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Introduction to the Dutch Language

Dutch is spoken by 28 million people worldwide, of whom 23.5 million are native speakers. Dutch is an official language in Aruba, Belgium, Curaçao, the Netherlands, Sint Maarten, and Suriname. It is also spoken by various communities in countries around the world, such as France, Germany, and Indonesia. The Cape Dutch dialects of South Africa gradually merged to become Afrikaans, which a Dutch speaker can understand. The Flemish spoken in Belgium is considered by many to be a separate language, but the two peoples understand each other without difficulty.

Dutch is a child of Indo-European, a West Germanic language whose direct parent was Low Franconian. Since English is also a Germanic tongue, there are many similarities between Dutch and English, although not all of them are obvious on the surface. Dutch arose from Indo-European and is divided into several families. Its appearance as a separate language began around the sixth century when Old Frankish was divided by the second Germanic consonant shift and was classified as Modern Dutch by around the year 1500. Germanic languages have an intelligibility spectrum, and Dutch can be partially understood by speakers of German and West Frisian as well.

You won’t study the Dutch language without learning about Dutch culture at the same time. The Dutch see the family as the center of social structure. Families are usually small, seldom with more than two children. Women tend to stay home and be available to their children. The Dutch are highly egalitarian, and even in the workplace everyone’s opinion has the right to be heard. They tend to be a very private people who place value on order and cleanliness.

What’s similar between English and Dutch?

As mentioned, there are similarities between English and Dutch. There are numerous cognates (similar words), mostly in the basic words of our language. English “world” becomes Dutch wereld; English “thunder” becomes Dutch donder; English “day” becomes Dutch dag. In addition, we have borrowed numerous words from the Dutch language, including aardvark, aloof, beaker, blink, blunderbuss, caboose, dapper, to play hooky, scour, snuff, and many others.

What are some of the challenges for an English speaker learning Dutch?

  • Dutch grammar is very complex, although not quite as difficult as German. Dutch word order is different, and verbs often come at the end of a sentence or clause.
  • Dutch pronunciation is not easy—it has been described as “a nearly fatal throat disease”. Words like scheveningen, graag, and schiphol contain sounds unknown to English speakers, as well as the diphthong “ui”, which must simply be heard to be learned. Learning pronunciation, however, is not much more than constant repetition. Every human being on earth has been given the same basic vocal apparatus, and training it to make new sounds is much like training your fingers to create notes on a musical instrument. Practice is the key.
  • All Dutch nouns have gender—masculine, feminine, and neuter. There are some rules and some patterns, but for the most part every noun has to be learned with its gender by repetition. However, the grammatical impact of these genders is beginning to disappear.

People wonder how long it will take them to learn Dutch. Since everyone is different, that’s difficult to say. As a rule of thumb, you should plan on a year of intensive study for basic conversations and two years for being able to handle unfamiliar situations. On the other hand, once you have mastered Dutch, learning German or the Scandinavian languages will be much simpler.

Here are some examples of words in Dutch:

horse: paard

mother: moeder

father: vader

tea: thee

come: komen

teacher: leraar

friend: vriend         

Some useful Dutch sentences:

Hello. Hallo.

What is your name? Hoe heet u?

My name is … Ik heet

Good morning. Goedemorgen.

Goodbye. Tot ziens.

Where is the toilet? Waar is het toilet?

I don’t understand. Ik begrijp het niet.

Dutch is the seventh most spoken language in Europe and in the top 50 spoken worldwide. Both the Netherlands and Belgium are important trading partners of the United States, and knowledge of Dutch may be a definite asset in the business world. Even though many Dutch and Belgian people speak English, being able to speak their language will go a long way to generating goodwill.