Dutch for Beginners: A Warning

Dutch for Beginners

There is no other sentence in the whole of the Dutch language that will get you into more trouble than, “Ik spreek een klein beetje Nederlands.”

In the beginning it might seem harmless enough. After all it is just a polite way of warning the Dutch what kind of conversation they are letting themselves in for when they try to communicate with you. What could be wrong with that? It even shows a willingness to learn the language.

Maybe it is the first Dutch sentence you learn. Maybe you even start using it to open every conversation with every Dutch person you meet and in the beginning they will most likely appreciate your attempts to speak their difficult language.

But then it slowly starts to happen…

With each new encounter you become more confident in using the sentence. Over time your stutters and stammers become less, your pronunciation improves and you even start getting all the words in the right order. In fact, the rest of your Dutch might not improve at all but you become really, really good at saying this one sentence. And because of that, it happens…

The Moment

One day, you meet a Dutch person you have never met before and (for whatever reason) you enter into a conversation with them. Expecting the same positive reaction you have received countless times before you use your trusted sentence, “Ik spreek een klein beetje Nederlands.”

But they don’t respond with the usual appreciation. They don’t commend you on your attempts to speak the language and joke with you about how well you are doing. They just stare at you like you are a complete and total liar.

The look of mistrust should come as no surprise. It’s your own fault. On the one hand you have just informed them that you can’t speak much Dutch but on the other you have just done so using better diction and pronunciation than most members of the Dutch royal family.

It’s like a Dutchman approaching you in the street while wearing a top hat and monocle suddenly announcing, “I am so terribly sorry to inconvenience you old chap but my abilities in the English language are sadly lacking in verbosity. Please do forgive my embarrassed attempts at communicating with you.”

It sends very mixed signals.

Dutch for Beginners

And even if they don’t think you are somehow trying to trick them you are in even more trouble because they will instead assume you are simply being modest and suddenly launch into the kind of full speed Dutch conversation that even a diplomatic translator would have trouble understanding.

Any confused, blanked and (let’s be honest) slightly panicked expressions on your part won’t help either because they are now convinced that you are a master of the Dutch language. They will simply assume they have used one of the small handful of Dutch words you have not got around to learning yet and repeat the sentence with a different and inevitably (for you) more difficult set of words as if the previous words were somehow to far below your IQ level to be understood.

There is usually no way out at this point and it simply becomes easier to simply nod and smile a lot. In fact, in the future when using the sentence “Ik spreek een klein beetje Nederlands” it’s probably safer to say it really, really badly.

And things will get much more challenging when you start trying to learn the difference between ‘de’ and ‘het’.

20 responses to “Dutch for Beginners: A Warning”

  1. Kristy says:

    I’ve been living here for 6 mths and feel my Dutch is somewhat insufficient thought most Dutchies find that it’s pretty sufficient. I don’t say ” Ik spreek klein beetje Nederlands” but I do say.. ” Mijn Nederlands nog steeds niet uitstekend is” That probably is better, toch?

  2. A very good observation- and a hilarious post! A friend of mine noticed the same thing: when you first start learning Dutch, you might be met with frowns and responses in English. Then, as your Dutch improves, they will start answering in Dutch and compliment you on your knowledge of this language. But then, as you reach fluency, they will, once again start correcting you and saying things like: “no, this doesn’t sound Dutch” or “no, we don’t say this like that” as if they think now it’s the time when your Dutch should be perfect-and in my friend’s opinion it’s also the Dutch people’s way of saying “you don’t belong here”. But as for your post, yes, if you say “ik spreek een beetje Nederlands” they expect you to do just that: speak a little bit of Dutch. When somebody asks me whether I speak Dutch, I just say “yes”, even though I em tempted to add that it’s just a little bit really and please don’t expect too much of me.
    Besides, I was showing your avatar to my daughter, and told her: “and this is Stuart”, and she’s like: “Aaaa, Stuart!”, as if she totally knew who you were”! Hilarious!

  3. Alison says:

    My phrase of choice is, “Mijn Nederlands is nog niet zo goed.” But a Dutch friend helped me with the rhythm of it all and one of the last times I used it, the Dutch person I was speaking to just kept right on going in Dutch, assuming perhaps that I understood a lot more than I do, since I’ve gotten quite good at saying that one sentence.

  4. Invader_Stu says:

    Kristy – I would say that is an very advanced way of saying it :) You will definitely get a few Dutch people thinking you are being modest.

    Olga – Hehe. Cute. Tell your daughter Stuart said hello.

    Alison – I think that is the killer, getting the rhythm right. Then they think you must be Dutch.

  5. iooryz says:

    I think the fact that you’re addicted to speculoos is more an indication that you’re turning Dutch. But keep practising on “scheveningen”

  6. Ingrid says:

    I have actually faked a ‘bad accent’ to get by this one… ;)

    You are *so* right.

