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You may have noticed that Dutch sounds kind of weird.
It’s full of these sometimes ridiculous-seeming sounds that you’ve never heard before setting foot in the Netherlands, Even once you’ve gotten your hard g and tongue-cramping diphthongs like eu and ui under control, people can still hear you’re foreign, and it’s because of the phonetic details. This is because what really separates Dutch from some of its linguistic cousins lies in the tiny details of pronunciation, or its phonetics.
When we talked about using the IPA to study foreign language pronunciation on the Language News blog, we pointed out that a language’s speech sounds can be looked at from a phonological perspective, focusing on the distinct individual meaningful sounds of a language, or from a phonetic perspective, which looks at the details of the physical articulation of a sound.
This will be the first of a series of posts hacking pronunciation with phonetics, and we’ll be talking about those nuances of pronunciation that escape all but the most advanced of learners, slipping out of your mouth to declare your foreignness to the natives around you.
While in general your language learning time is better spent on something like how to use weak verbs, pronunciation can be an especially pressing issue for learners of a language like Dutch, where most native speakers also speak great English and many reflexively (and annoyingly) switch to English when they hear the slightest accent or mistake.
Dutch pronunciation can be confusing and challenging (though it’s not quite as inconvenient as German). When you see all-too-familiar letters like s, n, or k and learn that their pronunciation in Dutch is similar to in English or another language you know, your mind and your tongue fall into the trap of treating them as the same.
But that’s where the devil’s in the details: the way you’re pushing air around in your mouth, tensing your tongue, or shaping your lips for similar sounds across languages is always slightly different, and every native hears it.
So today we’ll focus on one phonetic detail that announces a non-native Dutch speaker like a parade and fireworks: consonant aspiration.
If you aspire to speak like a native, you’re first step should be to cut back on your aspiration.
In phonetics, consonant aspiration refers to the release of air that comes after a stop consonant like k, g, t, d, p, or b. In English it’s all over the place: speak a sentence like “Can I take the car to the park” out loud, and at first you won’t hear it. Try it again while holding a hand close in front of your mouth, and you’ll feel a little burst of air at the beginning of “can”, “take”, “car”, and “park”.
But in Dutch, it doesn’t belong. These six stops in Dutch are distinctly unaspirated, meaning little to no air follows these sounds out of Dutch speakers’ mouths.
“Ik kan twee talen praten” is a good way to inform someone that you speak Dutch, but it’s also a good way to reveal that it’s certainly not your native tongue when you speak it with an English or otherwise aspirated pronunciation.
Trying switching between “Ik kan twee talen praten” and “Can I take the car to the park”, holding the palm of your hand close in front of your mouth and feeling for bursts of air. Feel how the English consonants come popping out in big abrupt bursts, and play with ditching those bursts.
If you pronounce “Can I take the car to the park” in English without aspirating, it’ll sound kind of funny… almost like a Dutch accent?
The idea is that the k, t, and p in kan, twee, talen, en praten should not be aspirated like their English equivalents. If you feel a little slip of air on the words twee and praten, don’t be discouraged: it should be coming from the second sound in each word, and it should be there, but it shouldn’t be as strong as an aspirated stop in English.
Practice unaspirating your Dutch stop consonants by choking off that little burst of air that your English-speaking mouth reflexively wants to produce. Listen to native Dutch speakers and pay special attention to how their pronunciation of words like kat, top, and prima. Once you can recognize the difference between the native pronunciation and your own, you’re one step closer to sounding Dutch in Dutch yourself!
Are there other sounds in Dutch that are tripping you up? Is your foreign accent accidentally inviting natives to speak English? Tell us what sounds you’d like some help with in the comments below!