On learning Dutch (what helped me retain information)

Hello dear readers,

I didn’t connect with you lately. I experienced loads of great changes in my personal life in the last 12 months that I’m very eager to share with you.

One of the most important change is that I moved to The Netherlands since February this year, I have already 8 months since my journey started. What an experience has been! I look forward to sharing with you some thoughts of mine about the Dutch life, the Dutch life style and its impact in my life.

But now, let’s focus on the Dutch language.

Before moving to The Netherlands I didn’t know Dutch, I only travelled few times here with my family, enjoying the great food and tourist attractions. I only knew how to say “thank you”, “my name is Laura”or “nice to meet you” but most importantly I knew how to smile (with a hidden hope that I can replace my lack of knowledge).

To be honest with you, I was very optimistic when moving here, in terms of language and the process of learning.

I’d like to share with you some truths and tips about learning in general and learning Dutch.


! It is much harder than expected. But the harder it is, the better it becomes. 

Becoming a more efficient learner requires overcoming a paradox: The secret to making learning easier is to make it harder. But most people don’t realize this. We usually see it as a bad sign if we struggle as we study, and a good sign if we nail every answer.

That’s not how learning works. Let’s suppose that we are memorizing a song’s lyrics. It is true, if we get most of the lyrics right on a self-made practice test, then it’s a sign we’ve made progress in the past, which is good. But research shows that the easier it is for us to identify the correct lyrics as we quizzing ourselves, the less we are actively learning.

Retaining new knowledge is an arduous and often unpleasant process — it doesn’t feel good not knowing the right answer, but struggling to grasp for it is a sign of improvement. Coasting (applying little effort), meanwhile, adds little value.

Most people understand this truth when it comes to exercise: No pain, no gain. We suffer now in order to benefit later. If a fitness exercise is too easy, we grab heavier weights.The same should be true for learning.


Guess the meaning of a word, before checking the dictionary

In one experiment, conducted by Lindsey Richland and colleagues, students at UC Irvine were tested on a type of color blindness called cerebral achromatopsia. One group of participants were given 10 minutes to read, and commit to memory, a two-page scientific passage. The other group also had 10 minutes before the test, but for the first two minutes they did not get to review the material. Instead, they were immediately given a short test on color blindness. Having not read the passage, they had little chance of answering questions like “What is total color blindness caused by brain damage called?” Most failed. Afterwards, they were given eight minutes to read the passage. When both groups were tested on the information later, the second group outperformed the first.

What does this mean for us on learning Dutch? On one hand, we could begin quizzing ourselves without bothering to read through the dictionary. Never heard of the word for “question”? Might as well take a guess (guessing has beenshown to help with learning). A retrieval attempt, in other words, can be valuable in and of itself.

Practical tip: Instead of re-reading a page, quiz yourself on the vocabulary. When trying to commit information to memory, read a bit, then stop, and attempt to mentally retrieve a summary of what you just read before moving on.


! Forgetting, helps us learning

Focusing on what we don’t know helps us make progress. If we can’t remember the word for table in Dutch ,we perhaps might be tempted to return to the dictionary again, shortly after we reviewed the correct answer (it’s “tafel”, for the curious). The alternative — quizzing ourselves on all 20 words describing the kitchen furniture before returning to “tafel” — virtually guarantees that we will have forgotten the correct answer. This doesn’t feel great. But multiple studies have shown that we learn more efficiently when we allow time to pass between study sessions; the act of forgetting and then remembering helps convert information into memory.

Alternatively, it can help to focus on the most difficult items. If we are stumped by “tafel”every time, but has the word for chair (“stoel”) down cold, then it makes sense to only quiz ourselves on table and other kitchen furniture items for which we doesn’t know the words in Dutch.

Practical tip a: Space out your study sessions so you give yourself time to learn, forget and re-learn, which helps convert information into memory.

Practical tip b: Even if you’ve learned a lot today, you’re liable to forget much of it by tomorrow, so make sure you come back to the material. Study something a few more times even after you think you “know” it.

All of which is to say: when you are learning, be alert for signs that you are starting to succeed with ease. That means you are not learning much. If you wait a while and then return to the same material, you’ll spend the same amount of time actually studying, but learn more. Difficulty is the gift that keeps on giving.


Join a Dutch class that takes more than 2 weeks

Join a good Dutch class, that lasts for at least one year. When I moved to The Netherlands I went to different events in Amsterdam, organised for different communities. At these events, they were a lot of service providers in order to make the life of immigrants easier: Insurance companies, mental health support companies, events management companies, recruitment agencies and a vast range of Dutch language courses providers. Some of them were promising to teach you Dutch in two weeks. That is simply NOT TRUE. 


! Learning Dutch (and any other language) requires time, long time.


Watch TV (I know, I wouldn’t normally recommend it:) but with Dutch subtitles

I gave up watching TV 16 years ago, but now I see the relevance of it by learning a new language. As I had a lot of time on my hands, since I moved here, I always left the TV in the background. It is useful and exciting because I can learn new expressions, ways to pronounce new words, intonation and loads of other little things from the Dutch culture and life style. I particularly enjoy cooking, therefore I have a huge interest in learning the words related to food and vegetables, recipes. I watch weekly Dutch cooking shows and I enjoy myself while learning. That is so rewarding! I currently have NPO 1, 2 and (the most important) children TV channel NPO 3. I’m telling you, it’s enough. You don’t need a TV subscription. 


