Do Dutch People Understand German? We Find Out

May 17, 2021

"Wait, you are Dutch? So that means you speak German right?" It is a question almost every Dutch will hear at least once in their lifetime. And this question is quite understandable. To an untrained ear, Dutch and German might sound very similar. The Netherlands and Germany are located right next to each other and share a rich history. So this all naturally leads to the following question "Do Dutch people understand German?".

Most Dutch people do understand German, as 71% of the Dutch people claim to speak German to a certain extend. This is because German is taught at school in the Netherlands. As well because Dutch and German are both originated from the West Germanic language, which gives them quite some similarities.

If you are interested in both the Dutch and German languages, you should definitely keep on reading. As I will explain all the similarities between both languages, as well as the major differences. I will also point out why Dutch and German have quite some similarities and I will tell you which language is easier to learn.

Can the Dutch Understand German?

Well, the answer might surprise you. Even though Dutch is the official language of the Netherlands, German still plays an important role there.

First of all, Germany is a very important trade partner for the Netherlands. Roughly 24% of the Dutch export goes to Germany, and 18% of the import comes from there. This means that Dutch people trade with Germans a lot. When doing business, it is important to speak the same language. So, German is considered a quite profitable language in the Netherlands.

Secondly, tourism plays a very important role in this, as many German people visit the Netherlands. Many of them do not speak English. In addition to that, many Germans simply prefer to be helped in their own language. Speaking German could help you a lot if you work in the tourism industry.

But, there are other factors at play as well.

The Dutch education system also influences how well the Dutch understand German. Almost every high school student follows compulsory German classes for at least one year, and many choose to continue with the classes afterward.

In these classes, students are taught how to read, write, speak and listen to German. Although indeed, you cannot reach fluency in a foreign language after just one year, it does increase the amount of German someone understands.

These are just a few reasons why Dutch people might speak German. In the end, almost 71% of the Dutch population claims to speak German to a certain extend. That makes it the second most spoken foreign language in the Netherlands, with only English topping this (which is spoken by 90% of the population).

(Click here to see why the Dutch speak English so well)

But, this does not address the common misconception that the two languages are the same.

How Similar Are Dutch and German?

Dutch and German are both Indo-European languages of the West-Germanic branch. Other languages in this branch include for example English and Frisian. Because they are of the same linguistic branch, they share an origin, the West Germanic language.

After the Germanic tribes entered Europe, their cultures and languages split up into three different groups, Northern Germanic, Eastern Germanic, and Western Germanic. Each of these groups had its own language, culture and lived somewhere else.

The Northern Germanic people lived in Scandinavia, and their language birthed the modern languages of Norse, Swedish, and many more. The Eastern Germanic tribes diffused into many other (mostly Slavic) tribes and their languages mostly disappeared.

The Western Germanic tribes settled in Germany and the Netherlands. From their language, Dutch and German were birthed. This shared origin, combined with the fact that the two countries are located relatively close to each other (some even think the Netherlands is part of Germany), gives us some very clear reasons why the two languages might be similar.

“But how similar are Dutch and German exactly?”, I hear you ask.

Of the west Germanic languages, Dutch and German are the most connected. Let’s look at a few words as an example (pronunciation between brackets).

DutchGermanEnglish
Hond (hɔnt)Hund (hʊnt)Dog (dɒg)
Boek (buk)Buch (buːx)Book (bʊk)
Mens (mɛns)Mensch (mɛnʃ)Human (hjuːmən)
Vrouw (vrɑu)Frau (fraʊ̯)Woman (wʊmən)
Man (mɑn)Mann (man)Man (mæn)

Many similarities are visible. Although the spelling might be quite different sometimes, the pronunciation changes very little. When looking at some of the words, you can even see similarities with English. So this means that the two languages are exactly the same right?

Well, not exactly. These, and many other words, might be very similar to each other, that does not mean all words are. There are many words that are not similar at all. As a rule of thumb, most Dutch words are more similar to English than German words are.

There are also quite a few words that sound exactly the same but have a completely different meaning. Just a few more examples down below.

DutchGermanEnglish
Comfortabel (kɔmfɔrˈtabəl)Bequem (bəˈkveːm)Comfortable (kʌmf(ə)təbl)
Viool (vi'jol)Geige (ɡaɪ̯ɡə)Violin (vaɪəˈlɪn)
Meer (mer)See (zeː)Lake (leɪk)
Zee (ze)Meer (meːɐ̯)Sea (siː)
Remmen (rɛmə(n))Bremsen (bʁɛmzən)To brake (tuːbreɪk)

Nonetheless, the similarities in vocabulary make learning German, quite a bit easier for the Dutch. Many people can even understand some German conversations, just because of the similar vocabulary!

But, a language does not only have a vocabulary. Grammar is also involved!

Before we are getting to the grammatical similarities, we should first address the big elephant in the room. German has a case system while Dutch does not.

Having a case system means that words change depending on their function in a sentence. English mostly uses prepositions to achieve this. In German, this change happens in the articles.

For example, when you use "the dog" as a subject, you would use "der Hund" in German. But, whenever the dog is a subject, it changes to "den Hund" and when you give something it is "dem Hund". Similar changes happen to adjectives.

