Learning a second language is many things. It’s nerves and confidence, it’s new words and phrases. It’s practicing the same sentence multiple times so you can pronounce a certain word like a native. Learning a new language is fun, and it’s challenging, and sometimes it’s really difficult. Today I’m bringing you my ultimate guide packed with tips to help you become stronger in Dutch.
I’ve been learning Dutch now for around 3 years, and using it in everyday life for just over 2 years. It really is true what they say: being immersed in your target language really does help you learn faster. You can’t help it – the words and sounds are everywhere, which is great obviously. There are loads of things that you can do to help get better every day, and that’s all that matters. Learning a second language isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon that only gets easier the more you practice.
With a few years of Dutch under my belt, you may well think that I would be fluent by now. But that’s not the case. For starters, my other half and I talk English almost exclusively, so since we’ve mostly been confined to our home for the past few months in the wake of Covid-19, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that my Dutch has hit a bit of a brick wall. That’s ok though, because in the past few weeks I’ve been working on getting it back up to scratch, which I’ll go into a little more in a while.
When I first began learning Dutch, back in early 2017, I was crap to say the least. Except I wasn’t. No one is ever crap when they’re learning a new language. It’s simply a completely new concept that you’ve got to learn from the bare bones. No one ever expects a new born infant to start spouting their first words as they erupt from the womb do they? So I gave myself a break and tried to gently remind myself that every single mistake was a step closer to getting it right.
Apps are great
I downloaded every app under the sun that promised to better language learning, yet only one – DuoLingo – stuck. I tried others of course, but I found DuoLingo to be the best fit for me. Whilst some of the phrases are downright bizarre, on the whole, DuoLingo will teach you how to form simple sentences, more complex ones, and the scope of vocabulary is really something.
From then on, I used that one app exclusively every single day.
I’m saying that because it’s really overwhelming to download all these apps and find that some of them aren’t working for you, but the thing is, everyone learns differently. Some people want flashcards. Some people need images. Some need a green owl giving them pats on the back every 5 correct answers. You need to trial as many apps as you feel appropriate to find your own perfect route.
Get into the tourist spirit
So alongside DuoLingo, I ordered a phrasebook – this one in fact – and used it to practice every day phrases that I was likely to hear or need to use. I didn’t go wild, I simply learnt a few solid phrases you’d need in a restaurant setting, or how to introduce yourself to people and charm them into thinking you’re a solid human being.
Learning key phrases you’re likely to use in real life (like me and my other half going to a café, or me meeting his parents) at first is the key to not getting overwhelmed by the whole concept. Every word you learn is a gateway to your next phrase.
Learn from the natives
I didn’t stop there though. My next purchase was the Michel Thomas Total Dutch course. It was a set of 5 CDs (hello, the 90’s called and they want their technology back) where a lovely Dutch lady took two completely unsuspecting beginners and schooled them in words and phrases, whilst giving a simple explanation as to ‘why’ and ‘how’ things are said in that certain way.
Using this set of CDs on my way to work each morning in my little red Mini Cooper is one of my favourite memories of learning this language to date. I could practice my pronunciation in total isolation, and track my own progress as I became better than the two test subjects on the CDs.
Stepping out of my comfort zone
I was slowly getting better at Dutch. Naturally, my boyfriend wanted to hear me speaking his language and oh my God if I don’t remember the soul crushing, throat numbing embarrassment I felt searing through every muscle in my body as I pronounced a few words down the phone at him. Churning out phrases in your Mini Cooper every morning is much simpler than applying what you’ve learnt and conversing with a native.
When it comes to having the confidence to speaking in front of people who were literally brought up speaking your new language, there is no magic formula. If they’re decent people (which most people are), they’re gonna be so proud of you trying that you’ll physically see their face light up, even if you bomb and say every word wrong.
You’ve literally just got to do it. Close your eyes and take the leap. Spit those words out fast and spit them out proud cuz you’re doing it and you’re learning. Every single step you take is making you better. Of course, you should pick people you trust when you dive in. I chose my boyfriend and his parents who were all so supportive.
You’ll never stop learning
That brings us to the present day, with 2 and a bit years of learning under my belt. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’m not fluent. I’m far from it. This is a marathon, not a sprint. I understand 99% of what’s said to me, and can reply adequately. But I still trip over my words, I still have bad days, and I still can’t pronounce certain words. Everyone’s journey is different. As long as you keep trying, you’re doing great.
