As a Dutch guy living in Nijmegen – a city close to the border of Germany, I often come across Germans, and therefore the German language. Although I certainly don’t speak German, I can almost always follow and understand the conversations. Without any background in the German language, I can usually understand what is being said or asked. I have noticed that it often doesn’t work the other way round.

When you try to talk back to the Germans in Dutch, there often seems to be little understanding. And this is not just based on my own experience. Many of my Dutch friends and Dutch people, in general, have said to have had the same experience. They too notice an imbalance between the comprehension of the German and the Dutch languages. And even my German friends confirm this discrepancy.

But why and how does this gap come about? Is the Dutch language that much harder? Or are there other factors at work here? In this blog, I try to answer the above questions by providing five reasons for the language gap between Dutch and German.

1. German Is a Bigger Language Than Dutch

The first reason for the discrepancy in the understanding of Dutch and German is perhaps also the most obvious. Namely: the fact that German is a way bigger language than Dutch.

German is an official language in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. Which together make for around 130 million people worldwide who speak German as their mother tongue. Dutch, however, is only spoken as an official language by around 22 million people worldwide in six different countries: The Netherlands, Aruba, Belgium, Curacao, Sint-Maarten, and Suriname.

From this difference follows automatically that Germans are less likely to come into contact with the Dutch language than vice versa. And they may therefore have less understanding of the Dutch language.

2. Germans Tend to Speak in Their Own Language a Little Bit More

Germans are more inclined to continue speaking their own language, even if they encounter foreigners or tourists. Dutch people, on the other hand, are more likely to immediately switch to English. Or even the language of the individual in question as soon as they realize that the individual does not speak Dutch.

According to language- and travel blogger Micheal from Language Tsar, this is also partly why learning Dutch is a lot harder than learning German. As he himself describes:

“In my experience, Germans are more likely to reply to foreigners in the local language than the Dutch will and that’s especially true with native English speakers. The automatic default for the Dutch if they notice an English-speaking accent is to switch to English. This made it frustratingly difficult to learn Dutch when I was in the Netherlands.” Micheal, Language Tsar

Given this fact, it’s probably harder for German people to understand Dutch. Because the Dutch will probably switch to English or German whenever they are communicating with Germans.

The German flag

Image by Maheshkumar Painam on Unsplash

3. The Dutch Language Has Some Very Difficult Diphthongs

Although German grammar might be a lot harder and more complex than that of the Dutch language, the phonetics of the Dutch language are known to be quite weird and at times very difficult for foreigners. This is mostly due to the weird diphthongs that the Dutch language holds. For those who don’t know, a diphthong is a combination of two vowels, creating a “new sound”.

For example, combining the vowel “o” with “u” in the English language results in the diphthong “ou”, which produces a different sound than just the vowels “o” and “u” pronounced apart from each other. The Dutch language has some weird diphthongs that even the Dutch themselves find hard sometimes.

For example, the combination of the vowels -e, -e, -u and -w, forms the diphthong “-eeuw”, which is pronounced something like “aaiw”: het sneeuwt (meaning: it is snowing). The pronunciation of these diphthongs might be what makes Dutch hard to comprehend for some Germans.

4. Dutch Is Hard to Pronounce

Consonants like -ch,- sch, -ng, and -nk are unfamiliar in most languages. And because you can combine nouns in Dutch, you end up with words like: “slechtstschrijvend” (“worst-writing”) and “angstschreeuw” (cry of fear). Just as the diphthongs, can these consonants be very hard to pronounce and understand.

The Dutch flag

Image by Remy Gieling on Unsplash

5. Germany Is More Significant on the International Stage

As a political and economic power, Germany occupies a much larger place on the international stage than the Netherlands. Although the Netherlands, with its strategic location and harbor, plays a crucial role in Europe’s logistics and its 17th place on the ranking of the world’s largest economies, it is certainly economically significant on the world stage (4).

However, it is nothing compared to the influence Germany can exert as an economic and political power. Germany is Europe’s largest exporter (with the Netherlands in second place). And is ranked fourth in the world’s largest economies by the platform WorldData (ibid.).

In recent centuries, Germany has also proven to be dominant on the international political stage (which unfortunately has also had terrible consequences in the past). And continues to assert itself as one of the world’s political superpowers.

This dominance also means that the German language crosses the Dutch border more often through social media, news channels and other mediums than the Dutch language does the German border. This may also explain why Dutch people often understand German better than the other way around.

My Point of View

So, I have now given five explanations for the difference in language understanding between the Dutch and German languages. I hope you found it interesting, and I hope you maybe even learned a thing or two.

What I would like to emphasise is that I have no intention of insulting anyone in this blog. Nor do I want to generalise any people (German or Dutch). I am well aware that every individual is different and that the statements I made do not apply to a whole population. Certainly not every Dutch person can understand German. And there are plenty of Germans who have an excellent knowledge of the Dutch language.

In this blog, I have only tried to describe the difference I see between the average Dutch-German conversation and tried to provide explanations for it. Never will I claim that what I state is the undisputed truth. It is in your very right and power to agree or disagree with my statements!  

Learn Dutch or German at SPEAK!

Do you want to learn to speak either Dutch or German after reading this blog? At SPEAK you can learn any language you want! Just keep an eye on our website and sign up for free for an open language group! Interested in learning more about other languages as well? Read our blog post How Similar are Spanish and Portuguese?

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of SPEAK

Author: Sam Rommens

Sam is a 24-year-old ‘Dutchie’ who lived in Lisbon for the past half-year. He finished his bachelor’s in Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies at the Radboud University in Nijmegen. He loves to play football, go to the gym, and eat and drink together with his friends and family.

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