Struggling to learn the language

Annoying Dutch

Double vowels, unpronounceable sounds, and time-consuming courses: learning Dutch can be gruelling. When you finally gather the courage to speak Dutch in public, people often respond in English: ‘It’s like a slap in the face.’
19 October om 17:50 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 20 October 2021
om 12:08 uur.
October 19 at 17:50 PM.
Last modified on October 20, 2021
at 12:08 PM.
Avatar photo

Door Denise Overkleeft

19 October om 17:50 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 20 October 2021
om 12:08 uur.
Avatar photo

By Denise Overkleeft

October 19 at 17:50 PM.
Last modified on October 20, 2021
at 12:08 PM.
Avatar photo

Denise Overkleeft

Student-redacteur Volledig bio Student editor Full bio

After two weeks of learning Dutch, Jule Johanna Steinhauer did her best to practice it with other native speakers. But speaking Dutch in public turned out to be even more difficult than stewing over textbooks, says the European languages and cultures student from Germany.

She was doing her groceries at the market when the seller detected her accent. ‘He got so pissed and snarled to me to speak in German or leave it.’ That rubbed her the wrong way. ‘I’ve given up speaking Dutch in public for now.’

Pet peeve #1

Dutchies switching to English

Many internationals find it hard to speak Dutch with native speakers: as soon as a Dutch person hears the slightest accent, they immediately respond in English. ‘They probably do it to help me, but it feels like a slap in the face’, says Hannah, another European languages and cultures student from Germany. Speaking Dutch in public became a source of insecurity for her. ‘You immediately start doubting yourself: oops, that was probably wrong.’

Sometimes I pretend that I understand everything they are saying, so people continue speaking Dutch

The problem is that everyone here is fluent in English, says Romanian economics student Andrada Duta: ‘I don’t want to make their lives difficult with my jerky Dutch, while they speak perfect English.’

Even in the small village of Visvliet – where Andrada currently lives – she can easily chit chat with the neighbours without speaking a single word of Dutch, ‘which is pretty demotivating.’

If students really want to practice Dutch with native speakers, they have no choice but to get creative. ‘Sometimes I pretend that I understand everything they are saying, so people continue speaking Dutch to me’, says Euroculture student Qingya Wei from China.

Pet peeve #2


Pronunciation is another major point of annoyance and suffering. ‘My throat always hurts after practicing’, says marketing analytics and data science student Saskia Krüger, ‘I am not used to pronouncing the Dutch “g”.’

It just doesn’t make sense!

It is not only the guttural ‘g’, but also rolling ‘r’ and double vowels like ‘ui’ that are unpopular with the newbies. ‘I just try to pronounce them as quickly as possible’, says Jule, who still struggles to pronounce the Dutch name of her home country, Duitsland, despite practising for hours and hours.

The way Dutch words are spelled doesn’t help, either. ‘It just doesn’t make sense!’ says business administration student Katharina Rettenbacher. ‘Is it “ij” or “ei”? Or even “eij”, like in Albert Heijn?’

Pet peeve #3


Even though physics student Erik Hendla has no problem with understanding sentences when they are written down, when it comes to listening, he feels hard-pressed. ‘Why is oral Dutch so different from written Dutch?’ asks the Estonian student.

When people speak Dutch, they don’t really open their mouth

The different dialects and accents don’t make it any easier. According to the Syntactic Atlas of Dutch Dialects, The Netherlands has at least 267 dialects – quite a lot for such a small country. Some letters can take many different shapes or sounds depending on the geographic region where you are. Think for instance about the soft ‘g’ versus the hard ‘g’ – they almost sound like different letters.

Other letters do not even make it into sounds. ‘When people speak Dutch, they don’t really open their mouth’, Qingya says, ‘so, some letters just stay there, without being pronounced.’

What’s more, the local Groningers are also known to knauw or swallow their syllables. And their pronunciation of the vowels – the ‘o’ that sounds like an ‘a’ or the ‘ee’ that becomes an ‘ij’ – is also something internationals have to get used to.

Pet peeve #4


Then there’s Dutch grammar. International business student Thomas Au, who is from Malaysia, just can’t get the hang of it: ‘The use of participles is still a mystery to me.’ And don’t get him started on the sentence structure and verbs that are separated and placed at the end of the sentences. ‘It’s really difficult when you haven’t learned any Germanic languages before.’

When I want to speak Dutch, I end up using English words

While some internationals say that the similarities to English make it easier to master the Dutch vocabulary, others get pretty confused by it. ‘My brain often mixes up the two’, says artificial intelligence student Péter Varga. ‘When I want to speak Dutch, I end up using English words. And when I speak English, I sometimes add Dutch words to my sentences.’

Especially the interrogative words like ‘what’ and ‘how’ have put the Hungarian student in weird situations. ‘Once I wanted to ask someone how he was doing, but I confused the wat with hoe.’ So instead of asking Hoe is het met jou?, he said: Wat is er met jou?, which means: What’s wrong with you?

Pet peeve #5

Language courses 

To overcome these struggles with understanding and speaking Dutch, many international students take part in language courses. But those can be more annoying than one might think.

The first obstacle is to get in. Imagine being so excited to learn Dutch and not being able to enrol in the course. That happened to Maia Paduraru, a journalism student from Moldova. She tried to sign up two hours after Progress opened the registrations, ‘but every spot was already taken’.

I tried the course offered by the UG, but after a year I spoke zero Dutch

The lack of sufficient courses also troubles Andrada. She already acquired B2 level of Dutch during her bachelor, but now she got stuck, ‘because I cannot participate in more advanced language classes’. The university does in fact only offer courses until B1 level, so her only opportunity is to enrol at private language schools, but those are way too expensive.

For those that do manage to acquire a seat in the much-desired Dutch class, reality often doesn’t live up to the expectations. ‘I tried following the Dutch course offered by the UG, but it didn’t work out. After one year I spoke zero Dutch’, says Thomas, who is now learning the language by reading books and watching YouTube.

Dropping out

He’s not the only student dropping out. Sara Razaghi, a linguistics student from Iran, has seen her class becoming smaller by the week: from the sixteen students that started, only seven are still participating regularly. ‘Some couldn’t manage the workload’, Sara says, ‘but most dropouts were simply unsatisfied with their progress.’

Also, the remaining students in her class find the course quite bothersome. ‘Sorry for all the complaints’, a fellow student texts to Sara, ‘but, is it just me or is the homework unclear to everyone… the entire time?’  

It doesn’t really help that the teacher only speaks in Dutch. ‘The Dutch grammar rules are already a pain in the ass’, another fellow student writes to Sara, ‘let alone when they are explained in Dutch.’