Why Trying To Learn Dutch Feels Like Going Back to School

Learn Dutch

Maybe it is because I am English and the stereotypical politeness that comes with it that courses me to ask a Dutch person “Spreekt u Engels?” before I bombard them with the language. Whatever the reason may be a lot of them reply with a very simple, “Yes, a little.”

However, when a Dutch person suggests they only know a little bit of English it is usually the equivalent of Albert Einstein claiming he only knows a little bit about mathematics or Steven Hawkins saying he only understands some Physics. In contrast to this when most English people say they can speak Dutch it’s usually the equivalent of claiming to be a gourmet chef when all they can do is burn toast.

English seems to come easy to the Dutch but most (not all) expats struggle with Dutch. Attempting to learn Dutch often feels like returning to school. This isn’t because every Dutch person runs around in school uniform, scraping their nails down any available chalkboard and making out with the girls from the neighboring country behind the bike shed (although some probably do). It’s because it’s like trying to learn reading, writing and speaking all over again (especially if you are dyslexic like me).

Counting has to be re-learnt. The system for telling the time is different. There are new names for the letters of the alphabet. You even have to learn how combinations of different letters make new and unfamiliar sounds that will course you to talk like a Klingon with a cold.

During the first few months of learning a conversation with a Dutch person is like trying to understand Scooby Doo. You might be able to figure out what they are saying from their hand gestures and the noises they make but the words themselves are impossible to understand.

Every conversation becomes an exam that you have not studied for enough, possibly because the X-Box or PS2 provided too much of a distraction. A simple solution to this might be to write the answers on your arm and have a sneak peak when no one is looking.

If you get caught however you might end up getting sent to the head masters office along with the Spanish kid who did not realize his Dutch friends were only teaching him swear words (which would make him seem to have Dutch tourettes) and whenever he thought he was asking for directions he was in fact asking for something that would make most prostitutes in the red light district blush.

57 responses to “Why Trying To Learn Dutch Feels Like Going Back to School”

  1. Ash says:

    After four years I can tell the time properly, but I still ask for appointment times in 24 hour clock terminology to avoid confusion.

    The alphabet is difficult. If I need to spell anything out I use the phonetic alphabet. It’s well worth learning and everyone knows it. Look here and scroll down for the Dutch ones:


  2. Tess says:

    *History lesson instead of Dutch* just out of curiosity, do you realise what ‘neighboring country’ means to Dutch??? *You might like to rectify that* As tough as it is to pronounce a ‘harde g’ to non Dutch that’s how tough it is to Dutch to pronounce the ‘neighboring country’ and not because it starts with ‘een harde g’ ;) so the situation you’re describing is probably very unlikely to happen *grin* It’s like the English/French type of thing… ya know…

  3. Elle says:

    But Stu, at least you’re trying. The fast majority of your country lot can’t be bothered and end up talking s l o w e r or LOUDER as if we have something with our hearing.

    So, well done.

  4. Tess says:

    Belgium is beautiful! :) I was wondering: do you ever get annoyed by Dutch trying to correct you? Or when they start to speak English (as soon as they hear the accent) while you want them to speak Dutch (so you will learn)? My partner had a problem with that.

  5. ellen says:

    I was raised with the language (the daughter of recent Dutch immigrants to Canada), so I greatly admire your skill in learning a pretty awkward language.

  6. Tess says:

    Mattias: perhaps it’s them Amsterdammers then… because it happened while we were living there [and I was one of them]

  7. Tess says:

    But shoarma isn’t a Dutch word… and most shoarma places are run by non Dutch

  8. tenakalaz says:

    tut, tut, jij moet er gewoon wat meer tijd insteken jongen!!

    Ik ga vanaf nu elke dag meer nederlands met jou praten….


  9. BlondebutBright says:

    Yes! “A little bit.” I love it. I always have to hold back a laugh, because I know that the conversation that is about to take place will be extremely complex, and they’ll have no problem following. Who teaches them to say “a little”? Hilarious.

  10. Invader_Stu says:

    What’s that? You want a Scooby snack?

    Just kidding. I know what you said.

  11. Aisling // Ash says:

    I love it when I’m shopping with the Quebecoise (which is to say females from Quebec) that I live with and they just blast out the F word, and all the anglophones stare in shocked shockingness. Then I’m left to remind the girls that we’re not actually supposed to use that word when referring to avocados. But they never learn…

  12. Harry-P says:

    I’m lost now. I didn’t know they had their own proper language on continental Holland. On my name that I should have known better.



  13. Alisha says:

    I found your blog while in search of information about the Netherlands. I am part Dutch and very curious to learn the language. I hope you don’t mind if I continue to read your blog, I’m finding it very entertaining & insightful!

    Kind regards,

  14. Invader_Stu says:

    Alisha – Of course not. Everyone is welcome :)

  15. Invader_Stu says:

    Ash – Thanks. That web site will come in handy

    Tess – You mean the Germans? What about the other counties you share boarder with?

