First Aid in Dutch

Dutch is one of the closest relatives to English and the two languages share many facets. But this article is about the main differences between the two languages so that if you ever happen to teach students with a Dutch mother tongue, you’ll understand why they make certain errors and what aspects you need to pay close attention to.

To begin with, a little about the language. It is the official language of the Netherlands. It is also spoken in the Flanders, the northern region of Belgium. Outside Europe it’s mainly spoken in the Dutch Caribbean islands and Suriname which are former colonies of the Netherlands.

It is also a West Germanic language (as is English) and so the two share many elements. This helps make it quite easy for Dutch people to learn English and in fact English is widely spoken in the Netherlands. It is estimated that 85% of native Dutch speakers know English as a second language. This is due to several factors including the strong historical and commercial ties with the UK.

A Few Differences

But of course there are differences!

While generally speaking Dutch and English share a lean grammar which is void of the kinds of complexities found in other languages, there are a few differences English teachers working with Dutch native speakers should be aware of.

word order

Both Dutch and English sentences are built around the SVO pattern. The only difference is when a sentence doesn’t start with the subject, for example:

On Friday we went to the cinema.

In Dutch the subject we and the verb went swap places:

Op vrijdag gingen we naar de bioscoop.

(And if you read that sentence in Dutch carefully you should be able to decipher it easily which shows just how closely Dutch and English are related.)

Other word order issues include infinitives and past participles being placed at the end of a sentence in Dutch, much like in German.

TEFL teachers should be aware of this and you should be prepared to diagram sentence structure to your class when you need to in order to show and explain the differences.

verb tenses & forms

Like English, Dutch has these four basic verb forms:

  • present simple
  • past simple
  • present perfect
  • past perfect

However their use in Dutch does not always correspond with their use in English.

One of the most common mistakes Dutch mt learners of English make is using the present perfect where a past simple is required. Whereas in English we would say:

She left for London yesterday.

Quite a number of Dutch students will say:

* She has left for London yesterday.

* an asterisk denotes an ungrammatical sentence.

Similarly the present tense is sometimes used instead of present perfect in sentences like this:

* I live in Amsterdam since 2000.

Instead of:

I have lived in Amsterdam since 2000.

Also, the present simple is sometimes used instead of the future simple:

* I tell you about it tomorrow.

Instead of:

I will tell you about it tomorrow.

The use of timelines when explaining English tenses can help a lot with correcting this problem.

auxiliaries & questions/negatives

When teaching how to make questions and negative statements in English teachers should be aware of the fact that the Dutch language does not have auxiliaries. So the use of do/did can be awkward for Dutch learners and might need working on.


As you might expect given the geographical proximity of the Netherlands and England as well as the similarity of their languages, Dutch and English sounds do not differ much and stress and intonation patterns are very similar indeed.

This means that pronunciation is never really a big issue for Dutch learners of English who generally can identify and reproduce English very well.

A couple of minor issues can be with pronouncing voiced consonants at the end of a word, for example

/b/ – pub
/d/ – bad

Since Dutch does not have this type of final sound Dutch native speakers learning English tend to shift the sound to

/p/ – pup
/t/ – bat

This can also happen with the sound

/w/ – wolf or week

which is usually pronounced

/v/ – volf or veek

Minimal pair work can be very helpful to address and correct these problems.

Useful Links

Teaching English in the Netherlands – about teaching where Dutch is widely spoken

Teaching English in Europe

English words of Dutch origin – a blog from Oxford Dictionaries

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