German and Dutch are two languages belonging to the Germanic family of language. Along with English, they have the historic roots of cases, the Saxon “s”, tenses, and other peculiar characteristics that all of them share. English is the most different one, Dutch is a mix of English and German and German is the least simplified and modified over time.
For English speakers, German and Dutch are easier to learn than for the rest of the world. Dutch pronunciation is harder to learn, German grammar is the most complex one. However, people learn German faster than they learn Dutch. German is easier to learn and harder to master.
The number of German speakers is up to to 95 million (2014) with over 15 million non-native German speakers (2014). Dutch, however, has over 23 million (source) and around 4 million Dutch-learners around the world. Why does German have almost 10 million more non-native speakers than Dutch? Is German easier to learn? If you want to know my experience learning both languages and the reason why this is the way it is, keep reading!
Dutch vs. German: My Experience
I am a native Spanish speaker, graduated in Translation and Intercultural Mediation and languages are one of my biggest passions. When I decided to do my Erasmus in the Netherlands I knew I had to start learning Dutch. Already back then everybody was trying to convince me that it was a bad idea: why would I try to learn such a non-necessary language? they said. Well, besides all the inconvenience, I moved back to the Netherlands and started learning Dutch.
A lot of frustration, tears, books, hours studying and a couple of years later, I reached the point where I could be able to understand and read a book in Dutch and be able to hold a conversation (a rather short one but still)… and then I decided it was time to learn German.
it has been way easier and less frustrating to learn German than when I started learning Dutch
Even though it is an unfair comparison because learning German after learning Dutch is a great advantage for the second language I am learning, I can strongly say that it has been way easier and less frustrating to learn German than when I started learning Dutch. Of course, there are a lot of structures that are very similar among these Germanic languages that I, as a Spanish speaker had to discover and get to understand. But still, why is Dutch so much harder to speak?
- Grammar: German is a little bit harder. Everybody will tell you that German grammar is harder to learn than Dutch grammar. This is completely true, German has over cases for each noun they have and in three different genres, German has many more tenses for each verb, regular and irregular and it has many more rules. However, even though Dutch grammar may seem way more simple, it is really hard to get to know all the exceptions there are. For instance, German has some rules when it comes to perceiving if a noun is feminine, masculine or neutral and identify the corresponding article, whereas the Dutch articles don’t follow any rule, there is no way to know which one of the two is it.
- Pronunciation: Dutch is a little bit harder. Here is the thing, even when German speakers start learning Dutch they have troubles understanding how to pronounce certain things, the “G” and the “IJ” and many others. Dutch speakers who learn German have almost no trouble pronouncing anything. This is a good way of measuring how hard it is because I believe a foreign Germanic-language speaker will have a hard time pronouncing both of them.
- Speaking: Dutch is definitely harder than German. Why is it? One of the biggest frustrations I have had while learning Dutch is that I was unable to speak what I just learned. It is not because I was shy but because any Dutch person who would see me think about the question, pronounce my answer wrongly or just my look of non-Dutch, they would “do me the favour” of talking to me in English. And as much as I can understand they are trying to help you and they do it with their best intention, they are not helping me. In Germany, or when it comes to speaking to Germans, they don’t even bother to talk to you in any other language if they can avoid it. It is like they don’t mind if you make mistakes, you mix German and other languages, they have to use their hands to explain to you what they mean, they will still say it in German. And as frustrating as this can be when you are not able to speak German, for me as a native speaker is a bliss: I get to practise the 4 sentences I know!! (Joking, I know like 10 by now).
Something very important to understand is that speaking German is a MUST whereas speaking Dutch is a choice. What I mean with this is you cannot survive to live in a German-speaking country without having any knowledge of German: for bureaucratic reasons, medical appointments, school meetings and more. German countries are not ready to contemplate people speaking other languages, whereas in the Netherlands you will be able to speak professionals who will be able to communicate whatever you need to know in English.
If you are the only person in a room full of Dutch people, high chances that if they know, they will all try to talk among them in English. If you are the only person in a room full of German speakers, you will soon get bored or start learning German.
Germanic Languages: English vs. Dutch vs. German
Does English help you with German and Dutch? Well, to an extent, for me as a learner of English and non-native speaker, I can say the more English you know, the easier it will be for you to understand both languages. Of course, you have to be open-minded and understand that languages are constantly changing and get those words to ring a bell but they can have a full different connotation in the other language. Here there are two possible cases:
German vs. Dutch: English Native Speakers
I would say that for an English Native Speaker learning German is easier. Why is that? Well, it is not because German is an easier language to learn but, as I was explaining before because if you are studying German with German speakers or in Germany, you will have no other choice but to learn German.
If you are a native speaker in the Netherlands, chances you will have to learn Dutch are 1%. A lot of companies looking for English native speakers, most companies in Amsterdam contract employees who speak English and not a word of Dutch, there are dentists, schools, nurseries and everything you need in English. It is very hard to avoid speaking your language when everybody understands you!
German vs Dutch: Non-native English Speakers
Non-native English speakers have a hard time learning both languages, but since you cannot communicate with the people around you (if that is the case that you live in a German or Dutch-speaking country) you will end up making an effort and speaking Dutch or German.
In this case, I will have to say that both Governments make an effort to help people adapting and learning the language to be able to find a job and be part of society. When it comes to German, it depends on what country you are. If you are interested in learning Dutch, here are some articles that may interest you:
- Free Dutch: either online or for those who live in Amsterdam, the Dutch Government offers the chance to learn Dutch. If you fulfil the requirements they have, you will be entitled to learn Dutch for free in Amsterdam. This is mostly oriented to those immigrants who need Dutch in order to get their permanent residence permit. Of course, there are always other methods to learn it online, on your own.
- How long does it take to learn Dutch: this is an article I wrote not so long ago and it was very hard to define it. In my case, in over 2 years I was able to feel comfortable around the language. However, learning a language can take you over 10 years or your whole life! Read more about it. Some people have a limited amount of time to learn Dutch in order to get their permanent residence permit. This is the case if you are a non-EU citizen and you are planning on staying in the Netherlands. Is this your case?
- Tips to learn Dutch: German aside, how hard is it to learn Dutch? I would say people consider it one of the hardest languages to learn. I used to hate it and now I love it! Read my article about it.
To Sum Up
German and Dutch are both relatively hard languages to learn. Each of them has peculiarities that make them hard: for Dutch is the pronunciation and the fact that everybody speaks English. For German, it is the complex grammar and the varieties of German dialects you will find depending on where you learn it or where you live. If you are learning any of them, I can personally say that you will start hating them to end up loving them, trust me 😉