Dutch is the official language of the Netherlands, this small but densely populated European country, home for over 17.08 million people. However, if you have ever been to the Netherlands you will know that you have no need to speak Dutch, you don’t have to as a tourist and neither you do if you move here. But, why? Is Dutch so hard to learn that nobody even tries?
Dutch is considered to be an easy language to learn for English and German speakers. For speakers of other languages, it definitely takes longer. Learning Dutch is hard because you hardly ever need to do it and you need to force a context where you can speak it, but it isn’t hard per se.
Most people who settle in big cities such as Rotterdam, Amsterdam or The Hague can live their daily life with the most basic knowledge of Dutch and living their life 100% in English. However, some people decide to learn Dutch or have to do it in order to improve their careers or in order to get a residence permit. How do they do it? And, how hard is it for them to be able to be fluent in this rather difficult language? Keep reading!
How Long it Takes to Learn Dutch?
According to certain studies, since English and German are two very closely related languages to Dutch, speakers of these languages can learn it faster. This doesn’t mean that it is easy, it just means that for people like me, a native Spanish speaker, it is a bit harder to get along with Dutch.
Personally, even though my mother tongue is Spanish, I am a translator. That means that I have a lot of background knowledge of languages, and it took me around two years to learn Dutch, but I still need to practise a lot in order to feel confident. My B2 level of Dutch is definitely not my B2 in other Romance languages.
According to the European Council and their 6 CEFR Levels of proficiency, students of all languages, including Dutch, can know exactly how many hour and what type of knowledge are indicated in order to learn a language: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2. In order to be relatively fluent in Dutch, so being able to hold a proper conversation, being able to understand academic contexts, including some specific vocabulary, as well as feeling confident, you need to at least 600 class hours: so a B1.2 level.
This is all very relative, languages are like sports, the more you practice it, the better you get at it. It is very hard to settle an exact level and generalize about the number of hours one needs to learn a language: it is not the same to be proficient (and being able to have a conversation with the neighbour in Dutch) than to be fluent (and be able to do your studies in Dutch).
How Long it Takes to be Fluent in Dutch?
Of course, it really depends. If you already speak more languages or were raised as a bilingual child, it will definitely be a shorter path for you. Factors such as your knowledge of German and English will also be of some help when learning Dutch.
One thing I have observed after living in Amsterdam is that you really need to make an effort to immerse yourself in the language. What I mean with that, is that there are languages such as Italian, that you will HAVE TO LEARN if you decide to move to Italy. Not only most people ignore English, but they are also very relaxed when it comes to making an effort to speak any foreign language to tourist or foreigners. This is definitely not the case for Dutch people: Dutch believe they are doing you a favour by talking to you in English, even when you are trying your best to speak Dutch.
I believe Dutch is not a hard language to learn because the grammar is narrowed and they used a reduced number of terms (in comparison with English and Spanish, for instance), the syntax follows a fixed structure and there are very few tenses. However, the fact that you can’t practice with almost anyone and that you are not allowed to make mistakes, it is very hard to learn it just by living a regular life. If you really want to speak Dutch you need to follow some sort of language course and make an extra effort. These are the steps you will have to follow:
- A1-A2: they call this level beginner. These levels are for you to get to know this language and get familiar with everyday expressions such as goedemorgen, hoe gaat het met jou and some basic vocabulary. With this level of Dutch, you will be able to start creating your first sentences, introduce yourself and basically learn how to read and how to pronounce these tricky words they use. In my case, it took me a month of Intensive Dutch Courses to be able to achieve this. A full-time job (and I mean 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for over a month) that would take a couple of your precious summer months. And the number of hours you have to dedicate increases with the level.
- B1: once you reach this level you are able to create small texts and talk about more topics, mainly everything you need to travel, talk about your family and this is the point when you start feeling you can actually speak. In the Netherlands, the B1 corresponds to the NT2 Programma I, the first level of the staatexam that you need in order to have a residence permit to work and open the possibility for a new job. If you want to start studying in Dutch you will also need to pass this exam. It is the most basic one, but this is a big step from the beginners programme. In my case, this is when I started needing help to improve, mostly to hold conversations and start practising Dutch in a more realistic context. I started an semi-intensive course at the INTT, which you can read more about in the section down below.
