Spreek je Nederlands?

Today’s post comes from an email sent in by James Eglinton.

I have met many non-native English speakers who speak English with no discernible non-native accent. I know Dutch people (with Irish spouses) who can pass themselves off as Irish in Ireland. I know French people who speak faultless British English, I have heard a German speaking Scottish Gaelic and I struggled to tell that he wasn’t a native speaker. I also know various non-native French speakers who have to convince French people that they really are foreigners. I know Scots who can pass themselves off as Germans in Germany. Wherever you go in the world, you meet non-native English speakers with perfect American accents …

In my own situation, I grew up with English and Gaelic, and also learned French while living in Paris. When I was living there, people would ask if I was Belgian or Swiss. My French accent wasn’t quite native enough for them to think I was French, but I spoke it well enough that they generally thought I was a native speaker from somewhere else in French-speaking Europe.

I now live in the Netherlands and have learned Dutch to fluent non-native level. Thanks to my Gaelic background, Dutch gutturals don’t pose any major problems, but although I speak Dutch all day at work, I have found trying to acquire a decent native-like accent astonishingly difficult. I have found Dutch easy to speak well, but thus far impossible to speak perfectly. I regularly ask Dutch people, “Have you ever met a foreigner who speaks such good Dutch that you didn’t know they were foreign?” The universal answer is, “No”.

I’m aware that Dutch has a couple of very tricky features (the klemtone [misplaced stress] and the system of de and het definite articles) that make acquiring native level fluency very difficult (or perhaps impossible?), but I wonder if any Omniglot readers know non-native Dutch speakers who speak faultless Dutch.

If not, why is Dutch so seemingly impossible to learn at that level? Are there sociological factors involved (i.e. very few people learn Dutch, many millions learn English/French etc, which creates a more challenging setting for Dutch learners) or is Dutch just uniquely hard to master due to some subtle grammatical nuances?

This entry was posted in Dutch, Language, Language learning.

25 Responses to Spreek je Nederlands?

  1. JoeInAtlanta says:

    I’m not certain I agree with your premise in the first place: I’ve heard a LOT of non-native speakers of English. Many of them were extremely proficient and undeniably fluent. But I can only think of one person I’ve ever met whose American accent was so perfect that I was surprised to learn that Spanish was her native language.

    But on the chance that my perceptions or experiences are simply off-base, I do have a theory about what you describe with Dutch: The English- and French-speaking world is a complex mix of accents that derive from the use of those languages for international commerce, and as a result of British, American, and French global exploration in previous centuries. Further, Britain is divided into innumerable accent clusters that sound very different from each other, but which are all easily mutually intelligible. The same is true for German in Germany and Switzerland and Austria. I do not know, but I suspect it is also true of Irish in Ireland.

    Thus, a very high-level non-native speaker may not sound like one’s own family, but may sound good enough that the listener imagines her or him to be from a different accent cluster in the same language.

    Indeed, when conversing with people who have such a command of English, I can (as an American) usually spot them as non-natives immediately if they are striving for an American accent. But if they are striving for an English accent, I sometimes don’t notice the undertones of their original accent until much deeper in the conversation.

    I’ve never studied Dutch, so I may be off-base — but my sense is that the Dutch are an extremely homogenous group. If so, it may be that there is not much accent variation in Dutch from one part of the Netherlands to another. This may make it harder for them to subconsciously interpret a near-but-not-quite-perfect accent as coming from a different region — thus allowing them to identify a proficient speaker as non-native more easily than speakers of English, French, or German.

  2. stelt says:

    One factor might be the little Dutch you get exposed to outside and inside this tiny country:
    For example, TV:
    Dutch TV channels have a lot of english (whatever flavo(u)r) programs.
    Happily they’re not, as in many countries, dubbed over (so I can learn English sounds), but that makes less Dutch to listen to and learn from. Even a lot of content made by Dutch people is in English, or another language. And try find a Dutch channel in a foreign hotel. Where you usually find many languages on the channels, Dutch is usually not one of them. Even in Dutch hotels the number of Dutch channels is often quite limited

    The Dutch mix a lot of English into their daily language. Just walk into some shops, or hear people talk.

    And very annoying to people learning Dutch is that many Dutchmen switch to English as soon as they hear an accent.

    Just my 2 cents,

    A Dutchman living near the German border

  3. Sandra says:

    @JoeInAtlanta As a native Dutch speaker I can tell you that there are quite a few different Dutch accents. Although our country is small, there are many differences in how people talk in the north, south, east and west of the country. There are even differences between the two largest cities (Amsterdam & Rotterdam) even though they’re only about 60km apart. And then of course there are also native Dutch speakers from the Dutch Antilles, Aruba and Surinam on the other side of the Atlantic. The difference in accents might not be as large as, let’s say, the differences between the English accents, but still most Dutch people are able to tell which part of the country another Dutch person is from, judging on their accent.

