A lot of expats living in the Netherlands don’t make the effort to learn Dutch. It is understandable; almost everyone speaks English to a high standard, and Amsterdam is as close as you can get to a truly international city (I remember hearing somewhere that less than 40% of Amsterdammers are Dutch).
However, Dutch has got a bit of a reputation for being a difficult language to learn, and having studied German for many years, I can’t personally see where this comes from. Compared to many languages, Dutch has relatively little grammar to fuss over. Not to mention the Dutch having a very relaxed attitude to grammatical correctness (not helped, presumably, by the official language changing so frequently, that no one really knows what is correct any more).
But the thing is, the more languages you learn, the better you get at learning languages – particularly languages with the same common ancestor. So if you know French, picking up Spanish and Italian becomes easier, and if you know German and English, picking up Dutch is just a question of getting drunk and alternating words between languages 😉
There is certainly an element of talent needed, and an “ear” for languages helps a great deal, but there are undoubtedly languages which sit at very different levels on the easy-hard spectrum. This list gives an indication of the difficulty of different languages for English speakers (as measured by number of weeks it takes to get to a good level of general proficiency. German is under “other” and fits somewhere between category I and II). Notice how Dutch is classed as one of the easiest languages?
Now I’m not saying that learning any foreign language is easy. According to that list even the easiest foreign languages take around 600 hours of class time to achieve a good proficiency, and that’s for educated, Foreign Service Institute students who already have an aptitude for languages, and most likely know a few other foreign languages already. And my belief that Dutch is an easy language (as languages go) is of course influenced by the fact that I studied German and French for many years at school, plus a year or so of Latin, Ancient Greek and Spanish, and some non-formal exposure to Danish. So of course, I am more linguistically inclined then most.
But my current argument is that Dutch is just “simple German” (ha, I bet I just pissed off a lot of people with that statement), and for that we’re going to need some tables. Learning German grammar tables was the bane of my school existence, and when I got to learn Dutch I was delighted to know that no such torture awaited me. Let me illustrate.
The definite article – “THE”
The indefinite article – “A/AN”
*Note: keine is the negative of eine, which has no plural form. But keine (no/none) can be used in the plural: “Er hat keine Bücher.” (He has no books.) – “In Venedig gibt es keine Autos.” (In Venice there are no cars.) Source: german.about.com
I’m not even kidding.
I could continue along these lines (look up German adjective endings if you want a chuckle), but I think you get the picture. Even saying “the” or “a” in German is fraught with potential errors, and it really takes a lot of study and discipline to learn German to the point where you get these simple things right most of the time. Dutch doesn’t have this barrier, which I think makes it far more accessible than people believe.
Dutch is undoubtedly grammatically simpler than German, but as a Dutch student I can’t say that it’s easy without looking like a total dick. The hardest part, for me, is understanding the Dutch when they talk. It’s not that they speak quickly, as in Spanish, but rather that they seem to think actually saying all of the words in the sentence is just far too much hassle. So letters, syllables and words are dropped and run together, much like in Yorkshire (‘t is actually an accepted way of saying “het”). Then on top of that you have to deal with the multitude of accents and dialects that exist in such a small country, some of which really sound nothing like the Dutch I learn in class.
My knowledge of German may help me write to a higher level of Dutch, but it’s not going to help me talk to the average Dutch person. For to truly excel in a language, you need frequent and prolonged exposure, practice, and dedication. I hope one day I can get there.