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Dutch is the toughest language to learn: really?

Bijgewerkt op: 11 mei


Expats, researchers, and teachers are often told that Dutch is the most difficult language in the world to learn. But is that really true? In this blog, we look at the factors that determine the difficulty of a language and find out if Dutch is such a hard language to learn.


We rank first in Europe, with Dutch alongside Finnish as the toughest language to learn. Finnish is predominantly due to the enormous number of rules, and Dutch is largely due to the many exceptions.


However, there is more to why Dutch is so difficult to learn.


Learning a language is easy or difficult, depending on several factors. In this blog, we discuss three important factors.


  1. The language distance between the mother tongue and Dutch

  2. The transparency of Dutch

  3. The pronunciation in Dutch.


Furthermore, age, other acquired languages, class, and immersion in Dutch all play a role as well.


A tip for learning: Immerse yourself in Dutch

1. The language distance between the mother tongue and Dutch


Did you know that your mother tongue helps determine how fast you learn Dutch? The more similar your native language is to Dutch, for example, in sentence structure or pronunciation, the easier it is.


Here, we look at some parts near or far from different languages.


Learning Dutch grammar for expats


When we talk about language distance, where do NT2* learners run into while learning Dutch? This varies, of course, for each native language. Here are a few examples with brief explanations.


*) Nederlands als tweede taal (Dutch as a second language)


Differences between Dutch and English, Finnish, Asian, and Slavic languages

In tone languages such as Mandarin, the meaning of a word depends on its pitch. High, the word means something different than low pronounced. Dutch is not a tone language. In that sense, our language is easy.


In Finnish, there are many cases, which can be tricky when your native language does not have cases. So, this aspect is easier in Dutch.


Our Dutch verbs are a problem, though. We know three articles and have no system or rules, which also makes anything related to them, such as relative pronouns, a problem. Slavic languages, for example, have no articles and are, therefore, easier languages.


Sentence structure and word order present a problem for NT2 learners with specific native languages. In Moroccan/Arabic, for example, the verb is in front. In Turkish, the verb is at the back. In Dutch, the verb is second or in a clause at the end. In a question sentence, it is at the front.


Many NT2 learners also find compound words difficult. In Dutch, for example, we say luciferdoosje (matchbox). In Turkish the 'box' is also at the back, but in Arabic and French just the other way around (doosje-lucifer). This also applies to the adjectives that are put at the front. This is difficult when someone is used to a different order.


In short, language distance determines how easy it is to learn Dutch (Schepers, 2015). For example, Germans learn Dutch more easily than Chinese because the German language is closer to Dutch than Chinese.



mensen aan het praten rondom een tafel met papieren en pennen


2. Language transparency is the most challenging language 


The degree of similarity between what you hear and what you write is called a language's orthographic transparency.


In orthographically transparent languages, there is almost a one-to-one correspondence between phoneme and grapheme (what you hear and write). A given letter or letter combination is thereby always produced similarly.  This means that when you sound out a word letter by letter when reading, you pronounce the word correctly.


Few transparent languages have a very inconsistent grapheme-phoneme relationship. Thus, one grapheme or grapheme cluster can have different pronunciations. Therefore, a transparent language is easy to learn, While non-transparent languages are much more challenging.


Example: <g> in French, pronounced as [ʒ] in the word <manger> and as [g] in the word <garçon>. Or vice versa. For example, [o] in French is written as <o> in <radio>, as <eau> in château, as <au> in restaurant, and as <ô> in hôtel.


This means that when you see the written word, you don't always know how to pronounce it; when you hear the word, you don't know how to write it.


For example, our plural in Dutch is transparent. See ''vrouw-en'' and ''tafel-s''.There is a one-to-one meaning, and the form is clear. Not transparent is, when we say, "Het regent.'' - zero to one relationship, totally not transparent.


Compare this, for example, with Spanish, where they say: Tengo (I have), tienes (you have), Tenemos (we have, etc.). This is entirely transparent.


Research on 12 such aspects in 30 languages in 25 language families found that the most transparent language was an Indian language in Chile and Sri Lankan in Malaysia. The least transparent languages were Dutch and French.


When learning Dutch: Stay motivated by keeping your goal in mind.

