What's The Best Way To Learn Dutch By Yourself? (Beginner To Fluent)
- Mille Larsen •22 mins read
Dutch is a language of around 25 million speakers mostly in the Netherlands and to some extent in Belgium. The language is of the Germanic language family making it closely related to English and German. This is clearly visible because most of the words of Germanic origin look and sound like English.
Dutch is not a difficult language to learn. You can even do so by yourself. It has a reputation of having a difficult pronunciation, but this is mostly an exaggeration. If you put in the work and you're consistent with studying daily, you will learn Dutch. But what's the best way to learn the Dutch language? In the following I'll try to give my two cents.
Dutch pronounciation: Not that bad
So the first thing that I suggest that you do when you decide to start learning Dutch, is familiarize yourself with the pronunciation.
Dutch pronunciation is not that difficult. All languages have some kind of reputation of being difficult due to this or that. For some, there's something to it. But for Dutch: Not so much.
Dutch is written with the same alphabet as English. It is pretty much consistent in terms of pronunciation. If you learn how a letter or a letter combination is supposed to be pronounced, then it's valid for almost every case with very few exceptions. (Unlike English which is notoriously inconsistent in its pronunciation).
The most difficult aspects of Dutch pronunciation is their g, which is that guttural sound you make when cleaning your throat, the r that you need to roll and the u. The u is pronounced like in French or like a German ü. All three letters are manageable and you'll easily get used to them. If you find them difficult now, keep trying to imitate them out loud every day, and you'll quickly learn.
To get a quick run through of the letters and how they are pronounced in Dutch, have a look at the video below.
I sincerely believe that you can become comfortable with Dutch pronunciation rather easily. If you are really having problems with it, though, you might want to have a look at the first few lessons of Pimsleur Dutch. Pimsleur is an audio course that advances very slowly and focuses on getting the pronunciation right from the beginning.
As I said: Personally, I don't think that it's necessary to do Pimsleur Dutch (especially not in its entirety) but if you want to check it out, you can download the first part for free on Amazon.
Getting started learning Dutch with a beginner's textbook
To begin learning Dutch, you'll need a good beginner's course. My favorite self-study guide for language learning in the beginning stages is Assimil.
Assimil is a course built up around Dutch dialogues with their English translations. For each lesson, the dialogues grow gradually more complicated and introduce more vocabulary. The audio that comes with the Assimil book is of good quality and follows exactly the written dialogues in the course.
I recommend that you do around one Assimil lesson daily. Pick a good time slot during your day. I like studying languages and getting things done in the morning before everyone else gets up.
Studying with Assimil Dutch
When studying with Assimil, first read through the dialogue of the lesson in English. Then listen to the Dutch audio while following along the dutch text. After that, play the audio again, but pause between sentences while trying to repeat.
Do this 2-3 times in total. After finishing going through the dialogue in this way, read through the rest of the lesson. Try making sense of the notes, grammar explanations and so on. But it's OK if you skim though these. The most important part is studying the dialogues.
For each new lesson you study, I recommend that you go through the previous 5-10 lessons that you've already studied also. Read the whole dialogue in Dutch aloud. Then play the audio and follow along. If you've forgotten some words here or there, glance to the English translation.
I haven't gotten around to writing a review on Assimil Dutch just yet, but if you're interested you can read my articles on Assimil French and Arabic.
As for Assimil Dutch, you can get it on Amazon, or in a physical bookstore near you. (Amazon's often cheaper, though)
The importance of varying your approach when learning Dutch
Whenever I study foreign languages, I always try to fit multiple approaches into my routine at the same time. This seems like a little thing, but it's actually one of the keys to succeeding in learning Dutch (or any language).
This has to do with how we remember new information. If you study a topic from one source, it's one dimensional and neutral. It's information added on top of other information in the dusty corners of your brain. It's got no specific "label" on it, other than "a word in Dutch".
You can keep revising, re-listening and studying the same material over and over again, and gradually you'll force the word into the right drawer in your brain. But it takes time.
Do multiple things at the same time
What you should do instead is to mix things up a little.
Don't limit yourself to Assimil. If you do a second course in parallel with Assimil, you'll get exposure to the same kind of beginner's content. But you'll see it in another context.
That word that you've studied and revised a few times, but remains unlabeled and neutral in your brain; When you see it in another context, you suddenly recognize it.
The moment that you recognize something that you know weakly, the brain pulls the word out from the corner and ties a knot to the experience of recognizing it.
It creates a memory of that word. And a positive one of that, because you just experienced recognizing a word that you didn't know you knew. The brain gets happy about that word, and it realizes that it's important. The word has gone from being a neutral piece of information to becoming a Dutch word that you feel something about.
If all of this seems strange to you, I encourage you to go read my article about remembering words when learning languages.
