Dutch Language Blog

How to get the Dutch to Speak Dutch Posted by on Jul 30, 2010 in Dutch Language

One of the most common complaints from anyone learning Dutch and living in or visiting the Netherlands is that it can feel like pulling teeth to get the Dutch to respond to you in Dutch.  Many of us have faced this situation or something similar before: You need to buy a strippenkaart for the tram.  You get yourself prepared for doing this in Dutch, psych yourself up, have all your Dutch sentences ready, maybe even written down just in case.  You wait in line anxiously, knowing that you’re going to do this in Dutch.  You finally get to the counter and say, “Een strippenkaartje alstublieft.”  And the person at the counter replies, “Sure, how many strippen would you like?”  Argh!  The whole thing is ruined!  What do you do now?

In the city centers and near anything touristy the Dutch will generally speak fairly decent English.  And they have a non-native-Dutch-speaker radar.  This means that they can hear that you don’t speak Dutch as a native language from a mile away.  Sometimes it’s just easier for them to speak English with you.  I learned quickly that when I’m standing in a crowded line at the Albert Heijn and the person at the checkout looks incredibly frazzled, that is not the time to practice my Dutch.  But then…when is?

When I first started out going public with my Dutch language skills, I would only do it in places that weren’t that busy.  If someone responded to me in English, I would politely say, “Sorry, maar ik wil liever in het Nederlands praten,” or…JUST KEEP SPEAKING DUTCH.  Do NOT be dissuaded!  Do not let it get you down!  Ninety percent of the time, people would appreciate it that I was trying to speak their language.  There is that 10 percent where someone would get annoyed or not be patient about it, but generally, people were enthusiastic and encouraging.

One of the most frustrating things is when you have prepared your Dutch sentences in your head, and then you get thrown a curve ball.  For example, you wrangle up the courage to say, “Ik wil cola graag,” but what you didn’t expect was that it somehow elicits a very complicated response that sounds like…”Geugeuhoiaaaaaaruiwaarg.”  Hmmm…well what then?

Don’t give up now!  You can politely ask the person to speak a little slower, “Sorry, maar kunt u dat ietsje langzamer zeggen. Ik wil om in het Nederlands proberen te spreken.” Or just ask in English. Seriously. Politely say, “I’m sorry, but I want to practice my Dutch, can you repeat that a little slower for me?”  Generally people will oblige you, and if they don’t, that’s their problem.

At the end of the day, getting Dutch people to speak Dutch with me involved a bit of toughening up, growing a thicker skin, and not taking it personally.  Mostly I think they were trying to be helpful by finding a common language to communicate in.  And nowadays, nobody speaks English to me at all.  If I don’t know a word in Dutch, I simply say, “Oh, hmm..hoe heet dat in het Nederlands? In het Engels zeg ik (insert word here).”  And it works.  They keep speaking Dutch.  We move forward.  I make it clear that I can speak Dutch, but I need a little patience, and generally people are obliging.

For me, language is a tool for communication.  Don’t worry about getting it perfect, and don’t be embarrassed if you make mistakes.  You’ll be surprised at just how many mistakes you can make and still be understood.  And that’s really the point, isn’t it? Language is a tool to make yourself understood.  If you waited until you spoke absolutely perfect Dutch all the time, you would never get to speak Dutch.  What’s the fun in that?

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  1. Stefaan:

    “Ik wil om in het Nederlands proberen te spreken.”
    That isn’t correct, ‘om’ doesn’t follow ‘willen’.

    You say “Wat wil je?” NOT “*Om wat wil je?”, so the sentence should be: “Ik wil (in het) Nederlands proberen te spreken.”

    • sarah:

      @Stefaan That’s actually the point though Stefaan. What I might say is not completely correct down to the letter, but it is completely understandable. And someone shouldn’t be ashamed for making little mistakes. People learning a language just need to get the confidence to speak it, which is a huge hurdle for lots of people.

      Thanks for your comment,


  2. Ferry Swart:

    Most Dutch people are VERY glad to meet a (native) English speaking person so that they can practice their English:) And in general, the Dutch LOVE to speak English so if they get the chance they’ll do it and kep doing it even though you asked them not to. I know, a bit of an annoying habit but that’s how it is. Therefore lot’s of native English speaking people have trouble learning Dutch . I heard that complaint a lot. But like this blog say: Keep talking in Dutch and tell us Dutchies to please reply in Dutch too and we’ll do it after a while. Talking English to English speaking people is such a natural thing for us Dutchies that it’s very hard for us not to do it. I even notice it by myself because i do it too I’m afraid.

    • sarah:

      @Ferry Swart Thanks for your comment Ferry. I think it’s just easier for Dutch people in the city centers to speak English. I haven’t yet encountered someone enthusiastic about me being a native English speaker. In fact, quite the opposite. It took me awhile to figure it out, but my little tactic of continuing to speak in Dutch no matter what really does work. And if I can do it, anyone can.



  3. Jan:

    Within one year the strippenkaart can’t be used anymore.

  4. MissNeriss:

    Great post Sarah, it’s all so true. It took me ages (like two years!) to get the courage to talk in shops in Dutch, and I finally don’t mind if I make mistakes or don’t understand.

    Actually, for the first year I was almost too afraid to go shopping in Almere (where I live) because I was ashamed of admitting how long I had lived here without being able to speak perfect Dutch. Ridiculous, I know, but I really felt the pressure.

    Now I find myself using ‘dingetje’ a lot when I can’t find the word. Very useful!

    • sarah:

      @MissNeriss I do that too! I use the word dingetje all the time, and then describe the thing if I can. Sometimes I find I can describe it better than bothering to try to remember a word I don’t know anyway. It also shows people you can speak Dutch, but you don’t know one word, instead of switching to English.

  5. Alida:

    When I first read this post I doubled up I was laughing so hard! I can completely sympathize with you! I grew up speaking Dutch at home, but I tend to speak in a hybrid of American English and Dutch whenever I get really nervous in stores. I always want to kick myself because I know what I should say and how to say it, but what I want to say seems to get lost in translation (haha) during the thought process and when I actually open my mouth to speak. 🙂

    I’ve been traveling back and forth from America and the Netherlands during summer breaks for as long as I can remember because my family is split between the two countries, but I have finally made the big move and begun the immigration process. I’ve been following your blog for quite a few months now and I must admit it is quite a comfort to know that we’ve experienced many similar situations!

    Keep it up!! 😀

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