How to learn Dutch
Many people have the ambition to learn a new language, like Dutch. It’s a beautiful goal: fluency. How great would it be to talk with native speakers, to add that Dutch language to your resume and to read original literature? Many students start with a feeling of extreme motivation and an ambitious plan.
Maybe you are one of those ambitious students and maybe that is the reason you are reading this article about how to learn Dutch. Maybe you are planning to get to fluency as fast as possible. If this is the case, keep reading, because there are some very common traps on the road of learning Dutch and The Dutch Online Academy is here to help you out!
Make sure what your motivation is to learn Dutch
1. Learn Dutch in small steps
We can’t underline enough how important it is to formulate clear goals when learning Dutch. Here you can read all about how to do that.
Vague goals are very common. Going for “fluency” in general is the most common one. This goal is certainly not impossible to reach, but it takes time. Break your goal up in small steps and don’t forget to ask yourself the reason why.
2. Know why you want to learn Dutch
Ask yourself the reason why you want to learn Dutch. Maybe it’s work related or maybe you have a Dutch partner. There are also many people who would like to get closer to their past and learn the language of their ancestors. Being aware of your motivation will keep you going, especially if your motivation comes from within. Doing the Dutch inburgeringsexamen can be a good reason to learn Dutch, but you won’t feel that intrinsic motivation if this is your only “push” (and chances are that you will lose your progress once you’ve reached it).
There is only one reason to learn Dutch that you should avoid: learning a new language because it’s considered cool by your environment won’t get you far. You are sure to lose that motivation within a short period of time!
Where to start when you learn Dutch
Every student is different and you should base your strategy on your personal story. If you are reading this article, you probably speak English. This can give you a head start, here you can read more about it. German? Even better! But any experience with learning a new language will help you enormously while learning Dutch, even when the language is not related to Dutch.
Below we are going to discuss the most common, most popular and most effective methods to learn Dutch, classified per level. Keep in mind that you have to take your personal learning style into account . Staying motivated while learning Dutch is very important, so focus on methods that are both effective and FUN.
What you should know about language learning levels (CEFR)
You are probably already familiar with the concept of levels. In the Netherlands, just like in most European countries, Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is used for learning, teaching and assessment of Dutch. The starting level is A1 (beginner) and the highest is C2 (mastery).
Is it important to stick to the levels? Partly, yes. And again this depends on your goal and learning style too. If you learn Dutch, it’s recommended to build up your vocabulary and grammar following a certain path. Most books for Dutch learning follow the CEFR lines. This way you can make sure you are learning words that are very common when you’ve just started to learn Dutch and save the really specific and less common words for C1.
The further you walk along the language learning path, the more you’ll have to use material from the “real world”. This means watching Dutch television shows for example, reading Dutch literature or talking with native speakers. This is useful in any stage of the language learning process, but when you are reaching B1/B2 level, it becomes a necessity.
For grammar, it’s recommended to make sure that you don’t develop big gaps between levels. Some students like to immerse themselves in the language and “learn it on the streets”. There is nothing wrong with this, since you would be using the language and in the end your goal is to communicate with others. But it is important to keep in mind that grammar can give all your skills (writing, speaking, listening and reading) a tremendous boost. Especially word order, which deserves special attention while learning Dutch. If you don’t dive into grammar at all, you run the risk of getting confused later on, having gotten used to structures that are not correct.
Active skills versus passive skills
In language learning, we can distinguish four skills: reading, listening, writing and speaking. The last two are what we call active skills, you produce the language yourself. The first two are passive skills, you need to comprehend the language.
It’s very important to keep in mind that it’s totally fine and normal to feel like your passive skills are developed further than your active skills. This is logical and even applies to your native language in some way. While reading a good book or hearing an interesting speech in your native language, you might also be aware of the fact that you wouldn’t be able to write or speak exactly like that. Words are used that are not in your active vocabulary, or sentences structures occur that you barely use in your day to day life. This is normal. We all develop a personal style and preference during our lives. While learning a new language like Dutch, this will be even more the case.
At some point you might be able to listen to a complicated Dutch podcast, understanding 90%. But being asked to give a summary, you find yourself struggling with words and sentence structure. Know that the language levels and assessments (like inburgeringsexamen and staatsexamen NT2) also take this into account. For example, the vocabulary they expect you to understand during the Dutch reading exam, is completely different from what they expect you to say during the Dutch speaking exam.
It is important to pay attention to all four skills while learning Dutch. Many students start with grammar and reading, moving slowly towards their first conversation in Dutch, waiting to feel more comfortable. Don’t. Combine the four skills + grammar from the start! Start speaking and writing in Dutch from day one on!
A0/A1 where to start when you want to learn Dutch
You’re starting! Great. You’ll soon feel progress, since you don’t know anything yet! Going from nothing to something doesn’t sound that hard, right? Your focus should now be on building up basic vocabulary. Once you have a vocabulary, you’ll have some “pieces” to crack the code we call grammar.
Here you can read more about building up vocabulary to learn Dutch. Very important: words stick way better if they are used within a relevant context. Don’t worry if flashcards are your best friends, but also try to add some “life” to it.
To combine the four skills, it’s highly recommended to follow a course. This way you’ll hear words be pronounced and you’ll probably are offered material that fits your level. Many methods to learn Dutch offer a combination of texts, audios and writing exercises.