Picking a second beginner's course for Dutch
So in order to keep things varied, you'are going to need a second beginner's course for Dutch.
One that I can easily recommend is Teach Yourself Dutch.
The teach yourself series are dialogue-based courses a little like Assimil. They have audio, dialogues in Dutch and translations in English.
The main difference is that Teach Yourself focuses a little more on grammar, exercises and drills. I am generally not a fan of studying grammar and dissecting the language in this way, so my recommendation would be to focus on the dialogue, and take the grammar and drill-type exercises with a grain of salt.
But that's up to you.
If you've made a habit out of doing your Assimil lessons in the morning, try doing a lesson per day in your Teach Yourself Dutch every evening. Use it in the same way as you study with Assimil. Don't forget to pronounce the sentences out loud, do the repetitions and to be consistent.
Teach Yourself courses are available almost everywhere. But make sure to check the price on Amazon first. And note that the audio of the book can be downloaded separately through TY's app. (In case there are no CD's)
Work on Dutch pronunciation, grammar and vocab with Glossika
As you move along with Assimil and Teach Yourself, you might want to add another spice to your daily study routine. One program that I've recently taken a liking to is Glossika.
(You're going to have to wait for the link until I've finished telling you about Glossika. Or scroll down!)
Glossika is a sentence-based approach that teaches you grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary through sentences. The idea is that the more sentences you study, the better you will start to recognize patterns and internalize the language.
There are no grammar explanations, drills, quizzes or exercises.
Glossika teaches dutch through habit instead of grammar drills
Learning grammar through patterns resembles the way children learn languages. Many language learning programs use this as a selling point. "Learn languages effortlessly like children".
It's not that simple though.
Learning a language precisely like children do would entail completely shutting off all English input in your everyday life, and forcing yourself to constantly try and communicate in Dutch. Without any prior knowledge. This is what people call "total immersion in language learning". And here's a link to an article that I wrote about immersion and why I don't like it.
Children always end up learning the languages that people around them speak. But it takes a lot of time.
Children get a lot of random input every day that they don't understand. It's only after years if listening to people that they start to form their own, simple sentences.
While Glossika also focuses on teaching languages through repetitive input, it does so in a much better way.
With Glossika, sentences that you study evolve gradually. For each new sentence, you keep working with related vocabulary and grammar. You'll repeat the same things every day and gradually move forward. Everything is organized and well structured.
Oh, and the fact that you're smarter than a 3-year old should be to your benefit as well! (You are, aren't you?...)
How to study Dutch with Glossika
When you start studying with Glossika, you'll first be asked to do a placement test. Unless you're already a little more advanced in Dutch, you can skip this and start as a complete beginner.
With Glossika you study in batches of 5 sentences. In a study session these 5 sentences will be repeated (at random) five times, meaning that you will go through a total of 25 repetitions in one go.
This seems easily doable. And it is - but I recommend that you don't do any more than 20 new sentences in one sitting. The reason is that they will be scheduled for review several times, so you might be creating a ton of work to review later on.
This is what the Glossika study interface looks like
When studying with Glossika, you are faced with an English sentence and its Dutch equivalent. You hear the English sentence followed by a pause, then the Dutch audio two times.
When you first hear the English sentence, try reading out loud the Dutch translation. Do this quickly - you don't have a lot of time.
Then after you've heard the sentence in Dutch two times, try saying it in Dutch again. Try mimicking the Dutch speaker as well as you can. The stress, tone, rhythm and speed should be matched as well as possible!
At first you'll be sure to mumble and fail.
Don't stress about it. You will get numerous future opportunities to get it right later on, so no need to get frustrated now. It is important, however, that you keep repeating out loud and mimicking the recording.
Doing repetitions in Glossika Dutch
Repetitions or "reps" is the crown jewel of Glossika's approach. The important part isn't the introduction to a new sentence, but how many times you repeat it afterwards.
With Glossika, for each time you study a new sentence, it'll be automatically scheduled for review.
After first studying new sentences, you'll have to review them after 12-24 hours already. Then as you do more and more repetitions, they'll be scheduled further into the future.
Glossika's reps are scheduled by a mathematical algorithm based on a forgetting curve. The forgetting curve is a model for predicting how long you can retain new information before forgetting it. Glossika aims on scheduling reps just before you're about to forget a sentence.
If a sentence is particularly difficult, however, you can tag it with a little smiley-face when studying. This tells Glossika to schedule the sentence a little more often, because you find it hard. In the same way, there's a little heart icon that you can click for easy sentences that you don't want to review as often.
With Glossika, the idea of "reps" is a whole concept. Glossika uses the total amount of reps that you have done as a way of measuring your progress. The milestones are set high. They are 25.000, 50.000 and 75.000 reps. It will take you a while to get there, but you're sure to reach good results if you're persistent with your studies.
