How I learned Dutch in less than a year

My initial goal upon moving to The Netherlands was to learn Dutch as quickly as possible. I leveled with myself: I work in a field where language is king. I absolutely could not pursue my career goals here without knowledge of the Dutch language.

I started in July 2018 and by July 2019 I had my CEFR B2 certificate from Tilburg University Language Center. By September 2019 I passed the State Exam (more about that later). Pretty cool.

I’ll be honest, it almost killed me. Literal sweat and tears went into making this incredible feat a reality. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

I’ll also be honest with you up-front: I still don’t speak great Dutch. I speak it fluently, but kind of in a broken, immigrant kind of way. So I can go to interviews, hold down volunteer positions, etc., but I do not blend in completely as a Dutch speaker. I don’t think a lot of people realize how utterly remedial B2 is. It’s low-fluency. Basically the barebones of what you need to function as a student or office worker in the language.

To learn a language this quickly, you need to make it a life priority. You have to holistically integrate it into everything you do and if you don’t love language learning, it’s going to suck. I personally found that it helped that I have a partner and in-laws that speak the language, not just because I could practice with them, but also because learning the native language of the man I love really helped me get to know him on yet another profound level. So I have to say that was the guiding force that got me through this.

You have to find what drives you. Even if it’s that you’re living in fear of being an outsider forever, that’s good enough.

Ok, onto the list. How did I do it:

I found an online community of knowledgable language learners

The absolute first thing you have to do upon making the decision to learn Dutch is to read this guide from the subreddit r/languagelearning. It’s a bit long, but it is wisdom accumulated from dozens of professional polyglots, systematically written as a guide. Had I not found this single document, I do not know if I would have been as successful at learning Dutch. It will teach you how to learn a language, how to set goals, how to stay motivated, and important theories about language learning in general.

After that, seriously consider making a reddit username and joining the subreddit. It has really helped to have other language learners to talk to. They also have weekly writing challenges, question threads, and accent help. Another great subreddit is r/learndutch. This is a more specific sub where you can ask questions about grammar or concerns when learning the language. r/learndutch Also has an associated discord server where you can chat in Dutch and English with other Dutch language learners.

I made it an important part of my everyday life

Over the last generation, the understanding of language learning at a scientific level has begun to change. Many people who study the field now believe that the best way to learn a language is to integrate it holistically as opposed to learning it as a subject separate from other aspects of your life. This means that you should be adding Dutch to your music choices, TV, and conversations with your partner. The best, best, BEST way to learn Dutch is to read. Set a goal of 1000 pages of non-classtime reading between 0 and B1 and then another 1000 between B1 and B2.

My daily schedule when I was just starting out went like this:

  • 1 hour of listening to Dutch news/podcasts in the morning
  • 1 hour of reading or flash cards before lunch
  • 3 hours of class
  • 2 more hours of listening to Dutch music/podcasts while I traveled home from class and walked my dogs. Sometimes I would also use these hours to read
  • 1-2 hours of Dutch TV at night

Did I do that every single day? No. But I tried to stick to that general schedule. I also spoke to my husband in Dutch as much as possible. At first that was very difficult. It helps if you have a really patient partner.

I set benchmarks

In Europe, language proficiency is rated by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages or “CEFR”. This scale has 6 levels (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2). Here is a description of the scales

I kept tabs on where I was by speaking to other language learners, taking classes, and consuming media that was suitable for each level. My biggest advice would be don’t let your given level hold you back from consuming media you want to consume. Only A1 but want to try Harry Potter? Give it a try. Just don’t let it burn you out.

I also studied for the State Fluency Exam. The Dutch government does B1 and B2 proficiency exams that you can use to show employers/universities that you are proficient in Dutch. Most employers will not require a diploma from the exams, but it’s a great way to prove that you speak the language. I also found it to be an excellent way to motivate myself. Goals are better when they have steps with specific beginnings and endings.

I went to class

Before we moved we saved up so I could take a lot of very expensive, intensive Dutch classes. I found them very useful because I got to know other Dutch speakers and it helped me structure my studying. After everything was said and done, however, I’m not sure it was worth the money. I truly believe that you can self-study if you are motivated enough.

I was not disappointed with my class experiences though.

For 0-A2 I can recommend the class at the Tilburg University Language center. It is very expensive and very intense. A cheaper option that I can recommend is the class at Babel Utrecht. It is not as good, but it’s good enough for this level.

For A2-B1 I took the Delfts Method class at Tilburg University. The Delfts method is a novel way to learn the Dutch language. As far as I know it is only used by Universities in The Netherlands. It absolutely rocked my Dutch skills. It’s really as close to a “magic” method as it gets.

The Delfts method is really meant to be an intensive classroom experience with a lot of homework, but I think you could still get a lot out of it by just using the book. Here is a link to the Delfts method book for the B1 level.

I also did a video tutorial of the Delfts method for social media, but it is linked to my personal accounts so I will not post the link here. If this blog post gets attention and people want to see it, I can definitely post it on Youtube. Just ask.

For B2 I stayed at the Tilburg University Language Center because I had already developed a great relationship with the teachers there.

I used some traditional language learning materials

Consuming native media is the most important way to get your Dutch for the day. Find things that spark your interest. Honestly, if you’re a not a language-learning-nerd that is the only way you’re going to have the interest to stick with it. It’s a brutal process and the only way to keep up your spirits is to ensure that the material you’re reading or listening to is fun.

