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Is Dutch a difficult language?

"Every language is difficult."


An English-speaking person learning the Dutch language discovers that a high degree of competence is required before usability.

You can't use Dutch, in Holland, unless you speak it relatively well (or pretend that you don't speak English.)

A Dutch perspective

"English is so easy," he said, "because it's basically simplified French...."

This is why the language has a reputation as especially difficult, I think — and maybe especially amongst Anglophones.

I met a Polish guy at a cafe in Seville, and mentioned off-handedly (in English) that I'd heard Polish was a difficult language to learn. He said "every language is difficult to learn." He spoke English well, and Spanish better than I did — so I had to respect his opinion.

Here's my perspective: Spanish is easier to learn than Dutch, exactly because the Dutch speak English. I estimate my Dutch* to be as good after a year-and-a-half in Holland as my Spanish was after six months in Spain.

Of course, the measure is abstract, and not specifically meaningful. Notably, though, I lived first in Holland — well, Amsterdam — for seven months, before that half-year in Spain. When I left Holland, I could recognize the gist of a greeting-card that some Dutch girl had left behind in an apartment in Seville — but I couldn't speak Dutch. No way.

I'd learned Dutch words by "reading" newspapers using a bilingual dictionary. Amsterdamers did not entertain my feeble attempts to speak Nederlands, and my practical experience with Dutch was near zero. In Spain, I got a job. At work in the kitchen, and out with co-workers afterwards, I spoke Spanish or nothing at all. Surreal, in memory. And I don't really think I speak Spanish. But I did — I had to.

After Spain for a half-year, and Ireland for a couple of years, I've been back in Holland now for most of the last year.

In Holland, I'm learning to conduct simple transactions in Dutch. I can have a simple, goal-oriented conversation. For more complex interactions and for real relationships, English is still the common language, except for occasional expressions.

This makes learning Dutch in the natural fashion a slow process.


— July 2004, Nijmegen, The Netherlands
    [Edited for clarity since]


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*I have improved my Dutch since writing this, and it is now quite a lot better than my Spanish.

— Summer 2005

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