3. Dutch pronunciation for expats


When learning a language as an expat, you not only want to know the words but also want to pronounce the language correctly and preferably without an accent. Then, the bar is immediately set very high. Perfectly recognizable, by the way. But after 8 years of actively hearing and speaking Spanish (and a total of 18 years of mastering this language), you can clearly hear that I do not have a Spanish background.


In Dutch, the guttural sounds (g, sch, schr, and gr) are common stumbling blocks for NT2 learners. For example, the sound "g" is pronounced in different ways in Dutch. In the word “ga," the "g" sounds hard, while in the word “regen," it is pronounced soft. This can be tricky for learners to learn.


What are other essential issues in learning pronunciation in Dutch?


  • One sound that is very common and often mispronounced by many non-native speakers is the mute e. You hear /u/, but you write e. Think of the words "dieren" or "spiegel."

  • In Dutch, the stressed syllable is slightly longer than the other syllables of the word. Unlike Spanish syllables, for example, which are all about the same length.

  • What also makes Dutch tricky is that you can't see the stressed syllable, and it can be anywhere. For example, st_a_mppot (front), gest_a_mpte (middle), and stamp_ij (back).

  • Also, the accents in a sentence are pronounced slightly longer and often higher and louder. This creates fixed landmarks for the listener: ''Van_a_vond eet ik st_a_mppot met een v_e_gaburger.''


In short, pronunciation is quite tricky in Dutch.


twee vrouwen in het bos aan het praten bij het vuur


Conclusion: Is Dutch really the most difficult language to learn?


Whether Dutch is the most difficult language in the world to learn is hard to prove. It depends on several factors, such as your mother tongue, your motivation, your learning style, and your learning environment.


However, we can say that for many people, Dutch is quite a difficult language to learn. This is due to the:


  • Often large language distance: For many people, there is a large language distance between their native language and Dutch. This means that many new grammatical rules, sounds, and vocabulary have to be learned.

  • Low transparency: The Dutch language is not very transparent. This means there are many exceptions to the rules, and it can be difficult for learners to know how to pronounce or write something.

  • Difficult pronunciation: Dutch pronunciation with the guttural sounds and the stresses that can fall in different places in a word is a stumbling block for many learners.


Yet it is certainly possible to learn Dutch! You will be successful with the right attitude, the right learning method, and enough practice.

Tips for learning Dutch:


  • Find a good learning method: There are many ways to learn Dutch. Find a method that suits you and that you feel comfortable with.

  • Immerse yourself in the language: Try to speak, read, and listen to as much Dutch as possible. But, in the Netherlands, you must be persistent, as many people respond to you in English. Have one response ready, such as "Sorry, ik wil graag Nederlands leren. Kun je Nederlands spreken?''

  • Don't be afraid to make mistakes: Making mistakes is a normal learning process.

  • Stay motivated: Learning a language takes time and effort. This short article provides some good reasons to learn Dutch.


With the right approach, learning Dutch is definitely an achievable challenge!

We are here for you to help you with this challenge. We make learning Dutch fun with our tailor-made lessons. Your goals, your interests, and your way of learning are leading for us. You are more than welcome to contact us at info@onlinedutchforexpats.nl


Resources


  • Hengeveld, K. & Leufkens, S. (2018). Transparent and non-transparent languages. Folia Linguistica 52(1), 139-175.

  • Kuiken, F. (2017). Nederlands leren: Makkelijk of moeilijk? Les 204, 22-25.

  • Leufkens, S. (2014). Transparency in language. A typological study. Utrecht: LOT.

  • Leufkens, S. (2019). De webapp ‘Moedertaal in het NT2-onderwijs’. Les 209, 30-33.

  • Schepens, S. (2015). Bridging linguistic gaps: The effects of linguistic distance on the adult learnability of Dutch as an additional language. Utrecht: LOT.

  • Baker, E.A., Don, J. & Hengeveld, K. (2013). ‘Taalverwerving’. In Taal en Taalwetenschap. Chichester: Blackwell Publishers.

  • Paula Fikkert, Hoogleraar eerste taalverwerving aan de Radboud Universiteit: https://www.fikkert.com/publications.

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