Dutch used to have a very similar system, but it got out of use. Nowadays cases are only used in a few set expressions like "Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden" (the kingdom of the Netherlands).

This big difference is also the main struggle of many Dutch people that want to learn or speak German. The cases are almost universally hated by all high school students.

Dutch and German also structure their sentences quite a bit differently. Dutch mostly puts the verb second after the subject, whereas German places the verb at the end of the sentence more often.

Dutch and German have a somewhat comparable verb system. German has a few more tenses and conjugations, but they are quite similar. Both languages use the suffix "-en" to form an infinitive and the prefix "ge-" to form the perfective past tense.

The only notable difference is that Dutch has way more irregular verbs and grammatical rules than German.

So they are in fact quite similar! It makes understanding German for Dutch people quite a bit easier. But the differences are quite prevalent though. Speaking Dutch won’t make you able to speak German, sadly enough.

But, the same could be said from different dialects. I do speak English, but when someone tries to talk to me with a heavy Scottish accent, I probably won’t understand it. This brings us to the next question.

Is Dutch a German Dialect?

Dutch is not a German Dialect. At least, the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) says so. There are many arguments why they do believe so. Here are a few of them.

Dutch and German have very different grammar

A few key grammatical differences include the presence of a case system in German and the absence of some German tenses in Dutch.

Because of this, many people think German is an incredibly difficult language, and they think of Dutch as a "German lite". But this is not completely true. German is simply more strict than Dutch. German may have many rules, but Dutch has an almost infinite list of exceptions and rarely used rules.

Dutch and German sound completely different

Dutch and German might sound similar upon the first inspection, but when you look deeper into it, you’ll quickly find out that they do not at all.

Generally, Dutch is less articulated and includes less of the "harsh" sounds. The harsh sounds it does have are often pronounced very harshly though. Dutch also has some unique vowels like "ei" (ɛi) and "ui" (œy).

German is very articulated in comparison to Dutch and includes more "harsher" sounds. The "umlaut" also changes the German pronunciation quite significantly.

Dutch and German use different letters

Because of these differences in pronunciation, Dutch and German use many different letters. In German, the "sharpness" of the "s" is more important so they included the "ß". Because of the umlaut, most vowels can have dots placed on them.

Dutch does not do this but has many diphthongs (two vowels that merge to make a new sound) like "ij" (ɛi̯), "ui" (œy̯) and "ou" (ɑu̯). Some of these might exist in German, but they often do not produce the same sound.

Because of this, German people often find pronouncing Dutch texts quite challenging. Dutch people learn how to pronounce German in high school, so they have a bit less difficulty with that.

When speaking German, Dutch people do often forget to pronounce the umlaut, which might lead to some misunderstandings because of the grammatical importance of those two dots.

As you can see, Dutch and German do differ enough to make them two completely different languages. Speaking one will not make you able to speak the other one! They do have quite some similarities, but not nearly enough to classify them as one language.

Is Dutch Easier to Learn Than German?

This is an age-old question with only one possible answer, it depends. It depends on your specific personal skills, your native language, and the other languages you know.

One of the biggest factors in determining the difficulty of learning a new language is your native language. Generally, the more similar a language is to your native language, the easier it is to learn.

German has a more complicated grammatical system, so if your native language is more complex, I do believe that there are a lot of concepts in German that will make a lot of sense. Dutch grammar is less exact, and not bound by as strict rules as German.

The other foreign languages you already know also influence your affinity towards new foreign languages. Because you are currently reading this article, it is safe to assume that you speak English.

Dutch happens to be quite closely related to English, with only Frisian being closer related. So, if you already speak English, or if your native language is English, Dutch might just be a bit easier for you.

The American Service Institute (FSI) has ranked most foreign languages on the difficulty to learn for someone whose native language is English. According to them, learning Dutch takes approximately 600 hours, while learning German takes 750 hours. This might not seem like a big difference, but when you do the math this accounts for a whopping 6,25 days of nonstop learning!

But, some people are just better at some things than others. It might just be that you find German a lot easier than Dutch, even though your native language is English. This is fine, and most definitely something to keep in mind.

Most people will probably say that Dutch is easier than German. And this might be very true most of the time, but not for everyone. Whatever language one studies, one thing stays true, don’t learn both of them at the same time! The many similarities and differences can most definitely cause a lot of difficulties!

Conclusion

So the Dutch do have quite a complicated relationship with the German language. Many people speak it, learn it and even use it professionally. The many similarities make learning German quite a bit easier for Dutch people, but it can also cause quite some difficulties.

Even though the similarities, the two languages are most definitely not the same! German might be a bit more complicated and Dutch a bit more irregular. But the connection between the two languages and cultures is and will always be visible.

I hope that I fully informed you all about the strange phenomenon that is the relationship between Dutch and German. And remember, if you ever visit the Netherlands, we are always happy to help you, whatever language you speak!

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Written by

Leo van den Berg
As a Dutchman I am extremely proud of the beautiful country in which I live. My goal is to convey my passion and love for the Netherlands to as many people as possible.

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