The Dutch language – what you should bother to learn

The Dutch language – what you should bother to learn

So you’ve landed in Amsterdam and want to take a break from your smartphone, even though those translation apps sound rather a lot of fun. You’re doing the right thing, because chances are that you won’t need to speak a word of Dutch during your stay in Amsterdam. Most of the population in the Netherlands are not only proficient in English but actually enjoy speaking it! A large portion of pop music is in English, and movies are not dubbed, but subtitled. This means that most Dutch kids of about twelve years of age will compete like crazy to attain fluency in English. It’s cool to be able to speak the language, as everything that matters to a teenager is in English. 

Dutch itself is spoken in the Netherlands and all former Dutch colonies, plus Belgium, which puts the grand total of Dutch speakers in this world at about 22 million. And if you imagine that most people who speak Afrikaans will be able to convert their Afrikaans to Dutch in about three days, it takes the tally to 29 million. Dutch is also popular as a second language in Germany, the north of France and even in Eastern Europe. Further afield, many of the older immigrants in countries like Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and Canada also speak Dutch, as they or their parents migrated to these countries in the 1950’s. 

There are many Dutch derived words in English too, mainly as a result of the immigrants which moved to America in the 17th century. A word like ‘coleslaw’ made its way into the English language from the Dutch ‘koolsla’, for example. The same thing goes for ‘cookie’, which comes from ‘koekje’, and ‘Santa Claus’ comes from the Dutch word ‘Sinterklaas/Sint Nicolaas’.

Many other Dutch words are very similar to English words, due to the fact that both have the same Germanic roots. For instance, the Dutch word ‘appel’ is ‘apple’ in English. The word ‘blue’ translates into Dutch as ‘blauw’ and ‘green’ is ‘groen’ in Dutch.  

As for the words that you will no doubt pick up without making an effort, there’s the ubiquitous ‘dank u’, which means ‘thank you’. Note that some people will use ‘dank je’, whereas others employ ‘dank u’. That is because Dutch makes a distinction between the more formal ‘u’ and less formal ‘je’. The formal 'u' is normally used for people who are older than you, and for people you do not know. ‘Je’ can be used for all children, for people younger than you and people older than you that you are on familiar terms with. In recent decades the use of ‘u’ has declined somewhat. Whereas it was inconceivable that a shop assistant younger than you would ever address you in the informal ‘je’, these days that has become accepted. If shop assistants now use the formal ‘u’ to address customers, it might even have an impolite connotation coming from a Dutch person
and be somewhat ageist. 

Experts believe that Dutch is probably the easiest foreign language to learn for English speakers as it positions itself somewhere between German and English. You will not easily find a Dutch person who agrees with that. Dutch speakers tend to boast that Dutch is ‘too complicated’ for anyone who is not a native speaker, to ever fully master. You can try to put this to the test, of course, in which case you might download those Dutch phrases and translator apps after all.