I’ve obviously had lessons with real Dutch teachers, which is a wonderful step if you can find schools or lessons or even just a tutor. There are plenty of people online willing to converse with you too by the way, especially if you trawl your chosen languages subreddit on… well, Reddit.
If you’re not quite ready to make a peep with other human beings just yet, there are a few other ways to internally learn the real stuff.
Whilst I was still a resident of old Blighty, I spent a lot of time searching for Dutch YouTubers, which is a lot harder than you expect when you have no idea where to start. Luckily, Google’s power is immense, and by simply typing in ‘best Dutch YouTuber channels?’ I was lead to a plethora of online gold (or orange, the Dutch version of gold). I mean, I say that: I had no idea what most people were saying so I don’t know if I was watching utter crap or the best thing ever.
Where to start with YouTube videos:
Definitely check out Bart de Pau (Bart the peacock, if you will). He’s a Dutch teacher who regularly posts short, sequential, animated films that cover basic areas of grammar, pronunciation, sentence structures: everything really. I watched them religiously at the beginning of my journey and with them being so short and bite-sized, I was able to re-watch them a few time to really pick up the gist of what was happening.
Dutchpod.101 is another channel that I dipped my toe into at the beginning. Whilst not as helpful as Bart, there are definitely a few helpful nuggets of wisdom to get the ball flowing.
Once you’ve started delving into the basics, it’s time to get creative. Look for videos by Dutch YouTubers in your own comfort zone. That is, search for similar channels that you’d search for in English.
Say you’re a book enthusiast. Checking out great Dutch BookTubers is going to be much more helpful than checking out a Dutch Makeup YouTuber, for example. For one, you’ll actually be interested in what they have to say, and two, you’ll be able to make assumptions of words and sentences based on the fact that you’ll have visual aids. PLUS: when you’re over here gabbing to your new found friends about your hobbies, it’s best to know a few words about your favourite things, right?!
The best thing about YouTube videos? Their crappy subtitles. No I jest, they are actually incredibly helpful, especially in the beginning. My top tip: start with English subtitles for added clarity. There’s absolutely no use in just watching people spout foreign words without knowing anything about what’s going on. Once you’ve found your feet a little bit, go hard core and throw the Dutch subs on. I promise you’ll understand more than you think.
My favourite channels for learning Dutch:
Dutch TV (part one: kids shows)
Or, more accurately, Dutch kids’ TV. Ready to head back to school kiddlywinks, because we’re going back to our primitive years in order to find slower speech, simpler sentences, and bright colours.
Het Klokhuis is a really interesting, sciency kinda show that deals with one subject in its 10-minute time-slot. It’ll teach you how to bake bread, make ice cream, or tell you what it’s like to live on a farm, for example, all in a jolly tone that’s easy to listen to.
Baby Beestenboels was literally the first Dutch show I ever watched. It’s about baby animals in the wild and its narrator is honestly so into everything he says it scream excitement. I spent the better part of my first year in the Netherlands singing its theme tune too. When you’re very British, like me, the theme tune, which is literally just the words ‘het is een baby beestenboel’ over and over again, sound a lot like ‘it is a baby vegetable’, and if you ever watch it, I hope that’s the only thing you hear.
Spongebob Squarepants has literal Dutch voiceovers. I don’t need to say any more, apart from: I hated Spongebob in English, and I love it in Dutch.
De boterhamshow is an educative programme for very young children, where you’ll learn about colours and shapes and everything in between. The characters are all a bit ‘cheap Sesame Street’, and funny in a dad joke sort of way, but it’s definitely a show to help you crack pronunciation and simple sentences.
Dutch TV (part two: more adult viewing)
Once you’ve cracked under the pressure of kids TV (because I promise you it gets too much after a while), you might want to graduate to some more appropriate, of age viewing. I don’t watch a lot of Dutch TV, because I love British and American crime series far too much. However, there are three shows I LOVE.
De Luizenmoeder. Literally translated as The Louse Mum, De Luizenmoeder is a comedy show that takes place in a basisschool (a primary school), and follows the life of the parents and teachers whose children are enrolled in said school. It’s a little fast paced, so subs are 100% necessary, but it’s genuinely dead funny, and will have you chuckling over how mental the whole clan is.