    Elle – T H A N K Y O U V E R Y M U C H

  16. Mattias says:

    I’m not moving to Holland until March, en ik praat al Nederlands, what does that say about me :-)

    I’ve just been using it to eavesdrop on Dutch tourists over here.

    Tess: I have that problem in Amsterdam, it’s okay in Rotterdam though. Except at Shoarma-places, I’ve never managed to order those in Dutch

  17. Mattias says:

    Could be, it wouldn’t explain the Shoarmas though.

    Or it could be the millions of tourists every year pretending to know how to order beer in A’dam.

  18. ChickyBabe says:

    Can Stu make most prostitutes in the red light district blush?? :P

  19. Jean-P says:

    Oh yes and it makes it easier to order’ tekila’ and follow snottish combersations …



  20. Tenakalaz says:

    Shoarma = Egyptian meat (preferably lamb)

    bland Things = Febo, boerenkool, stampot, hutspot.

    Nice things, Stoofpeeren, gehaktbal (if well made, goulash kroket, Varkenshaas and babi pangang (yes it is Dutch you won’t find it anywhere in China :) )

  21. marycub says:

    I have infact met a dutch person who didn’t speak a word of English. However… he was about 100 and this was in the deepest darkest depths of scheveningen *shudder*

  22. marycub says:

    PS shoarmas are YUMMMMMMMYYY. There was a great restaurant near us when i lived in blankenburgstraat in The Hague. I forget its name but it was the best Egyptian place in the world. Everytime we went we had “shoarma kip”. :-D wow the mere mention of shoarma brings back memories of my childhood :-)

  23. Nick says:

    It seems to me you’re worrying too much. When I first came here (16 years ago) I went to evening classes to learn the language, but it didn’t take and I stopped going. But over the next 15 years Dutch sort of soaked in and eventually I found I could both understand and speak it – not brilliantly, but well enough. And the fact remains that 99% of these people speak English anyway. Give it time, it’ll come.

  24. Invader_Stu says:

    Tess – Actually when they start to speak English it feels like a get out of jail free card. Although it is true that that might be why I have not had enough practice.

    But nothing can be as strange as the time an Albert Hijn girl told me she did not like my English accent when I spoke Dutch.

    Mattias – Have you just learnt Dutch or did you already know it?

    BlondebutBright – A lot of Dutch people I know learnt English from the A-Team so they properly learnt it from there.

    Ash – Is it just when shopping for avocados that they use the F word?

    Harry-P – Until I moved here I was not sure how much English they spoke.

    Jean-P – I think another way to put it is it makes it more ‘dangerous’ to order tequila.

    Tenakalaz – Fabo = Some thing to only eat when you are very drunk on the way back from the pub.

    ChickyBabe – Do you really want to know or are you just trying to get me to talk dirty to you? :p

  25. Mattias says:

    I cheated and went to University in Holland….

  26. Invader_Stu says:

    Marycub – I will really miss good shoarmas if I ever move to another country. Just thinking about them is making me hungry :p

    Nick – That’s how I’ve been learning so far.

    Mattias – Did you write the answers on your arm too :p

  27. Rose says:

    I have always wanted to learn dutch. Care to teach me red? :)

  28. Emiel says:

    For me it was the other way around, I had to learn English when I went to an American High School when I was 13. It was pretty scary to attend classes and not have a clue what they’re about, so I know how you feel.

    Veel succes met het leren van Nederlands!!!


  29. Mattias says:

    I’m just worried I’m going to run out of arm, my new job has promised to only speak Dutch to me.

  30. Invader_Stu says:

    Rose – I can teach you everything you need to know to ask Dutch people if they speak English :p

    Mattias – You could always use the fake arm sling and eye patch trick as Chevy Chase does in the movie ‘Spies Like Us.’

  31. Tess says:

    Hi Stuart,

    [thanks for your reply earlier, just got home, will send you email later]. About the AH girl, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard! I reckon she must have finished her O Levels and found herself a nice comfy job at the till so she could spend the rest of her miserable life slagging off customers.

    How did you react????

    To Tenakalaz can I be a smarty-pants? Babi Pangang is actually Indonesian, I should know because I’m half Indonesian half Dutch… I could send you my authentic family heirloom recipe if you are willing to pay? ;) You’ll be lucky coz you could buy all the ingredients over there. I’m stuck in London, can’t find things and have friends send it over from NL to UK

  32. Invader_Stu says:

    Emiel – That must have been worse. At least I’m lucky that I can always ask someone to tell me what something means in English.

  33. Invader_Stu says:

    Tess – I was so surprised by it that I didn’t really know what to say.

    I never saw here there again. Maybe she got fired for annoying too many customers.