    I think a large part of the reason why no Dutch people have heard any faultless Dutch from foreigners is that most of the time we are the ones who adapt. Dutch people generaly speak English, French and German well enough to adapt to whoever is visiting. So why learn Dutch? I even know some people who have lived here for quite some years (and are planning to continue living here) who hardly know any Dutch.

    But for those people that I have seen trying to learn Dutch: it indeed seems very difficult to them. For example, there seems to be no rule for when to use “de” of “het”; we just know. So how do you explain it to foreigners? The best way to learn, I guess, is through trial and error. There are even times when we ourselves don’t know which one to use…

    I know one German lady who has managed to speak Dutch almost perfect. In simple conversation, you can’t tell. As German is very similair to Dutch, it made it a lot easier for her to learn, than if she was a native French or English speaker, for example. But after a while, there are always some mistakes.

    I guess the only thing that works is a lot of practice. Veel succes!

  4. James says:

    Hi Joe,

    Thanks for the reply. I’m a native English speaker and am very familiar with a wide range of native accents across the anglophone world. I have also heard a lot of non-native English speakers – and I don’t assert that they all speak great English! But I do know quite a few (and have met many more) whom I find it very hard to distinguish (purely on the basis of language) from native speakers.

    I recently met two Dutchmen, both of whom have Irish wives, who speak with flawless Irish accents and very natural idiomatic Irish English.

    With one of these couples, when the Irish wife first met the Dutchman, she (as a native English speaker) heard him speak and was convinced he was American. He subsequently picked up her accent so flawlessly that on their last trip to Ireland, locals simply assumed he was Irish.

    I have a Swedish friend who learned his English accent from American films. When he first travelled to the States, he hard a hard time convincing locals that he really wasn’t American. (We have American friends in common, and their consensus is that his lack of American cultural references, rather than his English, would be the only things to give away his nationality).

    I also know a Scot who used to live in Germany and (according to German mutual friends) speaks German like a native.

    The Netherlands, like most other nations, has a huge variety of dialects and local accents. The accent where we live is remarkably different to the next town along. Compare the accents of people from Zeeland and Groningen. There is considerable variety of pronunciation with G and R, for example, as well as how people say the ‘en’ at the end of words. A Dutch woman once asked if I was Flemish (which is funny, as I think Flemish sounds like a Scottish person speaking Dutch!) but that’s as close as I have come.

    (The only country I am aware of with almost no regional accent variation is Iceland – my Icelandic friends think it’s because most Icelandic people live in Reykjavík).

    So, I don’t think it can be that Dutch is particularly difficult because it lacks a range of regional accents… (I wonder if it would actually be easier to learn a language that had only standard pronunciations?)


  5. Christian says:

    Mmmh funny you should say that but I have never ever met Dutch people who speaks such good German that you didn’t know they were Dutch 😉

    Vele Groeten uit Nedersaksen.

  6. J Roberts says:

    I’m not sure that works. Dutch has dialects just like any other language.

  7. Aidan says:

    I have lived in NL for more than ten years and speak Dutch all day. Only last week somebody made a comment that I have a ‘typical English accent’ (I am Irish). I was quite insulted by that but I must say that Dutch people are not quick to compliment a foreigner who speaks their language. They criticize people who don’t learn Dutch but are slow to praise those who do.
    Having said that though the only Dutch person I know who speaks accentless English has lived in the US for years. Most Dutch people speak good English with a very obvious accent. Equally I can tell an English speaker speaking Dutch straight away. There are are many give-aways in their intonation and I am sure that my own accent reveals similar imperfection.
    In most cases I think that the only way to have a perfect Dutch accent is to hire an accent coach to smooth it out. An English speaker in Holland is generally still connected to the English speaking world. I speak English as much English in the day as Dutch as I interact with many non-Dutch too. A Dutch person in the US can really live in an English-only world so that they gradually take on the accent around them. In turn though their own Dutch deteriorates. I have heard many Dutch people on television who live in Canada or Australia and now speak Dutch with a foreign accent.

    Actually there is far more dialectal variation in Dutch than in English. I have never met an English speaker with who I could not communicate perfectly. Many Dutch speakers speak dialect at home and only learn standard Dutch at school. Many Dutch dialects (especially in Belgium and the south of The Netherlands) are incomprehensible to people from other regions. It is comparable to the distance between Swiss German and Hochdeutsch.

  8. Christopher says:

    I agree with the above. I don’t speak Dutch, but it’s likely there are just not enough exotic-yet-native speakers to confuse someone from Amsterdam.

