ll genuinely feel that you should have chosen Chinese instead.
It might take two decades for you to be bilingual. And that’s ok! Believe in yourself, don’t be self-conscious about your Dutch level, accept Dutch people’s corrections and criticism with a smile, learn from your mistakes and just keep going. All your hard work will pay off, eventually. We promise!
On that note, doei! (“bye bye”)