  7. Invader Stu says:

    Iooryz – I have been practising ‘scheveningen’ for a long time. I know WW2 is over but I’m not risking getting mistaken for a German spy.

    Ingrid – I might have done this too *cough*

  8. Peter says:

    Very true. I have very good Dutch pronunciation (apparently) but a tiny vocabulary, but my pronunciation leads people to talk fast at me with as many obscure words and expressions as possible. I find nodding knowingly and changing the subject to football helps.

  9. Tom says:

    When you can say this sentence fluently your Dutch is good enough: “Ik zou graag twee scheveningse scheepsbeschuiten willen”.

  10. Likeahike says:

    At least you don’t have an Amsterdam accent yet, I assume. That would really screw up expectations.

  11. VallyP says:

    Haha, Stu, so you do speak een klein beetje more than you admit….gotcha! That’s not what you said on my blog…okay, you didn’t actually say you couldn’t speak Dutch, but this proves you’re a darn sight better than you let on…what ho, old chap :)

  12. Phil says:

    I totally agree with you.
    In the first 2 years I’ve been in the NL, I didn’t learn any dutch, because I was working in an American company, so I was more busy trying to understand my Texan colleagues :)))

    Then I started watching some americans movies with subtitles, picking up some words here and there… then, after 2.5 years living in Amsterdam, I started a course…then I never stopped and now I speak a fluent Dutch. Still, I understand 80-85% of what is told…still I don;t understand certain people and people using unused words.

    Still, I understand Dutch people not appreciating people saying that sentence: I have a portuguese colleague that is able to say only that sentence…since 5 years. What is that for? She told that and then she cannot understand a simple question like ‘how long have you been here’, or ‘do you like the NL?’…basic stuff…it’s clear that this is frustrating the dutchie :))) … it would frustrate anybody. ‘I speak some dutch’…are you kidding him? :)) LOL

    I love your blog and I’ve also one, specific about Amsterdam…places unknown to the turists and to expats: http://www.inamsterdam.com . Are you in for a link exchange?


  13. Jules says:

    I’ve rarely used that line. Either my Dutch was so horrible that the person I was speaking to realized that I couldn’t make heads or tails of them and reverted to English, or else it was sufficient to continue the conversation in Dutch.

  14. Invader_Stu says:

    Peter – I find I get stuck in a nodding loop until I get found out.

    Tom – I would like two ships’ biscuits like Scheveningen? I think Google translate is lying to me.

    Likeahike – I work in Amsterdam but live in Rotterdam so my accent might be somewhere in-between.

    VallyP – I think I’m better then I admit to myself sometimes.

    Phil – Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out.

    Jules – That happens to me all the time.

  15. When uttering that sentence, just remember to throw in a couple of “errs” and “uhhs” into that sentence (like you did with the four ladies in your interview). That’s sure to be a safe strategy.

    Also: IS IT B-DAY???

  16. VallyP says:

    I’m sure you are!! I think that’s probably true of a lot of people, me included. It’s that great British tendency to beat ourselves with our own sticks :) How are things????

  17. Likeahike says:

    Ah, I thought you both worked and lived in Amsterdam. My mistake. You probalby mentioned it on your blog somewhere, but I’ve been reading it only for a short while and heaven’t read all the posts yet. Still mean to do so, because they’re brilliant. I left Rotterdam about fifteen years ago myself and still miss the river, alive with so many different kinds of boats and crafts. I especially remember a Vangelis concert with a choreography of cranes and light on World Harbour Day some years past. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it there. And if you want to practice your Dutch, here’s another tongue-twister my father used to use: de krolse kat krabt de krullen van de trap. ;-)

  18. housewifedownunder says:

    I had the same problem when I lived in Poland. I could say I didn’t speak much Polish in perfect Polish, but couldn’t put together any other sentences and usually just communicated through grunting and pointing. And of course, they didn’t believe me and continued to speak to me in Polish and then got frustrated when I didn’t understand as well as they thought I should.

  19. Invader Stu says:

    Barb – Oh I do that all the time :p And you already know the answer to that now ;)

    VallyP – Great :D Plus I realized I am a lot better at Dutch then I thought. I had to talk with a lot of doctors over the last few days in Dutch.

    Likeahike – Thanks :) I really like the amount of water here too. It was just a few years ago that I got into boating as well. We’ve sailed from Friesland to Leiden via Amsterdam but have not sailed through Rotterdam yet.

    HouseWifeDownUnder – That’s the feeling I have sometimes.

  20. Margot says:

    Oh my God! This is exactly how I feel! hahahahaha. Maar…I always start saying “ik spreek niet zo goed Nederlands” apparently with a native pronunciation and then…they just think I understand everything and never more speak with me in English! hahahahaha. Great post, I will share it for sure! Hilarious!

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