Learning Dutch, tips from our tutor Cecile

Maybe you recognize this phenomenon… Your mother tongue is not English, sometimes not an Indo-Germanic language. You speak English at work and in everyday life, in other words: all the time! That takes considerable effort! Then you undertake the task of learning a new language like Dutch and you use English as a bridge language with your tutor. You add another layer to the cake. Not only comes in this new language with new rules and weird sounds, you’re also speaking abóut and reflecting on language. It’s enough to make your head spin…

Invariably there will occur some transfer between these two ‘foreign’ languages in your brain, as you are building a new mental lexicon, grammar and phonetic system. For some reason English always ‘wins, ’especially in the beginning. Is it the deeper engrained language for you, and it’s much more prevalent in the culture.

Linguists distinguish different categories among these mix-ups. They have aspects in common and they certainly all feel the same for you, the learner: as if someone else is in the driver seat!

Many newcomers to Dutch make mistakes along these lines. Below are some common mishaps. In our experience the best way to deal with these is to engrain these new meanings, phrases and uses in your brain, next to or dominant over the English ones. You do this by exposing yourself to Dutch often, in spoken and written form. Taaltempo is a great method for that, as it trains the brain to respond without overthinking. 


Common errors

Literal translation from English to Dutch.
We see this phenomenon of ‘language blending’ often in the use of (fixed) phrases or word combinations.

• ‘Wat dag is het vandaag?’ for [what day is it today?]

• Here [what] is literally translated as ‘wat.’
• However, in this combination it should be ‘welke’ [which].
• Welke dag is het vandaag?
• Alternatively “Wat voor dag is het vandaag?’ [what kind of a day is today?]


False Friends

There are also a few notorious ‘false friends’  between English and Dutch: words that sound (almost) the same, look (almost) the same, but do not necessarily mean the same thing. 


Mistaken synonyms

Finally, there are some Dutch words that are regarded as synonyms by language learners when, in actual fact, they are not.

More examples:

Zo: This tiny word has several meanings:

• Such as [in a minute] in ‘Ik kom zo’
• Or [like that] in ‘Dit doe je zo.’
• However, it does not mean [so], the summation word that introduces a conclusion. That would translate as ‘dus’
• ‘Ik ben ziek, zo ik kan niet komen.’ should translate as ‘Ik ben ziek, dus ik kan niet komen.

Learners of Dutch often erroneously say Ik was/ben bezig when they mean they have a lot going on


Toen: then is also tricky. It translates as ‘toen’ when it refers to the past, but as ‘dan’  when it refers to (an instruction for) the future. 

• However, these things happen almost at the same time

• Ik ging naar de winkel, en toen kwam ik haar tegen
• Ik ga naar de winkel en dan koop ik boodschappen

• If it’s specifically about the order in time, you use ‘time ordening words’ like: daarvoor, daarna, voordat, nadat…

• Ik ging naar mijn werk nadat/voordat ik boodschappen gedaan had/boodschappen deed
• Ik ging naar mijn werk, maar daarvoor ging ik boodschappen doen


Betekenen / bedoelen [to mean]: even though both of these words refer to ‘to mean’, they are not interchangeable. ‘Betekenen’ refers to the actual meaning of a word or phrase, whereas ‘bedoelen’ refers to the intended meaning. A word betekent iets, a person bedoelt iets.


Weten / kennen [to know]: the difference in meaning between ‘weten’ and ‘kennen’ is not clear cut. Yet there is a difference in sentence structure that might help you decide which word to choose. ‘Weten’ is often followed by a question word (who, what, where, etc.) and ‘kennen’ is often followed by names of people or places. Please keep in mind that there is a difference between the sentences ‘Ik weet het niet.’ and ‘Ik ken het niet.’


Kennen / kunnen. This opens a new ‘can of worms’, the confusion between ‘kennen’ en ‘kunnen.’