Read children books, newspapers and blogs 

I love reading. I started by reading small and funny children books. I continued with following http://www.nu.nl on Facebook. In this way, I get news highlights and updates in the same time as getting immediately the translation (the Facebook feature of translating straight away a post).  

I also have some audiobooks from youtube that are very short and easy to listen to while I am cycling or running in the neighbourhood. 


Connect with people, even though you don’t have the words for it

If you love people and connecting with people, like I do, must be really sad for you to see that your biggest love for human connections goes away because you don’t know how to say in Dutch “the weather is beautiful” “I love autumn” or “this recipe is excellent” or “maybe we should go out for a coffee sometime”.

Well, I discovered something:


! You don’t necessarily need words in order to create new connections

Don’t panic, you can either speak English and if that doesn’t work, you can simply smile and use your intuition or gut feeling about what can you do to transmit an emotion or share an idea. The most important thing: DO it, no matter the outcome.


! You’ll keep on making mistakes and embarrass yourself for many many times, until you’ll become immune to it and start learning.

Yeah, it’s normal not to know the Dutch grammar, so what! Keep on learning and focus on what you don’t know (see Truth Two).


Work in or with the community

Netherlands is very well known for its level of spoken English, “everyone know English here” a lot of people say. Well is not always true, especially in the villages or smaller towns. From this, there is one conclusion: It is easier to find a job in English, which is not very helpful on our goal to learn Dutch. Since I moved here, I continued with some projects from UK (in the wellbeing mainly) and I also continued to deliver coaching and training programs like I used to do in my last 6 years. But this job certainty made me wonder “how can I help myself to learn Dutch” or “how can I make it harder for myself so I can learn better”? Because I love people, I realized that the best idea for me is to find ways to challenge myself to connect more often with them:

  1. Find a summer/weekend job in retail. Probably are only few people that think that this type of job can be helpful. Well, I think that for me, worked very well. I got a 3 months weekend job in a clothing store for the summer where I had the chance to speaimg_9115k Dutch and sale clothing. What a beautiful and effective mixture of things!
  2. Volunteer! As part of my Library Dutch Learning group, we went to forest in the area to help and support a sport company that helps children to gain life skills (space orientation skills,  surviving skills, physical skills) It was brilliant to feel useful while learning something new and enjoying the nature! Of course, it was very hard to translate the directions, to learn the stories in Dutch about the tourist attractions and also gaining the confidence to share that with 12 to 15 years old kids
  3. Get a membership to the Library! You might be surprised, like I did. There is a group support for all these people like me and maybe you, who want to learn Dutch called “Huis voor Taal”. This service support is subsidised by the City Council and it’s free.
    Plus, you have the chance to meet a lot of people. It is so rewarding to learn about other cultures. I’ve met people from Brazil, Turkey, Syria, Eritrea, Senegal, Suriname, Aruba, Venezuela, Iran, Irak, Afghanistan, Peru, Saudi Arabia etc. When you go to register as a new citizen living in The Netherlands, please ask at the council about a group like this. This is how I found out.


Combine play with learning

The best way to learn and to retain information is to enjoy the process, right? For me, the role of play and games is very important. It makes the process of learning interesting, exciting and also I keep my energy and motivation up while learning. It is very easy to learn something for two weeks straight and after that to give up, to get trapped in our daily temptations. Ok, so how do I add fun in my process? 

14797437_1313701635330453_2080685478_na) Because I love apps, I have the Duolingo app installed on my phone. There I can check progress and learn usual words while listening to words pronountiation. 

It is really enjoyable and useful. I tried different apps and I still believe that this one is the best.

I also recommend to install a dictionary on your phone. It might help you find the words you’re missing in a conversation with a stranger. The one I have at the moment is iTranslate, which I find effective.


14801015_1313706881996595_1354428260_nb) I also love cards and board games. Because of this reason, I created my own vocabulary cards which I shuffle very often and use them as a memory game. It helps me to test myself, to memorize it better and also to focus on what I don’t know. 




Find a mentor or another native speaker to talk to (in Dutch) regularly, beside the Dutch class. I am very lucky and happy to have my husband to support me (he is Dutch) .But we are both busy and time is very scar for us. We are also used to talk English to each other, which means that is very hard for us to switch languages now. But, indeed possible. We only need discipline.

Therefore, we established one day a week: “Dutch Tuesdays” when we speak only Dutch. I start the day by simply texting him and our family (his parents) in Dutch. It makes easier for them to understand that this is our daily rule, they continue to speak Dutch and it also makes easier for me and my husband to continue conversations in Dutch when we arrive at home. 


14805526_1313808608653089_1086020501_nGet yourself an e-reader!

I know, I love paperback books too but the e-reader helped me a lot on learning Dutch. Did you know that the e-readers have a dictionary included? Yes, I got myself a Kobo e-reader and I read in Dutch. The way I make sense of the sentence is that I translate immediately in English and I highlight the new words. Sometimes, just to spice up a little bit my learning style, I add a note to a word with just a personal guess about what does that word mean. Remember: guessing the meaning is sometimes better than re-reading the word definition! 

Dear readers, this is what I’ve learned so far about learning the Dutch language.

I hope you enjoyed reading my article and maybe you’ll use some of the tips I shared in learning Dutch or any other foreign language.

Keep on learning and share your discoveries!




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