What is so difficult about Dutch

Dutch for Germans - a quick introduction

Is Dutch a difficult language? Or more precisely: Is Dutch difficult to learn for Germans? There are many misunderstandings about the Dutch language in Germany. First of all there is the name: is it Dutch or Dutch? And is this a real language at all? Some think it's a German dialect - and if you knew Low German, you would understand Dutch too. Not even close. In her blog, language expert Alexandra Kleijn, who was born in the Netherlands and lives in Hanover, explains some of the differences between the German and Dutch languages.

The relatives

Dutch and German are closely related. The two languages ​​are like sisters who went their own way after puberty. You can see the similarity, but while one sister studied law after graduating from high school, made a career and lives in the big city, the other has traveled the world, got married young and runs an organic farm with her partner somewhere in the country. They have grown apart a bit, but still get on well.

What makes Dutch relatively easy to learn for Germans?

The syntax

Germans who want to learn Dutch have two major advantages over Spaniards, Turks, Chinese and Swedes. On the one hand, the Dutch sentence structure is very similar to that of German. So much so, in fact, that many Germans involuntarily form sentence constructions that appear to be English in order to bring in a touch of a foreign language. But why should you make it difficult for yourself if it is not necessary at all?

EN: I'll get up at half past five tomorrow.
NL: Ik sta tomorrow om half zes op.
EN: Tomorrow I will get up at half past five.

EN: The day after tomorrow I can sleep in.
NL: Overmorgen kan ik uitslapen.
EN: The day after tomorrow I will be able to sleep late.

Vocabulary

Due to the common roots, German and Dutch also have a lot of similarities in vocabulary. Words that are completely “free” are, for example, poor, paper, aunt, rain, wind, fear, bad luck and power. With tomaat, stad, baardhaar, hond and appel, it is immediately clear what they mean. This similarity is of course not only found in nouns: think, blow, telephone, confronteren, stop, tomorrow, in, enig or verkeerd will be understood by native German speakers with ease.

The wrong friends

The extensive similarity also has pitfalls. Especially between closely related languages ​​such as Dutch and German, you always have to be on the lookout for so-called false friends. They are words that look similar or even the same, but mean something completely different.

grammar

Dutch people who learn German often grumble at the grammar and, above all, at the cases. It takes them a long time for the inflections and declinations to pass into flesh and blood. This is frustrating, because only when it works can you speak the language fluently.
Conversely, Germans have an easier time learning Dutch: the grammar is structured quite logically and has rules that you can rely on without having to fear an intimidating series of exceptions.

"He"

Of course there are also things that are not so easy to understand and that cannot be learned with the help of rules. The correct use of the rather nondescript word "he" is one of those stumbling blocks. The only thing that helps here is a lot of practice and, above all, paying close attention to the cases in which the native speakers use it.

The spelling

The Dutch spelling is more systematic compared to the German. This provides support and also helps with pronunciation. How you write something and how you speak it are more closely related in Dutch than in German. The focus here is on the principle of open and closed syllables. Anyone who has looked through the system will from now on basically know how a Dutch word is written or pronounced.

What makes Dutch less easy for Germans?

The aforementioned debate

Sorry, but anyone who thinks Dutch is a throat disease is just looking for an excuse not to have to speak the language. If you can't bring a hard, throaty “g” over your lips, you don't have to do that in Dutch. All you need for the Dutch “g” is a “ch” sound, as it sounds in the German word Dach.

Especially in the south of the Netherlands, in Noord-Brabant and Limburg, this consonant is also spoken rather softly by the Dutch themselves.
More difficult is the double sound ui, which does not exist in German and which many German native speakers have trouble with. As a clue, the “ui” can be thought of as a string of vowels äöüi.

The bomb under the tree

In any case, Dutch vowels shouldn't be taken too lightly. Just like in German, the Dutch vowels have a long and a short variant. For non-Dutch people - including Germans - the difference is often difficult to hear. But it is extremely important because it is often accompanied by a difference in meaning.

NL: bom (short o) - boom (long o)

EN: bomb - tree
He ligt a bom onder de boom.
NL: wit (short i) - wiet (long i)
EN: white - marijuana
What is not there.

NL: man (short a) - maan (long a)
EN: man - moon
De man in de maan.

Dutch people speak quite quickly and make a less clear distinction between word boundaries like Germans. This can be an additional hurdle in understanding.

Imagery

The abundant use of idioms and expressions in Dutch - also in the written language - often puzzles non-native speakers. In Dutch, for example, those who fall in the butter with their nose are lucky. And if you see something sitting, you will find something good.

irony

Another thing to keep an eye out for is irony. The Dutch love this stylistic device and therefore like to say exactly the opposite of what they actually mean.

active

The differences between the written Dutch language and the spoken language are significantly smaller than in German. The Dutch also like to be active. They don't think much of substantiated verbs and sophisticated passive constructions.

Conclusion

Germans who learn Dutch have a quick sense of achievement due to the similarities between the two languages. However, as with learning any foreign language, time passes before you master the subtleties.

About Alexandra Kleijn

Born in the Netherlands (Hilversum), she has lived in Hanover since 1997. She works as a freelance translator and teaches her mother tongue in adult education. In her blog buurtaal, Alexandra Kleijn has been writing about the differences between the German and the Dutch language and culture since 2009. It also runs the forum "Dutch for Germans - German for Dutch".