•  ‘kennen’ = [to know (of, about) -see bullet above]
•  ‘Kunnen’ = [to be able to, to know how to]
•  In so called plat Nederlands (a folksy, sort of uneducated dialect) the two are often confused: dat ken ik niet is then used for dat kan ik niet  


Begrijpen / verstaan (to understand): 

• you could say that the difference between these words is that one (‘verstaan’) is a precondition for the other (‘begrijpen’).
• ‘Verstaan’ refers to understanding, in the sense of being able to distinguish what the other person is saying.
• ‘Begrijpen’ on the other hand refers to whether or not you understand the (intended) meaning of what is being said.
• In other words, if you have trouble with ‘verstaan’, you ask a person ‘Can you REPEAT that?’. Wat zegt u? Kunt u dat herhalen? Kunt u dat nog een keer zeggen?
• If ‘begrijpen’ is the problem, you ask ‘Can you REPHRASE that?’. Wat bedoelt u? Sorry, ik begrijp u niet. A smile really helps. Or something like: Ik spreek nog niet zo goed Nederlands.


Vroeger instead of eerder in translation of words like [sooner] and [earlier] (to understand): 

• ‘Vroeger’ is sometimes mistaken to mean [earlier] or used to express this meaning, as the comparative form of ‘vroeg’ [early], since the regular comparative is formed by stam + er.
• It is possibly so, but ‘vroeger’ mostly refers to something that happened a long time ago, in the era before
• Note that you do still see it in “earlier in the week, the century”…
• ‘Ik kwam eerder aan (dan Y)’ ‘hij arriveerde vroeger (dan X) [I/he arrived earlier (than X/Y)]
• He got there sooner ‘Hij arriveerde vroeger’
• We used to have two cars ‘Vroeger hadden we twee auto’s’
• I woke up earlier
• earlier than expected,


Busy: has 2 translations, uses:

1 – bezig [to be occupied with], with verb to be:

• Ik ben/was even bezig -> [I am/was busy doing something]
• Ik ben/was bezig met X->  [I am/was doing X]

2 – druk [to be busily occupied in general], with verb to have:

• Ik heb/had het druk-> [I am/was busy]

Learners of Dutch often erroneously say Ik was/ben bezig when they mean they have a lot going on


• Free: heeft 2 vertalingen: 1) vrij 2) gratis

• Ik ben/heb vrij op woensdag [I’m off work]
• Deze boeken zijn gratis verkrijgbaar
• Dit abonnement is gratis
• Dutch does not have an expression like ‘free of charge’ (Gratis)
• Maar wel het suffix -vrij, [containing no X], as in alcoholvrij bier, een latexvrij product



• Ik ben de enige die op woensdag kan -> I’m the only one who can make it on W
• Wij zijn de enigen die op woensdag kunnen
• When referring to people you add an n in plural to indefinite numerals like enige, enkele, beide, sommige
• Er zijn enige mensen ziek -> (literally: there are a few people sick)
• Learners of Dutch often erroneously say
• [I only have two] ik heb er maar twee
• [the only two] de enige twee
• [only two X did something] maar twee X…


To bring: in English this verb has two uses that is translated two different ways in Dutch:

1 – meenemen of meebrengen (where the object is in your possession and you bring it with you and possibly take it back (home) with you)

• Ik zal het meenemen/meebrengen
• Ik breng/neem het (voor je) mee

 2 – brengen: (where you bring an object from A to B, also wegbrengen), 

• Ik breng dit pakketje morgen naar het postkantoor

Published by: Flowently

Workshop Culturally Sensitive Working in Dutch Healthcare

Why changing your business language requires deliberate action

Struggling professionals

Learning Dutch, tips from our tutor Cecile

Stay connected to your Greek roots

Learn a language with ‘The Talking Pen’

Learn Dutch at the Vondelpark Paviljoen

Learn Dutch at De Balie Grandcafé Amsterdam

Learn Dutch in a cozy café in Utrecht

Learn to speak Dutch like a local, using Flowently’s ‘magic phrases’!