If you want to read more about Glossika, go read my Glossika review.
Or you might simply go directly to the Glossika Dutch website. (There, finally, the link that I promised!)
Start reading in Dutch
Among the best activities to spend your time doing when learning Dutch is reading.
You might not be ready for this as a complete beginner, but when you've just about finished your Assimil and Teach Yourself Dutch courses, it's time to give reading a shot.
Reading helps you learn words through native content. It helps you get used to how the language is used rather than dissecting the language and analyzing its grammar.
But how do you go about reading Dutch?
Many people would assume that the best, and most obvious way to learn Dutch through reading, is to read with a dictionary.
This is not a good idea!
Constantly pausing to search for something in a dictionary really does a great job of killing all motivation and enjoyment you might get from learning Dutch.
For each time you need to look something up, you'll be pulled out of the story, forget where you were and then immediately forget the word that you just looked up.
So what should you do? Your level is not high enough to read interesting content without looking stuff up and you probably don't want to read children stories for months before being able to advance.
Luckily for you, there are a few strategies to reading in foreign languages that you might find useful. (Go read my article on reading strategies if you want to learn more)
Read easy Dutch texts online with a pop-up dictionary
One great way of reading Dutch articles online is by using Google Dictionary. GD is a browser extension for the Chrome browser that you can download for free. (There are alternatives available for other browsers if you look around)
With Google Dictionary, you can click any word, anywhere on the internet and get an instant translation.
Using Google Dictionary to read a Dutch article about someone who built his own helicopter
This is a great way of making native Dutch articles more transparent and accessible to the learner. You can simply look up any topic that might interest you (like building your own helicopter) and read the article in Dutch.
Much better than paper dictionaries
Looking up words with a pop-up dictionary is much more practical that using a paper dictionary. In stead of putting the text aside completely to search through a book for several minutes, this tool allows you to get a translation in under a second.
I encourage you to go have a look for Dutch articles online on subjects that you enjoy reading.
Hobbies, current events and social media are great examples.
Generally I wouldn't suggest reading content that you'd have a hard time to understand in English. Some people enjoy reading philosophy and other texts where it's not the language that's difficult, but the subject matter.
When learning Dutch or any foreign language, don't put that double strain on your brain. Keep your Spinoza for when you're really advanced!
Don't know how to find Dutch articles online? Write your search query into Google Translate and go search for the Dutch translation!
Using LingQ as a tool for learning Dutch
One of my favorite language learning tools when it comes to reading is LingQ. LingQ is a website that offers a lot of different tools for learning Dutch and other languages. The strongest one, however, is the LingQ reader app.
With LingQ, you can either import articles and texts that you find on the net, or you can choose to study things that are already in their archive.
What the LingQ app looks like while studying Dutch
When you open your first text with LingQ, you're faced with a page full of blue words. Blue words are words that you don't know. Or at least that you haven't studied with LingQ yet.
When you click a blue word, a little window will pop up with a few options.
You can choose between a few of the most popular translations, you can click ignore or you can click "I know this word".
If you already know the word, choose that last one, and you'll see that the blue word has turned into normal text.
For names and other things that are not actually words, I use "ignore" so these won't be counted as words by LingQ.
Or you can pick a translation. Pick the one you feel fits the best. You'll notice that the word has turned yellow. Yellow words (Or "LingQs") are words you're in the process of learning. Keep on like that until you've finished the text.
LingQ will then keep track of the words you know and the words you're learning. This will help you choosing appropriate texts to study and it'll help you keep track of your progress in reading.
There are numerous other tools that you can use with LingQ. The system can send you reminders about the words that you are learning, you can study them in flash-cards and many other things. LingQ's strong suit is as a reading tool, however. And with creating hints.
Creating hints for your unknown words instead of direct translations
When you've finished your first text in LingQ (or just your study session for now) go have a look at all of your yellow words.
You've picked a translation for each of them. But can you come up with something better?
Write an definition in Dutch, a synonym or even an explanation in English and replace that with the dictionary look-up.
You now have a "hint" that points you to the right meaning of that unknown word.
A hint is something that you, yourself has created. You've thought about it, which means that you've established a memory around that word. Seeing the hint next time you click the yellow word in a Dutch text, you'll be reminded not just of the translation, but of the activity of working with the word.
The memory of the word will also be stronger in itself. It's a word you've done something with, and doing something creates memories on your brain and establishes synapses.
In other words, your relationship with a word that you've done something with will be much stronger than a word that you just looked up in a dictionary.
To learn more about LingQ, go read my LingQ review.
Or go directly to the LingQ website.
Reading Dutch and English texts in parallel
If you're not a great fan of reading texts and books off your phone or laptop screen, there are other options.
One that I have used with great success in the past is parallel reading. You get a Dutch book along with its English translation and you read the two side by side.
