The best approach for English speakers to learn Dutch fast
Are you an English speaker trying to learn Dutch, but frustrated by your progress? This article describes a language-learning approach to mastering Dutch much faster than with traditional methods—and it’s more fun.
For more than forty years, language-learning methods have remained the same, despite not being the most efficient. Albert Both of Talencoach describes an alternative method that will get you speaking Dutch quickly, while enjoying the process.
Language-learning methods need an upgrade
A language textbook from the 1980s may look different from modern ones—old fonts and black-and-white illustrations have been replaced by slicker designs and colourful photos—but the method of teaching has not really evolved for decades.
The first lesson in most courses involves a dialog between two people meeting for the first time, and the reader follows along and imitates the pronunciation. The format is pretty much the same from course to course: You’ll learn to say ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘nice to meet you’, the idea being that if you just copy the sounds and memorise the phrases, you’ll start to speak the language.
Grammar-focused vs communicative approach
Traditionally there have been two main approaches to learning a new language: grammar-focused and the communicative method. If you are learning Latin, for example, the grammatical approach makes sense, because the language is dead and you will never have to speak it. You’ll be able to read ancient texts and look like an intellectual without having to actually speak the language—score!
Most people, however, learn a language in order to be able to speak and communicate in it. That is why the communicative method was developed: to help people navigate certain situations in a new language.
Why these traditional methods are ineffective
With the communicative approach, learners are presented with many phrases they can use in various situations, absorbing some grammar that is introduced along the way. You’ll learn how to have simple interactions, such as booking a hotel room or ordering dinner.
It is not, however, the fastest way to learn. The method arms you with memorised phrases for fixed situations, but it does not deepen your understanding of the language, and you can never learn something that you do not understand.
If you see too many words that you don’t know the meanings of and if too many things do not make sense, chances are you will only feel overwhelmed. It’s also a boring way to learn: You are practically forced to speak about only one subject at the time, without the ability to go ‘off-script’ and really express yourself.
The secret to learning a new language fast
Do not despair, though, because there is good news: The secret of learning Dutch or any new language fast is actually quite simple and logical.
Consider these sentences:
1) Psachno to diavatirio mou.
2) Ik zoek mijn paspoort.
Which sentence is easiest for you to understand? Unless you know some Greek, the answer is probably the second one. You likely know what it means (literally: ‘I seek my passport’). Perhaps you can even translate it into a better English sentence (‘I am looking for my passport’).
And that’s the secret: You learn things faster when they look like things already familiar to you. So to learn Dutch really fast, start with the more familiar things first.
A particularly effective approach for English speakers learning Dutch
This is a great approach for a language like Dutch if you are an English speaker, because Dutch and English have many elements in common. For example, take the words literatuur, economie and meditatie. It’s easy to understand these words mean literature, economy and meditation.
The great advantage is that you are not forced to stick to one subject. If you like, you can start to talk about many different subjects—the things that interest you and that you want to communicate about.
How would you deal with the next sentence? ‘Mediatie is goed voor de geest’. You can probably understand the sentence begins, ‘Meditation is good for the’, but you may have to guess what geest means. But what if you recognise geest looks a lot like ghost: Is that enough for you to make the leap that geest might mean mind or spirit? If yes, then you’ve already made progress!
Here’s another example: ‘Ik zoek mijn paspoort! Waar is hij?’. This means: ‘I’m looking for my passport. Where is he’? But now ask yourself: what does hij mean in this sentence? Do you think it refers to a male person, or can you guess that in this context it refers to a thing—specifically a passport? If yes, you’ve reached an important conclusion: Hij means he, but it can also mean it, a tangible object. So, ‘Hij is hier’ can mean ‘He is here’, but it can also mean ‘The passport is here’.
The value of cracking the language code yourself
So here is how the method works: You’ll see some Dutch words that are easy to decipher because they look close enough to their English counterparts. You’ll also start with a relatively simple sentence construction. But within each sentence, there will be an element that is not as familiar to you. The goal is to guess for yourself what the unfamiliar element might mean—and of course an instructor can gently guide you through this process.
With this approach, you start to discover things for yourself and to draw your own conclusions. This helps make what you are learning click more quickly in your mind, and you are more likely to retain the knowledge than if you’d simply memorised it. It does wonders for your confidence.
You can start to play around with and experiment with the language—which of course means you will make some mistakes. Doing so is actually essential to this method: The more mistakes you make, the faster you will learn.
Rather than mimicking phrases like a parrot, you can use your own intelligence and start to recognise similarities and differences between Dutch and English. It will make learning Dutch feel more like a fun game than a frustrating chore.
Speak metaphorically and have more interesting conversations
Want to take it a step further? Consider this sentence: ‘De deur is open’. Sure, it means that the door is open, but does it mean a physical door is open, or can it mean that you are still open to an idea?
Conversations will get a lot more interesting when you can speak metaphorically. It’s not more difficult from saying literal things, but it gives you more tools for making your language more nuanced. For example, saying, ‘Ik open mijn hart voor jou’ (‘I open my heart to you’)—that’s a whole new level of expression.
If you know English, you have at least 50% of Dutch in your pocket. The next step is to embrace the idea that if you use your English and if you start to play and discover Dutch for yourself, then learning is exciting adventure. You’ll have a great time and you’ll learn more things that you could ever imagine within a very short time!
Albert Both, Talencoach / Expatica
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