Dutch’s Germanic roots make it an easy language to learn for English and German speakers alike. This is likely true for speakers of other Germanic languages as well. Why is Dutch easy to learn for people that speak these languages?
Learning Dutch has been a pleasant surprise the past 8 weeks. In large part because I didn’t expect to see so much of other languages in it. It’s made learning the language a breath of fresh air after seeing slow progress in my Mandarin over the past year.
The reason that Dutch has been easy for me to learn personally mostly stems from my knowledge of both German and English.
What surprised me the most was how much being a native English speaker played a roll in this. We’ll start with this language first.
Is Dutch Easy to Learn for English Speakers?
Some months ago, I wrote an article on the Scots language. In it, I talked about how I came across the language while looking for ‘the closest language’ to English. Although Scots still holds up as being that language by a mile, I now see why Dutch is often in contention for that title. With that being said, is Dutch easy to learn for English speakers? The answer to that question lies in the two languages’ common vocabulary.
Reason 1: Cognates with English
The thing that surprised me the most about learning Dutch was how much it had in common with my native language. Obvious cognates such as we – we in English – display the close relationship that the languages share through both pronunciation and spelling. The pronoun je – you in English – is cognate in pronunciation but not spelling.
Many everyday words like school, is, and week popped up as cognates between Dutch and English. These examples, despite some differentiation in pronunciation, are written the same in both languages. Some cognates only become obvious after hearing them out loud. A good example of this would be the words voor and goed in Dutch – meaning for and good in English, respectively. It becomes obvious, fairly quickly, that Dutch and English share more in common than English and German.
However, commonalities between English and Dutch are fairly limited considering their roots. Their relationship is most visible when analyzing vocabulary. On the flip side of that, Dutch and German have a lot alike both in structure and vocabulary.
Reason 2: Dutch’s Overlap with German Grammar
Why is Dutch easy to learn, especially for German speakers? What Dutch doesn’t have in common with English are some of German’s more notorious grammar rules. Dutch doesn’t have German’s rigorous use of cases and 3 genders. However, it does share some of its unique syntax. In general, secondary verbs or past participles go at the end of a clause.
A basic example of this using the modal verb must would be:
Ich muss nach der Schule gehen. – German
Ik moet naar de school gaan. – Dutch
I must to the school go. – German and Dutch word order in English
One characteristic that I always believed to be unique of German is its frequent use of the present perfect or das Perfekt in German. Here you can see the word order of the tense on display:
Ich habe vieles Essen für das Ereignis gekocht. – German
Ik heb veel eten voor het evenement gekookt. – Dutch
I have a lot of food for the event cooked. – German and Dutch word order in English
In English we would just use the simple past in this context and say I cooked a lot of food for the event rather than I have cooked a lot of food. In fact, using the present perfect in English might imply that you’re not finished cooking given the context.
Das Perfekt is commonly used in everyday speech in German. Simple past is for the most part reserved for narration.
Reason 3: German Cognates
Why else is Dutch easy to learn for German speakers? The two languages have a plethora of cognates. In fact, 84% of German and Dutch vocabulary are cognate. (add citation)
Dutch shares cognates with German that don’t exist in English. The words strand – beach in English – and spelen – to play in English – in Dutch are Strand and spielen in German, respectively.
Common origins of these two languages show themselves often through vocabulary. A seemingly Germanic example of this relationship would be the use of the word Lieblings- in German – lieveling- in Dutch. The word means favorite and can be added at the beginning of a noun.
As a simple example, you could say:
Das ist mein Lieblingsauto. – German
Dat is mijn lievelingsauto. – Dutch
That is my favorite car. – English
You may have noticed from the example that Dutch doesn’t have one of German’s unique features. Nouns aren’t explicitly capitalized every time they’re used. Often times Dutch seems to be a less complicated cousin of German.
Previous Knowledge: Why is Dutch Easy to Learn?
The languages that you already know always play a big role in the difficulty of a language. A defining reason Dutch is easy to learn, at least for me as an individual, has to do with my background. After learning several languages, cognates pop up from languages that you would least expect.
As I was studying today, I came across the word for furniture in Dutch – meubels. In Spanish the word for furniture is muebles. These two words, or one word rather, likely have a common origin. With time knowledge that you gain from learning languages compounds into others.
This is part of the appeal of learning Latin. All languages originating from Europe, and more, have some degree of Latin influence, not just romance languages. Learning Latin is a great pretext for learning other languages.
茶 (chá) was one of the first words I learned by heart in Mandarin Chinese because it was cognate with the word chá in Portuguese – both meaning tea. This has taught me the value of previous knowledge from more closely related languages as well such as Spanish and Portuguese.
Knowing German beforehand, as well as being a native English speaker, has made learning Dutch less frustrating. Nonetheless, a lot of work will still be required. Several hundred hours of practice, mostly reading and speaking in my case, will be needed before I’m at a comfortable conversation level in the language.