What does mastering a language actually involve? Chances are that on reading that question you’re thinking about correct use of grammar and an extensive vocabulary. That’s certainly true, words and grammar rules are the building blocks of language, but to master a language you also need to be able to speak naturally.
By speaking ‘naturally’ I mean speaking like native speakers do. The tips below, which are based on things I often hear from my students, may help you to sound (more) like a native.
Less is more
If you want to speak Dutch naturally, it’s good to to bear in mind the principle of ‘less is more’. In practice, this means that you can often leave out the word ‘gaan’ or ‘hebben’ at the end of a sentence. A Dutch native speaker will be more likely to say ‘Ik wil graag een hond’ rather than ‘Ik wil graag een hond hebben’.
Wrestling with tenses
Dutch uses two tenses to talk about the past: the ‘onvoltooide tijd’ (imperfect/imperfectum: ik werkte) and the ‘voltooide tijd’ (perfect/ perfectum: ik heb gewerkt) But when do you use which tense? Keep the following rule of thumb in mind: do you want to give a short answer to a question? Use the perfect tense (Q: Wat heb je vandaag gedaan? A: Ik heb gewerkt.). Use the imperfect tense if you want to describe an occurrence in detail.
Translating is (sometimes) treacherous
The temptation to translate every word is huge when learning a new language. However, watch out for this because translating literally can sometimes cause extra confusion. This is often because a word doesn’t ‘cover’ exactly the same thing in two different languages. For example one of my students recently said that his book was ‘geregeld‘ into a number of chapters. He was probably thinking of the English word ‘arranged’, which can indeed be translated as ‘geregeld’, but it isn’t the correct word in this context.
Also, each language has fixed word combinations, e.g. ‘in het weekend’ and ‘huiswerk maken’. These combinations are not the same in every language though. For example the English ‘more or less’ is ‘min of meer’ in Dutch, and not ‘meer of minder’ (the literal translation).
Learning which word to use when is a question of lots of practice and experimentation, and paying close attention to what you hear and see.
Translating a single word or phrase can cause confusion, but translating idioms and expressions is really tricky. A question such as ‘Wat is er?’ sounds really philosophical if you translate it literally into English [‘What is there?’], when in fact you want to know why someone looks sad. And what about expressions like ‘dat valt wel mee’, ‘dat geeft niet’ and ‘ik heb zin in…’? It’s not easy to find a good translation for these.
That’s why I always advise my students to keep a list of expressions/idioms they often use and practise using them actively. When a phrase like ‘dat geeft niet’ flows out of your mouth without a moment’s hesitation, it sounds as if you only ever speak Dutch.
In addition, I teach my students standard phrases, ready-made chunks of language for all occasions. Examples of these include ‘Ik ben bezig met…’, ‘Ik vind … leuk’, ‘Ik wil graag…’, but also phrases for specific situations such as ‘Mag ik de rekening?’ or ‘Werk ze!’.
Want to know when you use which phrase? We’d love to help!
This blog post is written by our trainer Vika Lukina and translated by Jo Arrowsmith.