Rundfunk is another comedy show in a school setting, except this is a little cruder, and they’re in short sketches, rather than a full storyline, if you catch my drift. A little bit of slapstick, a little bit punny, this is a great show full of youthful characters, and what’s more, they tour theatres in real life. I’d love to see them perform one day (after Corona of course).
First Dates is a popular show over here in NL too, and it’s literally the same as it is in the UK, minus the awesome staff. Honestly, you can’t beat the British staff on First Dates. This show has a lot of nostalgia for me, as I used to watch it with one of my friends when we both taught English. The Dutch contestants(?) are funny, relatable, and speak a lot, so it’s a good one to watch (with subtitles of course) whenever you’re in the mood for romance.
We’ve finally reached the penultimate part of this list: podcasts. If you’re a fan of podcasts in general, you’ll love nothing more than to hear those silky ‘ggggg’ and ‘chhhhhhh’ sounds amplified into your lugholes as you ride public transport or head out for a wander, I’m sure of it.
When it comes to podcasts, I tried a few, but only one really stood out to me: echt gebeurd. Literally translatable to ‘really happened’, echt gebeurd is a real life story from a fresh face (or in this case voice) each week. It’s been going a long while already, so their back catalogue is lengthy, and you can pick and choose whatever you want to listen to and take it at your own pace.
When I first discovered this podcast, I’d listen to an episode each morning as I got ready for work. They’re short an sweet, and range from lovely stories to ones of grief.
Whilst you definitely won’t understand the full episode in the beginning, it’s great to hear other voices talking, so you can get to grips with things like accents, speed, tempo, inflections, basically the different ways that different people will speak on a daily basis.
As with everything, the more you listen, the more you’ll understand, and one of my favourite things about learning a language has to be that amazing light bulb moment when you suddenly understand a new word or a whole sentence. It makes learning this new language so worth it, and gives you that little pat on the back you deserve for hitting a mini milestone.
My last initiation into both Dutch culture and language was finding music to bop along to. Now, music speaks to our soul, and how easy is it to memorise lyrics once you’ve played them 100 times on full volume? Precisely.
When I first moved over here, I had no idea about the music scene (still don’t, and to be honest, I don’t know much about music in general so I’m not too bothered), but listening to the radio, and radio hosts gabbing on about – whatever radio hosts gab on about – was really helpful. Hearing pronunciation and repeated words is so important when you’re learning a language. This is the perfect way to deal with it.
I remember one of the first songs I learnt was ‘Kind van de Duivel’ (child of the devil) by Je Broer (your brother, lol). My best friend and I were drunk and we played it on repeat until I knew the words by heart. It’s a simple, repetitive song, with a dark message, but it did the job nicely, and from that moment I knew that music would help me gain a little more memento in the Dutch language. I moved onto Je Broer’s next smash hit immediately after, which is also available in English, thanks to SCOOTER of all bands.
My top tips for learning from music? Choose one very cheesy or catchy song and play it on repeat. Focus on the opening, or the chorus, or one small part, and sing along. Sing along as much as you can. You’ll even learn how to speak a little faster due to the rhythm and pacing of most songs. This repetition is so important though, I can’t stress that enough. You’ll probably end up hating the song you pick, but it’s so worth it.
My favourite Dutch band? De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig – punny, stupid, a bit sexual; De Jeugd are lyrical masters with sometimes hilarious and strange lyrics to electronic and poppy beats that will keep you entertained. Oh, and they’ve been around for eons, so there are plenty of great albums to choose from.
Other popular Dutch bands include: Suzan en Freek, Lil Kleine, Kriss Kross Amsterdam, Davina Michelle, Maan, Tabitha, this very popular song by three artists. And I mean popular as in, popular on the radio right now – I don’t know who (if anyone) they’re considered to be cool by.
My top tip for Spotify users: hit up the search page and if you can, head to the top 50 playlists per country and find the Netherlands, which will be in amongst the rest of them. There you’ll find the top 50 songs being played in NL at that time. It’s updated a lot, so there’s always something new to find. Or, try the search bar and type in ‘top hits NL’, or something similar and see what pops up!
There you have it: my complete guide to learning Dutch like your life depends on it. Or any other language for that matter. All these tips are interchangeable to suit your own second language. The most important thing to remember is: you’re doing something awesome. Some days will be tough, and you’ll have a raging headache for months probably. It’s worth it.
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