Dutch is a West-Germanic language closely related to English and German. Some might even say that it looks like a mix between the two. It’s spoken by over 24 million people in the Netherlands and Belgium and it’s a language that some people consider hard to learn.
But how difficult is Dutch really?
In my opinion, Dutch is one of the easier languages for an English speaker to learn. A lot of the vocabulary resembles English – a little like German, but with less complicated grammar! The main difficulties with Dutch is the pronunciation and actually getting a chance to speak it, because the Dutch are notoriously good at English!
What’s so difficult about Dutch pronunciation?
Well, first of all: Dutch pronunciation is not that bad. Most of the letters in the Dutch alphabet are pronounced like they would be in English, only with a few exceptions. Dutch also has a few letter-combinations that represent specific sounds that you need to get a handle on.
Watch this video for a quick run-through of the Dutch alphabet and some common letter combinations.
To summarize the video, I’d say that the letters representing some difficulty for an English speaker are the following:
- G – this is the typical “raspy” Dutch sound that sounds a little like you’re cleaning your throat. It can resemble the Spanish “J” or the Arabic “خ”. A common example for English speakers is how the Scots pronounce “loch”… But unless you’re Scottish, that’s probably not that helpful. Here’s a clip of the correct pronunciation of “Vincent Van Gogh“.
- R – the Dutch roll or thrill the R’s. A lot of people, especially English speakers find this difficult. The reason might be that they try to thrill an English R sound, which is impossible. When you pronounce the English R, your tongue is somewhat curled up in the back of your mouth. When rolling the R’s your tongue needs to be flatter and positioned further forward with the tip touching the roof of your mouth. Here’s a video of a guy explaining it extremely well.
- U – the Dutch pronounce the U like the French do. Or like a German Ü. This is not that difficult. Try saying “eee” and then say “ooo”. You’ll need to use the same tongue position as “eee” and combine it with the lip-position of the “ooo”. Just try it!
Once you know how each Dutch letter (and letter combination) is pronounced, you’ll know how to pronounce all Dutch words only from reading them. Isn’t that something?
The Dutch language is phonetic, meaning that the words are pronounced exactly like they’re spelled. You might not think about it, but try imagining how someone learning English must struggle with matching English spelling to English pronunciation!
What about Dutch grammar? Easy or hard?
Dutch Grammar is something that I recommend that you learn from context rather than dissecting and analyzing the language to figure it out. Even though it’s not extremely complicated, you might be thrown off by rules and their exeptions.
Dutch verbs are pretty straight forward, but a lot of commonly used verbs are irregular – just like in English. This isn’t something you should worry too much about though.
When you learn a word, you shouldn’t learn it in isolation, but rather assimilate it though real sentences, and in that way, you’ll learn how to use it correctly without even realizing that it’s irregular. (Do you think a lot about verbs in English being irregular?)
Something that might be a relieving factor is that Dutch doesn’t have the dreaded case-system of its sister-language, German. This makes using the language naturally more straight-forward.
You do need to work out how to use propositions correctly, how to master Dutch word-order and so on, but all languages have their rules. Dutch is no different, and grammar-wise, it’s definitely not a big deal.
Dutch vocabulary – easy-peasy.
This, alone, means that you can actually (with a little effort, granted) sit down and read a Dutch text and get the gist of it, even if you haven’t learned the language.
OK, this might be an exaggeration. But you’ll be sure to recognize a lot of words from English when learning Dutch. If you also know German, you’ll be almost completely covered.
Finally, Dutch has a lot of French loan-words. English, too, is hugely influenced by French, but the words the two languages independently borrowed from French aren’t always the same. So while French loan-words can sometimes be helpful, they might complicate things when they’re not the same loan-words as in English. (Unless you also speak French, of course!)
One thing I should mention about Dutch vocabulary is gender. When you learn Dutch nouns, it’s important to learn the gender along with the word. Is it a “de” word or a “het” word? It can be hard (if not impossible) to figure out the gender of a word from grammar, so your best bet is to always memorize it along with the noun itself.
What linguists say – is Dutch a hard language?
The Foreign Service Institute is the American government institution in charge of teaching foreign languages to US diplomats going overseas. They’ve divided the languages that they teach into 4 categories based on the time that it takes the average student to learn them.
The FSI aim for what they call “professional working proficiency”. In other words – fluency in the language that allows you to work in it. That’s a high degree of fluency. They also do their estimates based on “classroom hours” needed for the average student. This might not be a precise metric for a self-student or someone who’s following a different course than the FSI’s.
But still, FSI’s language groups can be a pretty good indicator for the difficulty of a language. They go from 1-4. The first one being the easiest and the last one being very difficult (or time consuming) languages.
In the fourth category, we see languages such as Korean and Arabic. These take around 2200 classroom hours to learn, which is a lot!
The third category is for Russian, Thai, Hindi and other languages that are pretty difficult. These are estimated to take 1100 classroom hours.
In the second category, we find languages such as Malay, Swahili and German, the sister language of Dutch. These are estimated to take 900 hours.
And then finally, the easiest languages on the scale, the category one languages are French, Spanish, Scandinavian languages and – you guessed it: Dutch.
According to the FSI, Dutch can be learned to professional working proficiency in 5-600 classroom hours. That’s under two years of studying an hour a day in order to reach a high level of fluency.
But since you’re not enrolled in a FSI course, you might not be able to apply these estimates to your own Dutch-learning journey. Your end goal might not be “professional working proficiency” which means that you might need to spend less time to reach a level that you find satisfactory.
What we can use from FSI’s categories is mainly the placement. Dutch is among the fastest languages to learn for an average language learner. I’d even argue that it’s easier than both French, Spanish and Danish. (And perhaps about as difficult is Swedish and Norwegian).
The verdict: Is Dutch hard to learn?
Finally the conclusion. Is Dutch a difficult language to learn for an average English speaker?
No, not really. If you were to pick a language to learn only for the sake of it being easy, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick Dutch.
But there are other factors that are even more important than the pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and so on.
It’s motivation, consistency and patience.
If you’re not really interested in Dutch and you hate the sound of it, but you’re immensely fascinated by Japanese, the latter will be the easier to learn.
And if you are easily discouraged and you can’t seem to keep up with your Dutch-learning routine, you’ll have a hard time reaching fluency.
To learn Dutch, you need to put in the work every day. Consistency is key, and you need to patiently and diligently stick to it. Even when it feels like you’re not getting anywhere, you can’t give up.
But if you do put in the work, you’re enthusiastic about it and you work at it every day, you will get there.
If you want to learn more about Dutch, go check my extensive article on how to learn Dutch!