Can Dutch People Understand German? (A Closer Look At The Two Languages)

avatarMille Larsen
7 mins read

Do Dutch people understand German?

That's actually a good question. Dutch and German are two Germanic languages that are relatively close linguistically. Like English, they both belong to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family, making them a sort of "linguistic cousins".

In addition to that, the Netherlands and Germany share a great deal of culture and the two countries have historically been very close - both figuratively in terms of their relationship, but also, obviously, geographically. (They're neighbors).

There's no denying that Dutch and German are two different languages, and they're actually so different that a Dutch speaker with no previous knowledge of German would be unable to understand anything a German speaker would say. Studies have found, however, that Dutch speakers can understand roughly 50% of written German. The Dutch do, however often learn German as a second language. 71% of the Dutch are at least conversational in German, so we can conclude that, yes, most Dutch do understand German, but it's not because of Dutch and German being linguistically close.

Add to that that the Dutch have a very high degree of command over the English language and you'll realize that the Dutch people, generally, are pretty good with foreign languages!

Dutch And German: A Shared History

Dutch and German are close linguistically, although not as close as those languages that are known for being mutually intelligible like the Scandinavian languages or many of the Slavic languages.

The closeness comes down to the two languages being of the same branch of the same language family. They're both Germanic languages and more precisely, West Germanic languages. English, too is a West Germanic language, and interestingly, English is, in some aspects, even closer to Dutch than German is.

The Proto-Germanic language, which is the ancestor of all Germanic languages is thought to have evolved in Northern Europe. It eventually branched out into different dialects, namely the North Germanic, West Germanic and the now extinct East Germanic languages.

It's the West Germanic branch of the Germanic language family that evolved into both modern Dutch and modern German. Namely through Old Frankish and Old High German.

Dutch, as we know it today evolved from the Old Frankish language, a language which is also known for having influenced the French language when it evolved from Latin. Old Frankish was spoken between the 4th and 8th centuries.

In the same period, Old High German was spoken in present day Germany, but it appears that it evolved in parallel with Low German dialects which were closer to Old Frankish. In the following centuries, several different regional West-Germanic languages influenced one another, and even though the ancestral languages of both German and Dutch are considered different languages, they were part of a dialect continuum where each one was very close to the other.

In this same period, however, High German was undergoing what linguists call "the High German Consonant Shift" which were a set of pronunciation changes which, almost systematically, changed the way that High German was pronounced. Low German and Old Frankish didn't go through these changes, however, and from this point onward the two languages started to become more and more different.

This also explains why the modern Dutch and German languages look somewhat similar in writing, but sound very different.

Mutual Intelligibility Between Dutch And German

Would a Dutch speaker be able to understand Standard German without having any previous knowledge of the German language?

Probably not. While German and Dutch share a lot of vocabulary, the two languages don't really sound alike, and for the most part, a Dutch speaker wouldn't be able to recognize a German word when pronounced in a sentence, even if it's a closely related word.

Add to that, that even though there are a high degree of lexical similarity between Dutch and German, there are also a lot of words that don't seem related at all.

When it comes to writing, it's another story. A lot of German words will be recognizable for a Dutch speaker when studied in written form. Studies have been made, where it's been observed that Dutch speakers who don't speak German recognize about 50% of written German words.

That's a fair bit. But is it enough to be able to understand a text?

This is unlikely. Unless the text deals with a very simply subject or is accompanied with plenty of descriptive illustrations, you'd need to understand something like 80-97% of the words in order to be able to guess the rest from context.

A Comparison Of The Writing In Dutch And German

As an illustration of how close the Dutch and German languages are in writing, I'll try and compare a text in the two languages.

Below is the first article of "The Universal Declaration Of Human Rights" in both Dutch and German. While it's a good way of comparing the written language, it doesn't take the translator's personal style and word choices into account, and it's also possible that some words that seem dissimilar actually have synonyms that do correspond closely to the other language.

With that out of the way, let's have a look at the two texts.

First in German:

  • Alle Menschen sind frei und gleich an Würde und Rechten geboren. Sie sind mit Vernunft und Gewissen begabt und sollen einander im Geist der Brüderlichkeit begegnen.

And now in Dutch:

  • Alle mensen worden vrij en gelijk in waardigheid en rechten geboren. Zij zijn begiftigd met verstand en geweten, en behoren zich jegens elkander in een geest van broederschap te gedragen.

So as you can see, the two texts have a lot in common. A lot of the words are actually exactly the same in writing, which is interesting, whereas others have different spellings.

Then there are slight differences in the morphology of words. "Brotherhood" is "Brüderlichkeit" in German, "brotherliness" where it's "broederschap" in Dutch, "brothership". It doesn't take a lot to figure out what is meant, though.

Word order is almost the same, too, with the only difference being that German has a stronger tendency to place the verb in the end of the sentence.

But really, in writing the two languages are quite similar!

How Many Dutch People Speak German?

Dutch speakers who haven't studied German don't understand much of the language when spoken, but how many Dutch do actually learn German?

According to statistics, 71% of Dutch people are able to converse in German. Which is quite a lot! Likewise, up to 93% of Dutch people are fluent in English and 29% speak French.

The high level of language proficiency and namely German proficiency in the Netherlands is due to several things. One is obviously the educational system, who's done a good job of teaching Dutch children languages.

Other factors include the proximity of the languages. Learning German is not as easy for a French speaker or even an English speaker than it is for a Dutch speaker due to the proximity of Dutch and German.

Add to that that the two languages share a border and that radio, television and other media outlets are easily available from across the borders. In the Netherlands many watch German television, especially the older generation.

Conclusion: Can Dutch People Understand German?

So, to conclude, yes, many Dutch people (71%) actually understand and speak German.

This is not because of the languages being close, because they're not mutually intelligible as such, but the Dutch simply excel at learning languages and the Dutch educational system has succeeded in assuring a high level of both German and English proficiency in the Netherlands.

So could you go to the Netherlands and get by only by speaking German?

Absolutely, but you'd be even better off speaking English!