- B2: reaching the B2 level means that you can already write proper texts, understand ideas, read short books and your vocabulary is significant. This level corresponds to the NT2 Programma II, and it is the second and last level of the staatexam, that you will need if you want to enrol at a higher education institution in Dutch, or if you really plan on learning the language. This is the highest level language academies and university courses offer, so according to them, when you reach this level you are proficient enough. Just keep practising!
- C1-C2: this is a level of proficiency you will reach either by doing a higher education programme at a Dutch university (in Dutch) or doing a lot of practising a reading as much as you can. It is a level that not even native speakers of the language would pass, only those with a higher education and a lot of knowledge and understanding of their own language.
Best Way to learn Dutch
I have been studying Dutch for the past two years and I have tried many methods that have helped me make learning Dutch not only easier but more fun. When learning a language there are moments when you see no progress and you start feeling frustrated. Seeing your personal growth is hard when you study/measure it on a daily basis, and sometimes repeating the same lines and the same exercises every single day is tiring. Here there are a few tips that have worked for me:
Free Dutch Courses
The City Hall (Gemeente) offers Free Dutch courses for those who meet certain requirements. On their website you will be able to read all the terms and conditions, and where are the closest locations and courses to where you live. In general terms the requirements one has to meet are:
- you are a legal resident and you are registered on your address
- you need it to participate in the Civic Integration Course (inburgeringcursus)
- (or) you are an EU citizen
- (or) you are a non-EU citizen who has already completed the rest of the Civic Integration Course
- you are NOT an expat (overly qualified immigrant with a job)
And what is expected from you while taking this course is to:
- you have to attend the two lessons a week (one of them of a duration of 3 hours)
- you must attend at least 80% of the lessons
- you must complete the final test
I have experienced on my own skin going to some of these courses and I have friends who have also recommended it to me. It is an amazing opportunity if you don’t count with a budget of over 500 euros to pay for a Dutch course, but it also implies a big sacrifice: I believe people have less of a compromise when they don’t have to pay for something. Paying for your classes makes them more valuable and you take them more seriously than when you can just miss them.
In order to avoid that to happen, if you miss more than that 80% the Gemeente, will not only forbid you to take any other courses in the future but will have you pay for it through taxes.
In my case, I felt like the level of all the participants in the course was very irregular: there were people with a much higher Dutch level and also a much lower language level, in general, attending the same lecture, making the whole dynamic slow and a tad boring.
I want to make clear, however, that professors are voluntary Dutch professors and they do their best to help people integrating on their culture. If you really have the willpower and discipline to do it, it also is an amazing way for meeting people from all over the world and maybe get to know people that are in the same conditions as you are living in a foreign country.
If you are an expat, with a high education background, and are not eligible for these courses, the City offers other free options:
- Free Dutch practice at the Amsterdam Public library: mostly at the beginning of September you will be able to enrol for an assessment of your Dutch level and maybe some courses offered by the public library. You can always go ask at your closest Openbare Bibliotheek and get more information about the start of the courses and how it works, or get a Consultation session. In any case, you can always get yourself a membership card and start getting going with your Dutch through books, even children books, those are great!
- Language for Life (Taal voor het Leven): this is a course for those Amsterdammers who need a little help to get better at reading, writing emails or getting along with daily life forms and papers. Both volunteers and professionals offer a variety of courses and you can enrol whenever you want to.
And you can always enrol at a free online course that you can follow on your free time without having to compromise on a fixed schedule and following your own rhythm. Some of the recommended ones by the City Hall and myself are these:
There are hundreds of language academies in Amsterdam. All of them are expensive, but sometimes, much needed. A lot of companies will pay for you to attend to an academy if you want to improve your Dutch, or you can do it by yourself: on average, they cost 300-600 euros.