It’s never too early to start talking with native speakers. If you are living in the Netherlands, you shouldn’t be shy and just try to speak in Dutch with the delivery guy or the waitress. You’ll see they appreciate it, although in big cities, it’s not uncommon to be answered in English straight away. Don’t worry, it’s not just you, it happens to almost fluent Dutch learners as well.
Often students are looking for material online or in children’s book shops. Be aware that material meant for children is not necessarily easy. Maybe you are familiar with Nijntje (Miffy), meant for two year old children. Let’s look at a page from Nijntje aan zee (Miffy at the beach):
Nijn schepte wat zij scheppen kon Het fort werd groot en sterk Je zag alleen haar hoofdje nog Het was een reuze werk
Miffy shoveled what she could shovel The fort grew big and strong You only still saw her head It was a huge job
Wow, this is not easy at all! “Scheppen” is not a frequently used verb. “Nog” is often confusing for language learners and the irregular simple past is used four times. This requires some serious Dutch learning!
So, please don’t feel bad if you don’t understand Dutch material that is supposed to be easy. The same applies to supposedly “easy” conversations at for example the supermarket. You won’t be the first who doesn’t understand why they ask: “bonnetje mee?” (this is a short way to ask if you would like to have the receipt).
A2/B1: is the inburgeringsexamen an end goal?
Ah, the level of the Dutch inburgeringsexamen! So wanted by so many. And if you’re dedicated to learning Dutch, it’s certainly not impossible to get here in a year or even half a year (again, partly depending on your language learning background).
Now maybe you are not at all interested in passing for the inburgeringsexam. That’s great news, because again: intrinsic motivation is so important. But we are mentioning the inburgeringsexam because for many students it is a milestone. Passing for it is a great achievement.
There is a difference though, between studying at A2/B1 level and studying for the inburgeringsexam. The exam is, in some way, a trick. Now that might not sound so nice, because you certainly need knowledge of Dutch to pass, but it is true that thorough exam training will make you be able to pass the exam, without covering all grammatical topics and vocabulary of the level.
A2/B1 is where you enter the intermediate level. You should be able to have short conversations and express for example your opinion about simple topics. This requires a good understanding of texts and spoken language, especially in routine situations. This is also what makes this level fun! You can really put your Dutch into practice and improve while using it in your day to day life.
It’s still highly recommendable to work with language learning material designed for the level you’re at. You will have to cover certain Dutch grammar, especially at B1 level word order is one of your main challenges (unless you already speak German, maybe). Besides this, you should now dive into “real world material” on youtube, Netflix and the radio. You will learn, even though you can’t follow half of what people are saying. Your brain will get used to structures, the use of ER for example and the pronunciation of words. This will certainly help you later on.
Do you like reading? Check out www.eenvoudigcommuniceren.nl. You’ll find regular books written in easy language. This way you can enjoy a good story, while learning vocabulary tailored to your level.
B2: immerse yourself
The higher the level, the more vocabulary and exposure you’ll need. For A1, you’ll need to know around 500 words, but at B2 level, your Dutch vocabulary should have expanded up till 4000 words. And this doubles if you want to reach C1. In short, this means that you’ll need a lot of exposure to the language. Word lists are still great, but you’ll have to encounter those thousands of words in different contexts to really understand and use them. This takes a tremendous amount of time, so a lesson a week alone won’t get you far.
If you didn’t do it already, you should now really integrate Dutch into your life. If you are working at a Dutch company, this means asking your colleagues to write emails in Dutch. It’s understandable if you don’t want to miss any information in important meetings, but the talk about the weekend next to the coffee machine should definitely be in Dutch. Don’t let an opportunity go by. Read Dutch articles, watch Dutch movies and talk in Dutch to your partner if that is an option. You wouldn’t believe how many Dutch/other nationality couples keep using English as their standard language. Yes, it’s tiring to live in a new language. But it pays off.
So in short, “real Dutch” should form more and more a part of your life. This doesn’t mean you should let go of formal language learning. It’s time to dot your i’s and cross your t’s when it comes to grammar and formal vocabulary building. Do you want a concrete language goal? Why not register for the Staatsexamen NT2? It will force you to dive into those last important topics, like er, the relative clause, zou and passive sentences. It will help you be able to use Dutch in a formal and non-formal way, adjusting your language to the situation.
C1: live in Dutch
The ultimate goal for many people who learn Dutch is C1. Many students start their journey with this goal in mind. Impossible to reach? Certainly not. But like climbing a mountain, reaching the top means perseverance and discipline. At this level, you should be able to drop active Dutch grammar learning. Maybe you still have to get used to certain structures, but that is a matter of putting it into practice. At this point, sayings and figure of speech play an important role. Reaching C1 in Dutch means you can understand conversations in large groups and quick jokes. You feel comfortable with the pace of a native speaker in a hurry. And just like at the B2 level, this mainly means exposure: less formal learning, more living in Dutch. If you want to support your learning with books, you still can though. There are books for C1 level available. Pick one that offers material representing the “real world”. So, make sure you are not only able to read an online news article, but also understand the witty, weird or agitated reactions of Dutch native speakers below it!
One thing to remember when you learn Dutch
Enjoy it! Language learning should be fun and fit your personality. That's why The Dutch Online Academy offers a large variety of ways to learn Dutch. We offer private lessons, video courses, group lessons, grammar explanations (with exercises), PDFs about specific topics and podcasts with transcripts. We recommend you to combine as many ways of learning Dutch as possible, but keep it fun! Enjoy making progress, but also enjoy the struggle. There's beauty in it.