  9. YankeeTranslator says:

    James – to me, whether or not it is possible to achieve a perfect accent is a very secondary or tertiary issue. The real question is: has your Dutch reached a level where you apply the same phrases and linguistic patterns as a native? In other words, even if you can convey very complex ideas in Dutch which natives understand without effort, do you still convey them using the same phrases that the natives would use? I speak fluent Arabic, for instance, but I often construct my thoughts in ways that natives rarely would. To me, this is the more important challenge to meet.

  10. LandTortoise says:

    I’m just wondering whether the person who posted this (James Eglington) has simply come up against the inevitable consequences of ageing! We know that the mid teens are a biological watershed after which the acquisition of native like prosody is extremely rare despite still being able to learn other aspects of foreign languages OK.

    Personally, to be a little controversial, I would say I know no non-native speakers of English who can fool me into thinking otherwise!

  11. Christopher says:

    Also, perhaps standard forms of English have had a lot of their edges removed when it comes to pronunciation. From my experience with Danes (not Dutch though) there are only a few sounds that appear to be completely new. The /th/ sound is often a giveaway, and they seem to have trouble with the long /o/, but otherwise there are not too many basic sounds that are entirely unpronounceable. But once they do get the /th/ sound, then unless you are familiar with a Danish accent (and sometimes if you are) it can be very difficult to place them as non-native.

  12. Chris says:

    I am British by birth, but moved to the Netherlands at the tender age of 3, and somehow can speak English in a way that the English can tell me where I was born. But if you hear me speak Dutch, you would never guess I was born in England, from English parents and a holder of the British nationality. My parents are fluent in Dutch, but with an accent, so it might have something to do with the age you learn the language at. In school a few others in my class could do the same, so we do exist 🙂

    @JoeInAtlanta, the Dutch language to my mind isn’t homogeneous at all, some cities even have their own dialect, there’s one province that even speaks a different language. And there are a great number dialects with distinct sounds. It is simply not an easy language to pronounce right all the time.

    But you might be on to something, historically the Dutch have travelled and interacted with many cultures early, so perhaps it is because they actually can place the Dutch outside of the Netherlands that allows them to identify a foreigner. A German speaking Dutch is something most people would recognise, same for French, English and Americans.

  13. p says:

    To add a little “science” to all of this (specifically Dutch, too!):

    Authenticity of Pronunciation in Naturalistic Second Language Acquisition: The Case of Very Advanced Late Learners of Dutch as a Second Language

    Theo Bongaerts, Susan Mennen, and Frans van der Slik

    Studia Linguistica, 2000


  14. michael farris says:

    I’ve been mistaken for native (though usually not for very long) in Spanish and German (with the ‘not from around here’ proviso). I’ve also been mistaken for native in Polish though again usually not for that long. I’ve also gotten the ‘but your family must be Polish” reaction too (it’s not at all).

    I can’t say I’ve met more than a small handful of non-native English speakers that I’ve mistaken for native for more than a few moments. Completely and impressively fluent? Yes, absolutely, lots. But plausible native intonation is very, very difficult to achieve. This is partly because intonation fulfills functions carried by other features in other European languages and it’s almost never part of basic instruction (cause it would make things much harder).

    IME as a group, Danish speakers come very close but that’s because Danish sounds a lot like English (esp intonation). That is, when I first saw movies in Danish I couldn’t understand anything of course but the rhythm and intonation sounded very close to some kinds of British English.

    I suspect that James’s biggest problem might be intonation. Without knowing Dutch it certainly sounds like intonation is really important and it doesn’t sound much like any kind of English intonation I’m familiar with.

  15. michael farris says:

    “Dutch TV channels have a lot of english (whatever flavo(u)r) programs.
    Happily they’re not, as in many countries, dubbed over”

    The Dutch don’t like listening to Dutch more than anyone else does!

    “so I can learn English sounds”

    The Dutch think Desperate Housewives is educational tv!

    “Dutch people are not quick to compliment a foreigner who speaks their language. They criticize people who don’t learn Dutch but are slow to praise those who do.”

    I think Dutch people are that quick to compliment anyone for anything. It’s just that kind of culture.

    Once reading through a forum for Polish people in the Netherlands it was clear that many of the unpopular Polish community there wanted to learn Dutch but finding courses was not easy. The locals either didn’t want them to learn or expected them to pick it up through …. osmosis?

  16. michael farris says:

    “most of the time we are the ones who adapt. Dutch people generaly speak English, French and German well enough to adapt to whoever is visiting”

    I wonder how different Belgium is. I was in Belgium last year for a short time and one thing that surprised me (in Antwerp) was that there was a lot of local resentment against long term resident western foreigners who didn’t learn Dutch.

  17. Drabkikker says:

    My experience is that some German speakers (not all, mind you!) are surprisingly good at learning to speak Dutch accentlessly. This is less trivial than one might expect from two languages that are so closely related, since there is a huge difference between German and Dutch accent. (When asked to imitate a Dutchman, an English speaker often tends to mimic German, which is way off the mark. This guy, however, is doing an exceptionally good job at it.)