The positive side is that you can choose the closest to your place or job and the most convenient for you time-wise. Some of the most popular ones are:
- Dutch Courses Amsterdam
- BLC language courses, offered by Bart de Pau twice a year, in Amsterdam and other parts of the Netherlands
Another way of practising your Dutch in a more entertaining way on your free time, and get a break from all the grammar and books, is doing a language exchange. If you are a student, this is even easier: you can find the department of Dutch at the language faculty, or even ask any of your Dutch classmates what they know about exchanges. If you speak, for instance, let’s say Spanish, go to the Spanish Department and ask if anyone would be interested in doing an exchange Dutch-Spanish, I am sure you will find someone!
If you are not in an academic environment, there are also several options for you. Personally, I have experience with Language cafe exchanges offered on Facebook expats and University groups. If you work on a company you may also want to ask if they do one. One of the best ones for me was the weekly or monthly events on Couchsurfing, where you can see who is attending and there are a lot of activities where talking is less awkward, and where you can find interesting people to get to know and practise Dutch with.
You can always find your own tandem partner, it is just about asking around: your neighbour, your colleague, even your boss can help you a little bit with your Dutch.
Most universities in the Netherlands have either their own language academy or a partnership with one of them. For instance, Utrecht University partners with Babel. In Amsterdam, the UvA and the VU have amazing language programmes for students of their universities and for anyone willing to join.
INTT: The Dutch Institute for Dutch Language Education of the UvA counts with some of the most completed programmes to both learn Dutch and pass both NT2 I and the NT2 II.
There are several options:
- if you are a student of the UvA studying a language programme, you can enrol at the INTT as you would to a regular course, and get some credits for that.
- if you are a student of the UvA who is not studying a language programme, you get a 50% discount on any course.
- you can enrol to prepare for the NT2 I or the NT2 II
- if you have nothing to do with the university, you have to pay way more, but you can still enrol.
Studying at the INTT institute is really expensive: intensive courses are almost 2000 euros and semi-intensive ones around 600. You get two lectures of a 3 hours duration each for 6 weeks. You will be tested twice, and you will have to pass a placement exam in order to assess your real level of Dutch.
I have taken both the free courses, the online ones, and the Semi-intensive B1 and B2 of the INTT, and I cannot recommend enough the later. The placement test makes you be exactly where you need to: being in a classroom with people who are your same level, who have the same difficulties you have and are also as good as you end up being encouraging and helps the lecture progress smoothly.
You can work further on your own, you will have a lot of pressure to finish your homework, but the positive side is that you can choose afternoon or evening lectures, and what day of the week suits you best! Professors know what they are doing, and the working group is reduced enough to have the chance to participate.
My recommendation: don’t let yourself be fooled by the semi part of semi-intensive. It is definitely hard and you will have to put down a lot of hours to follow the whole syllabus and make the most out of the course.
- Grammar websites (or books): checking grammar rules, reading about syntax, asking yourself questions and looking for the answer is important. There are several free websites that offer grammatical explanations, as well as books that you can either buy to practise or borrow from the library. Some of my favourites are: Nederlands in gang, Nederlands in actie, and De Opmaat.
- Cinema: going to the movies is always a great plan, so you can always make a little effort and start watching them in Dutch. Most Dutch cinemas don’t offer a lot of dubbed films, but Eye Filmmuseum offers a variety of shows in Dutch and many original languages.
- Duolinguo: everybody knows this app! It is good, it is entertaining and you can use it everywhere you go. If you travel by public transportation, you can always start using it after work on your way home. You can decide how many hours you want to spend with it and how intensive you want it to be. I wouldn’t recommend it to use it as your only way of learning, but it definitely is a great complimentary exercise.
- Phone in Dutch: this is something I do every single time I want to learn a language. Switching your laptop or your phone into Dutch will help you get familiar with a lot more words than you can imagine! Your searches on Google will automatically be in Dutch and you will be forced to understand even when you are not studying.
- Netflix in Dutch: if you live in the Netherlands Netflix offers you the option of subtitling everything you watch in Dutch. It may be hard to follow, to begin with, but after a couple of episodes or films, you will be able to follow it and even associate the words you are hearing with the subtitlings you are reading.
- Speaking (at settled environments): the best way to practise Dutch on a daily basis is going to the supermarket. Doing grocery shopping or buying anything is a great exercise to get to use those few words you are learning. This will motivate you more than you think and you will be getting involved, the real deal.