First read a sentence, paragraph or chapter in English. Then do the same in Dutch.
What this does, is it makes the Dutch text transparent.
If you jump right into the Dutch text trying to read it and guess unknown words from context, you'll be missing out on the plot and a lot of important points. Reading the text in English first permits you to grasp what's written between the lines and get a good idea about what's going on.
So in other words - don't expect to automatically learn all unknown words just by reading them once in English, then in Dutch. This approach is a means to submerge yourself in Dutch content and actually benefit from it. It'll help you see patterns through things that are often repeated and it'll help you read fluently in Dutch.
Which Dutch books to read in parallel
There are many great writers to choose from.
In the beginning you might want to start out with something easy. One of the most well-known Dutch writers if of course Anne Frank. Her diary "Het Achterhuis" (link to amazon) is written in a simple language.
Most people have heard of Anne Frank's story, which sadly isn't fictional. So I won't elaborate on it here, but it'll be sure to make an imprint. The English translation is also readily available on amazon.
While some languages are difficult to study through parallel reading because of the lack of good translated novels, Dutch has a lot of stuff available. I enjoyed reading the Harry Potter books growing up. They're obviously all translated to Dutch and available on Amazon.
I've also enjoyed reading authors like Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie, Albert Camus and even Dan Brown in several languages. You might want to check those out, or pick whatever you like!
Start speaking and writing Dutch with a tutor
OK, so you've finished your Assimil and your Teach Yourself books, you've done several thousand reps in Glossika and you're reading in Dutch every day. The next step is to start producing the Dutch language yourself.
You need to speak and write Dutch.
First step is to find a tutor you think you'll enjoy working with. I suggest going to a site like Italki and have a look at the Dutch tutors who offer their services. Pick someone you think will be a match. Then make contact.
When learning Dutch with a tutor, I recommend that you take charge of your learning and decide on a plan for your tutoring sessions that your tutor will need to follow.
Many tutors have their own programs, recommended books and approaches. But since you're an advanced, independent learner, you already know what kind of tutoring you'll need.
So ask your tutor to keep the tutoring sessions conversational. You need to hear yourself speak Dutch at least half of the time. And corrections, explanations and that kind of thing needs to be held at a minimum.
It's much better to ask your tutor to write a report with a few pointers and suggestions after the end of a conversation rather than constantly interrupting the flow with corrections.
You'll be paying for your tutor's services, so you're the boss! If you're not satisfied with what you're getting, never hesitate to go pick another tutor.
I recommend that you schedule two or three sessions per week. Make it 30-45 minutes of Dutch conversation. Decide on a subject before hand and stick to it.
After the end of each conversation, sit down and write an essay or a short text about the topic you just discussed. In the beginning, you might want to write 100-300 words. As you progress in your Dutch learning, you can make it longer.
Send the text to your tutor and have him or her correct it. Then read through the corrections and take note of everything.
But don't be discouraged if you remember nothing and need to have the same corrections made 2-3 times. That's how language learning works!
Alternative to a tutor: Get a Dutch language exchange partner
Hiring a tutor can be expensive. Especially a Dutch tutor. So a lot of people will be interested in alternative, free solutions to getting to speak and write in Dutch.
Obviously, if you make friends with Dutch people, you might get speaking and writing opportunities. But unless you already speak Dutch at a high level, they'll quickly grow impatient and switch to English.
So you might go look for a language exchange partner or a "language buddy". A language buddy is basically the same thing as a tutor. The difference is that you're not the only one learning. You'll have to do some tutoring as well in exchange for your partner helping you.
This can be a little difficult for Dutch, especially if you only speak English.
Most Dutch people don't really need your help with their English, because they already speak it at a high level. But perhaps you speak another language that you might offer in exchange?
Once you've found a language exchange partner you also need to be in luck. Does this person have the same level of motivation, ambition and learning style as you do?
And lastly - even if you find the perfect Dutch language exchange partner, are you really going to spend half of your study time helping your partner learn a language instead of focusing on your own Dutch learning? I'm sure you want to, I can tell that you're a nice person! But if you're anything like me, your schedule is already tight enough.
(Oh, and here's an article I wrote about finding the time to study languages).
As you may be able to gather, I'm not a huge believer in language exchange. Not as a replacement for a good tutor, anyway. But if that's the way you choose to go, it'll be helpful even if it isn't the same as a dedicated, paid tutor.
If you keep up speaking and writing regularly and you're diligent and persistent, you'll be sure to reach a high level of Dutch.
So you reached the end of this meaty self-student's guide to learning Dutch. Congratulations!
This guide is obviously not the only way to go about learning Dutch, but it's my take on it.
I hope that you've found it helpful. It took me a lot of time to write, so I'd appreciate your comments below!
Thanks for reading!