That said there is an incredible value in having traditional language learning materials at hand. Unfortunately exercises like cramming grammar and vocabulary has an important place in language learning. Because of that, I purchased a few books that helped me along my way.

I used 2 books during my 0-A2 level. They were good enough to recommend. You can find them here and here. I think that there’s probably not a large range of quality when it comes to language learning textbooks. You get the grammar, vocabulary, and some exercises. These two have some pretty extensive vocabulary lists which I’ve turned into an Anki deck of 1600 flashcards. (More on Anki later)

For A2-B1 I used the Delfts Method book which I discussed above. I also bought a more traditional B1-level book because I wanted to have some extra exercises and more vocabulary. I found it helpful to have a second book because at this point in my learning I was dedicating a lot of time to grammatical exercises and flashcards.

For B1-B2 my language teachers chose this book. It’s very good, but really just another traditional language learning text. What was the most important for me at this level was to start living life in Dutch. That is: going to class and not speaking English to anyone, not breaking into English in public, doing all my recreational reading and half of my TV watching in Dutch. Basically, at this point you should still be doing flashcards and exercises, but they’re just not as important as they were during the earlier stage.

I also bought the B2 Delfts Method book and, honestly, I can’t recommend it. While the B1 book rocketed my Dutch to new levels and was always interesting, the B2 book is just tedious and painful to work through. If you have the patience, by all means try this out, but I didn’t.

Anki has been another great resource. It’s basically a very simple, open-source flashcard program that helps train you in manageable intervals. You can make your own decks or download ones made by others. Here are my current shared Anki decks (be aware that I do these really fast so there are definitely spelling errors):

Dutch 0-A2 vocabulary
Dutch B2 vocabulary (this one is still being regularly updated)
De vs. Het
Irregular verb conjugations

I think that flash cards are often overlooked as a learning tool, but I found them to be crucial. They helped me capture words from around me and a save them in one place where I would actually look at them again.

Perhaps most importantly: I spent most of my time consuming media I actually liked

The #1 most important step in this whole process was to keep my morale and interest up. This meant going out of my way to find Dutch language media that I actually liked.

After I got to B1 I started reading translations of pop-lit that were originally in English. I like them because I’m American so I’m familiar with the stories. Fiction books written for mass consumption are also generally easier to read because they’re meant to be read by native speakers of various reading levels.

Some English books with good Dutch translations:

  • Harry Potter series
  • The Da Vinci Code (and other Dan Brown novels)
  • The Devil Wears Prada (and other Lauren Weisburger novels)
  • The Twilight Series
  • Memoirs of a Geisha
  • Gone Girl
  • The Kite Runner
  • There are also a ton of Stephen King and Clancy Novels that have been translated. I personally loved the Dutch translation of the Green Mile

Some good podcasts in Dutch

I walk my dogs for about an hour and a half each day and I listen to podcasts the whole time. Because of that, I found some great podcasts in Dutch.

  • Zeg het in het Nederlands – this podcast was absolutely crucial to my language development from A2-B1. It’s a podcasts meant for adults who are learning Dutch as a second language. It’s interesting and the woman speaks very slowly and uses simple language.
  • Plots – interesting stories from everyday Dutch people
  • De brand in het landhuis – a true life mystery about a murder and treasure hunt
  • Mangiare! – a good podcast if you like food/cooking
  • Echt gebeurt – the moth but in Dutch
  • Mijn vader is een afhaalchinees – a 3 episode podcast about the intersection of food and cultural diversity in the Netherlands
  • Onbehaarde Apen – Science podcast
  • Parel Radio – An ecclectic mix of fiction, radio plays, and documentaries
  • Tijdgeest – weird history
  • Date vermaak – 20-somethings talking about dating

Some good Dutch TV Shows

  • Heel Holland Bakt – The Great British Bakeoff but in Dutch
  • Zondag met Lubach – really funny but he talks kind of fast
  • De slimste mens – A game show where they do word puzzels. It’s helped my Dutch a lot.
  • Ik vertrek – just a funny reality TV show
  • Wie is de Mol – another funny reality TV show with an app that helps you play along. There are also several associated podcasts and YouTube videos
  • Klikbeet – good sketch comedy.
  • Harkum – a funny sitcom about a town that accidentally makes a lot of money

Basically, find something that excites you. This was just the stuff that made me happy.

I pounded the pavement

Once I could speak conversationally, I tried to get out there. The Netherlands has a huge, diverse offering of volunteer positions. I also did some transactional work like administrative or retail, but once you’re past B1 this kind of work really won’t improve your Dutch. Think more about positions where you have to write, explain things to others, or read official documents.

Another great idea is to participate in cultural activities. The Netherlands is quite unique in the amount of clubs it has to offer. Most of these clubs will be Dutch-language only, but they are also mostly very welcoming to language learners. Think about sports clubs, pet clubs, political clubs, religious clubs–even just going to a meeting of an event can boost your language ability. If you need help finding these let me know.

So that’s how I did it. Kind of…

As I’ve said, I still have a long way to go before I can blend into the crowd here in The Netherlands, but this kind of intensive studying got me well on my way. Another great benefit I’ve found of learning the language so in-depth is it also deepens your integration into Dutch society. It’s been fascinating learning about this society and, in a sense, becoming Dutch through the language.

Hope this was helpful! If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at expattoimmigrantblog@gmail.com

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