Pass the Dutch

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Veronique Talent manager

1 Jul 2016  ·  5 min read

Our office family contains a couple different nationalities, and while we’re all fluent in tech talk, we recently offered three of them an intensive crash course in Dutch. Curious about how that went? Let’s dive into it...

If there’s one thing that technology has made much easier, it’s communicating with people all over the globe – and hiring them! Recently, our list of nationalities has grown: from the Netherlands to Italy, Poland, Croatia and even India. As in most tech business, English is our lingua franca, and we’re united by the fact that we all speak tech. However, because the large majority of our folks have Dutch as their native language, we noticed that it can be easy to slip into Dutch when small-talking…

To make sure that nobody felt left out, we offered our non-Dutch-speakers an intensive class to learn the language. Three of them eagerly dove into our funny language, and came out with a better understanding of why we’re such a weird bunch ;)

Read on for Mario, Ivica and Dario’s take on the hardest, weirdest and funniest bits of the Dutch language!

Weird words

Mario: As an Italian speaker, learning Dutch is a challenge. When you’re so used to words of a Latin origin, learning hundreds of words that are nowhere near that is pretty difficult. Learning the right article – “de” or “het” for each noun is equally confusing, because apparently, there are no logical rules. We all got some extra appreciation for the English use of “the” and “it”… After a while, we thought we had found the solution: just change the sentence to avoid the definite article and use “een”! This works quite well… until you want to use an adjective, because to know the correct form, you need to know if it is a “de” or “het”-word.

Ivica: A similar trick was the use of the diminutive form: if you’re not sure about the article, you can use the diminutive, because they always use “het”! It was especially funny to Dario and myself though – Dutch-speaking people use a lot of diminutive words in informal conversation… With the habits of diminutives in Croatian, it would sound like you’re all in love with each other!

Dario: What also very noticeable is that Dutch has a lot of words borrowed from other languages, especially German, English and French. At first, I felt like that would help me – I already know German – but in most cases, it makes everything even more confusing. It’s easier to recognize words and learn their meaning, but the pronunciation is usually completely different. It often sounds like a broken version of a word you already know, which makes it harder to remember… A quick example: the Dutch word for “thunder”, is “donder”, while in German it is “donner”. The similarities make it easy to mix up the forms, which probably sounds quite weird to a native speaker.

The three students

You were saying?

Mario: Even without the confusion from another language, pronunciation is tough. It’s astonishing how many vowels and diphthongs Dutch speaking people can pronounce. We have single vowels (a, e, i, j, o, u), double vowels (aa, ee, oo, uu) and some other sounds (ij, ei, ie, oe, ui, eu), and all of them together just makes a lot of sounds. As far as writing goes, Dutch also uses the same letter for different sounds – the letter e can be pronounced as /ɛ/, /eː/ and /ə/, depending on the context. A sentence like “de man op de maan” is just really confusing. And of course, it gets even more complicated when you hear all the different inflections due to local accents.

Dario: One of the weirdest things about Dutch spelling and speaking is the dominance of the letter “g”. Before starting to learn Dutch, when listening to other people speaking it, it seemed like I only heard the letter “g” (which to me sounded like “h”) ringing in my head. For example, if you want to ask someone “how are you?”, you say “Hoe gaat het?”, and the other person could reply with “Het gaat goed”, which means he’s doing well. For me, this question and answer sounded like hearing “hhhhhhhhh”. When we started studying Dutch, I finally learned what that weird sounding letter is!

Ivica: The confusing pronunciations did lead to a lot of funny “shot in the dark” situations. Occasionally, the teacher would ask us how to pronounce a certain word we saw for the first time. Even though there’s really not much of a chance you’ll get it right the first time, we all tried! In the attempt, we produced some half-English or half-German words that don’t really belong in any language. And of course, there was my absolute favourite part: the song! We were taught a basic, childish song to help us remember pronunciation, and it was quite catchy. I’d often start humming it around my roommate… who went a little crazy because of it.

Senseless structure

Mario: What we learned after a couple of weeks was: forget about having the subject-verb-prepositions sentence structure that you might be used to – Dutch just does it differently. It exists, sure, but you aren’t going to use it that often. Every time we were brave enough to start a sentence with something that wasn’t the subject, we felt the confusion of having to say the verb before the subject itself. And modal verbs are no better: the pairs of verbs that you use together most often (I would say, I can do, I must go) are strictly separated. Therefore “I want to go to the park tomorrow” becomes “*Ik wil morgen naar het park gaan*“. And please, do not ask me why: the construction of “omdat” (because) is even worse!

Our trio took an intensive beginners’ course from Linguapolis, the language learning centre of Antwerp University. Thanks for the fun and learning!