  34. Tenakalaz says:

    Tess – Arrrrrgh, curses….. you win this time smarty pants. But my trivia will overpower yours eventually.. woohahahahahaha (raises hand to sky mockingly)

  35. Tess says:

    *puts on her cowboy boots and starts moving sideways in a straight line to the sound of Elvis; ‘Just Call Me Lonesome’ [at the top]*

  36. Tess says:

    How’s that then? *works for me…*

  37. Aisling / Ash says:

    “Ash – Is it just when shopping for avocados that they use the F word?”

    No, it’s for every object. If it’s an object, it will be proceeded by the F word!

  38. zoe says:

    when asked something in flemish (because the belgians don’t speak dutch and the dutch don’t speak flemish, we don’t want to upset the two sets of people) i end up asking ‘spreekt u engels of frans’ ? so my flemish is extremely advanced as you can see.

    i can also give directions, providing on whether or not i know where they want to go to.

  39. tenakalaz says:

    hehehe. Damn cowboy boots, and then elvis as lemon juice..for that extra sting.

    oh the pain.

  40. Invader_Stu says:

    Noooo. You can’t mix The King and line dancing.

  41. Joe says:

    Hey Stuart,

    As i said on bloggertalk, love the blog!

    I feel your pain though with regards to learning dutch…Im learning shorthand, and im having the exact same problems you are! and Shorthands in English! lol

    Keep up the good work!

  42. Tess says:

    *sighs, kicks off boots, walks over to record player and swaps the King for ELO*

  43. Tess says:

    Tenakalaz: I’m proud to be a fossil… :9 and fyi I’m certainly not trying to hide anything tsk, you see… in the olden days…

  44. Tess says:

    Tenakalaz: I’m proud to be a fossil… :9 and fyi I’m certainly not trying to hide anything tsk, you see… in the olden days…

  45. Tess says:

    Oh come on guys… ELO stands for eliminated landed object, do I really need to explain?

  46. Alan says:

    It’s only since learning Dutch (sorry Zoe, Flemish), that I realised why the English commentators always had so much difficulty with Ruud Gullit’s last name (and in the end, none of them got it right). It’s like how people pronounce Vincent Van Gogh. Some say Goff, some Goh, but if they were getting it right, it just sounds like you are clearing your throat.

  47. Invader_Stu says:

    Tess – *shakes head*

    Aisling – Must make conversations interesting.

    Zoe – I wonder if there is a Dutch/Flemish version of, “you say potato. I say patato.”

    Joe – Thanks. I hope things get easier.

  48. PaulGuise says:

    I feel for you. Really I do. The first time I went to Mexico I was totally lost because mexican spanish is different than Spain spanish.

    Although, when the residents claim to only know a little english, they actually did only know a sentence or 2.

    Keep your head up.

  49. tenakalaz says:

    hehehe, ELO… giving your age away tess!!!!

  50. Invader_Stu says:

    I almost asked, “What’s a ELO?” before I looked it up on line.

  51. Tenakalaz says:

    stu….. I hang my head for you…….

    did you live in a sound proof room with a violin filter ??

  52. Invader_Stu says:

    Tess – Yes :p I didn’t follow music much during my teenage years.

    Alan – I’ve never heard an American pronounce Vincent Van Gogh right either :p

    PaulGuise – What was the sentence they usually knew?

    Bibi – I’m not sure I understand your comment.

  53. Invader_Stu says:

    Bibi – A lot of the time your comments are quite random and seem like spam. I also get the impression that you have been commenting under several other names since the writing style and way of signing off are always the same.

  54. Invader_Stu says:

    Bihi – My issue was more with the random spam like nature that most of your comments seem to take.

  55. vallyP says:

    Oh geez, don’t remind me Stu! I feel like this ten times a day. a real dunce!

  56. Eric says:

    Babi Panggang isn’t Dutch. Someone on this page suggested that, because he/she knows it isn’t a Chinese term either. Well you’re wrong. It is by origin a Chinese dish brought to Indonesia by the Chinese. The Dutch picked it up there. “Babi” means “pork” and Panggang (not Pangang!) means “grilled”.

  57. Breigh says:

    haha LOVE the blog :) I found you through Stitched in Holland. I totally agree that the Dutch really downplay how well they can speak English. When I say I can speak a bit of Dutch, I mean a bit… like I’d struggle carrying on a conversation with a 3 year old. When they say a bit, they mean something totally different. I’m convinced that they do it to lower our expectations so when they do speak we are totally impressed. You know how much the Dutch love to ‘wow’ people!

    My problem is, when I phone somewhere or am out shopping and ask ‘Spreekt u ook engels?’, they often respond ‘Yes, but you speak Dutch’. Argh! Knowing how to ask if they speak English doesn’t = fluent in Dutch by any means :P

    I’ve been living here since 1999 and while I understand a lot of the language, I can’t speak it for shit. Most of my conversations with the Dutch is them speaking Dutch to me and me speaking English to them. Probably would seem quite strange to someone looking on.

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