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…
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’.