Learn Dutch fast – top 3 tips from an expat

First things first – do you even need to learn Dutch if you want to move to the Netherlands?

Many expats (especially the ones living in Amsterdam or other big international cities) will tell you all Dutchies speak English, and you’ll be able to find your way around here just fine. 

I totally agree – Dutch people normally speak English very well. However, if you’re planning to stay here any longer than a year, I’d definitely recommend learning more of the language than “goedemorgen” and “alsjeblieft” 

You’ll also have an easier time with many of the locals, because they appreciate people doing their best. 

On a very personal level, I always found it important to speak the language at least at an intermediate level so I could tell the difference between someone swearing at me, and flirting with me, for example. If you’re in a country where you don’t know the customs, and you’re not necessarily in on all the inside jokes, you might at least know whether someone is being nice or hostile towards you. 

If you’re not interested in my personal journey, and you want to dive into the juicy practical tips – feel free to scroll straight down to those.

My Dutch learning journey

We started considering moving to the Netherlands about 5 years ago. That’s the first time I started looking into the basic Dutch grammar, and I bought a cheap video course online for level A1. I also started listening to some of the music, and watching Dutch-spoken shows/movies with English subtitles from time to time. 

But, this wasn’t really active learning (or so I thought), and I wasn’t maintaining the knowledge in any way. 

When we finally made the decision to move, I had to pass a Dutch language exam (Basisexamen inburgering in het buitenland) in the Dutch embassy in Serbia. The exam is at level A1, and it contains several parts – listening, speaking, writing, and knowledge of the society. To prepare for this, I wanted to go to a group course. To my surprise, there were none – apparently Dutch is not the most popular foreign language in Serbia.

The only option I had was getting an individual tutor. Within the first 30min of our first session – she told me I’ve got this A1 level stuff, and I’m probably already on level A2. So it seems like my random online course stuck with me a lot more than I thought it would. 

I passed the exam fairly easily after some self-study, and a few tutoring sessions. But then I got a taste for it, and wanted to be as prepared as possible. While we were waiting for the visa to be approved, I managed to find some online group courses by Dutch schools. The pandemic had some good sides after all – most Dutch language schools moved their classes online, as they could no longer do them on site so I could take my pick.

Starting actual lessons from level A2 had its good and bad sides. One of the bad sides being I never actually paid attention to the phonetics of the alphabet (which is something they teach you on level A1). So I arrived in the Netherlands and for the longest time – I had no idea how to spell my name on the phone, for example. It’s a bit embarrassing, but I only learned this a year after moving, once it became difficult to even give someone my email address on the phone. 

The course I did before arriving in the Netherlands was very focused on speaking, listening and understanding. I can’t stress enough how helpful that has been. A few months into living here, I sent my Dutch teacher an email to tell her how grateful I am, and how surprised I was to have a lot less trouble understanding people than I thought I would. 

Tips I give everyone who’s trying to learn Dutch

Let’s take into account that we all learn in different ways. Here are the main things that have helped me expand my vocabulary, as well as feel more confident using Dutch in everyday life.
A disclaimer here is that I’m not a qualified teacher, these just things that were helpful to me as a student.

1. I try to listen and read as much as possible.

Even if it’s just leaving TV on in the background, it’s helpful to have multiple dialects of the language in my ear on a regular basis. I also try to read the newspaper, novels situated in the past with more archaic language, as well as personal development books. It all builds vocabulary.

The biggest one for me here is to choose the content you’ll be consuming as if it were in your native tongue. I never really agreed with the advice of language teachers to read children’s books and cartoons when you’re starting to learn the language. It’s probably not the kind of content you’d normally consume, so you won’t be interested in it, and you just won’t keep up with it. 

So watch, read, and listen to things you’re truly interested in, even if you don’t always understand 100%.

I absolutely enjoy programs with TV judges, baking shows, police shows, and while that might not be most people’s definition of educational content – I can stay consistent with it, because I enjoy it!

2. I give myself the time to hear the other person

When I just started learning Dutch, I would start panicking the moment I didn’t understand what the other person was saying. And that has a tendency to either end conversations prematurely or just switch them to English. 

This wasn’t a conscious thing, but I noticed that with my confidence came five seconds of space to process. Someone tells me something I don’t quite get, I take a breath and think about whether I really didn’t understand it. 9/10 times, that will allow my brain to process the information, and the conversation can keep going.

3. Just talk

You’ll probably sound dumb sometimes. You’ll say things that are not correct. You’ll forget the word for “shirt” when talking to your neighbor. It’s all good. Don’t overthink it, and count on Dutch people being direct enough that they’ll tell you if they are losing patience, and they just want to switch to English.

When I had my very first business meeting fully in Dutch a few months ago, the mantra that helped me survive without destroying my confidence was remembering my friend Marek.

Marek has been learning Serbian for the last few years because his significant other is Serbian. He wanted to be able to talk to her family and just understand her better. Even if he makes a mistake, I have never in my life thought that he’s dumb, and he needs to work harder on his language skills. Instead, I’ve always admired his tenacity, and how much more he knows about Serbian grammar than I do! 

So the mantra was – those Dutchies will see me the same way I see Marek, as someone who is doing their best, and doing a pretty darn good job at it.

I bet you have a Marek of your own, so use them as inspiration. If you don’t, feel free to borrow mine!

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