  18. Luke says:

    The first time I’m aware of having been fooled was when I was seventeen. I was visiting Germany (from the US, New England) for a month, and met a guy who I could have sworn was from Alabama. Turns out he was German, but had studied at an Alabama high school for a year.
    But had he studied in Connecticut, I probably would have had an easier time identifying him as a non-native speaker.

  19. Edwinek says:

    I used to have a Swiss colleague who spoke Dutch absolutely faultlessly.
    Including de, het and er, and pronunciation of ij and ui sounds.
    So it is possible, but very rare.

  20. b_jonas says:

    My impression is that Hungarian people usually have the same inconsistent view as some of you describe about Dutch: they don’t wish to teach foreigners any Hungarian, and don’t expect them to want to learn, but still sometimes act insulted by that the foreigner doesn’t speak any Hungarian.

  21. Michael says:

    Funny enough, Argentines have a British accent when they speak. I think you mean Irish Gaelic accent though, not Scottish.

  22. Thomas says:

    @Michael Farris

    “I wonder how different Belgium is. I was in Belgium last year for a short time and one thing that surprised me (in Antwerp) was that there was a lot of local resentment against long term resident western foreigners who didn’t learn Dutch.”

    That’s because there has been an immigration debate going on for more than a few years about whether the State should adapt to immigrants or the other way around. Antwerp has been very reactive and I believe the situation at the moment is that immigrants should prove they can speak Dutch in order to get on a list for housing (if they want to make use of the OCMW, some kind of social safety measure).


    “I’ve never studied Dutch, so I may be off-base — but my sense is that the Dutch are an extremely homogenous group.”

    You’re sense is completely wrong. Though the geographical area of the Dutch language isn’t that large, diversity is everywhere. Even the standard is a variety only spoken by news readers. In Flanders (the Dutch speaking part of Belgium) there are at least 10 varieties going from West-Flanders to Limburg. Though the ‘pure’ speakers of these dialectical varieties are becoming less and less with each generation, there is an increase in what we call ‘tussentaal’, a mix of dialect and the standard languange. Maybe we’re moving towards a more homogenous language, but this certainly isn’t the case for the moment, and don’t even get me started about text messaging (sms-taal) incorporated in daily speech.

  23. Jerry says:

    Are there really so many people who are not native English but do appear to be so for English speakers? I have been told my English is pretty good, but people have a hard time to place my accent, so they know I am not English.

    Same with Dutch, I guess. There are very different accents in Dutch, even on this small piece of land. Maybe your Dutch doesn’t sound like any of them but more of a mix, which shows you’re not a native Dutch speaker.

    I knew Dutch could be very hard, but never thought of the reason why. “De” for female and male words, “het” for neutral words. French has “le” and “la”, can’t be more or less difficult. Many languages have difficulties in their grammar.

    Those “de” and “het” errors are heard quite often by non-native speakers, of course. But even without these errors, it could still be the accent.

    I live in the centre of Holland and speak almost without accent. This used to be called ABN (Generally Civilised Dutch), though now it’s just AN (General Dutch). I found it quite easy to mimic other accents. And I seem to do that when speaking English with, for example, a Frenchman who speaks English with a French accent: I copy his accent. Not deliberately, but it just happens. Because of that, several people I’ve talked to started to talk in their own language because they thought I spoke the same language.

    Accents are quite important, I guess.

  24. James says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful replies, and thanks to Omniglot for facilitating the discussion. I have enjoyed reading them and am still musing over the replies.

    I am leaning towards the idea that a much smaller pool of learners will produce a vastly reduced number of astounding success stories. After all, in comparison to the handful of non-native yet accentless French speakers I have met, I have also come across hundreds of non-native French speakers with quite obvious foreign accents.

    I suspect that if millions were to learn Dutch, there would be at least a few who would learn well enough to blend in.

    I look forward to reading the paper highlighted by P. It is natural that amateur linguists (and I very much include myself in that category) discuss these topics anecdotally, and that can shed light on the topic. However, empirical research can speak with far greater certainty.

    Michael – who means Irish (and not Scottish) Gaelic? I was speaking about myself as a Scottish Gaelic speaker. ‘Se Albannach a th’annam-s’!

    Tapadh leibh uile.


    Merci !


  25. BnB says:

    I consulted for a Dutch company for a few years and tried hard to learn the language, making some progress. But at some point realized I would never sound native specifically because I worked with people from all over the Netherlands, each with a different accent. So I had no one model to listen to (TV being the worst). At best, I would sound like some composite of all the Dutch regions.

    Upon mentioning this to my Dutch colleagues, they agreed. They had known someone from Scandinavia who spoke extremely good Dutch, and yet there was something wrong. They realized that the problem was that his Dutch didn’t correspond to any specific region.

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