While Dutch is consistently rated as one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn, not every aspect of the language is a walk in the park. One of these aspects is pronunciation. Sure, Dutch is fairly phonetic (meaning it looks how it sounds), especially compared to English. It also uses the same Latin alphabet that you’re already familiar with. However, Dutch pronunciation is very guttural and getting accustomed to the spelling of words can be a challenge. Here are some of the trickiest hurdles when it comes to mastering Dutch pronunciation:
The Infamous G
No article (or conversation, for that matter) about Dutch pronunciation would be complete without mentioning the infamous G. If you’re a native English speaker, you can disregard almost every instinct you have about pronouncing G’s. In Dutch, a G is pronounced quite like the German [ch], as in Bach. Or, while it doesn’t exist in Standard English, you might also be familiar with this sound in Scottish words like “loch” and “ach.”
In linguistics, this sound is called a velar fricative and it can be pronounced more or less gutturally/harshly, depending on the region. It’s almost like a gargling sound, or the sound you make when you try to clear your throat. You can listen to it here in the example geel, which means “yellow.” In the video, you can hear a few amusing examples of how non-native speakers pronounce Gouda, groot and goedemorgen.
If you can’t get it right at first, don’t worry! It takes a while to get the hang of it. Some variations of Dutch, like Belgian Flemish, pronounce their G’s much softer, so you’ve got a little wiggle room.
For novices, Dutch can appear to have a lot of vowels. On top of that, getting used to which combinations correspond with what sounds can take a while — especially if you try to base it on pronunciations in English or other Germanic languages. Here are some of the most deceptive-looking combinations:
OU / AU
While many of the video participants pronounced Gouda with an [oo] sound (like in “coop”), the Dutch pronunciation of OU is actually equivalent to the [ow] sound in English (which is also found in words like “loud” and “proud”). Think along the lines of “cow” or Laos and you’ll get this sound down in no time. Luckily, AU is pronounced the same way. And when OU or AU is followed by a W, as in the word jouw (your), the W is silent. Handy, right?
This vowel combination might be one of the trickiest for English speakers, if only because the spelling isn’t very intuitive for us. As you might have figured out from the video, OE is pronounced like the [oo] sound in English, as in “loose.” Goedemorgen and koekjes don’t look as scary now, do they?
Another Dutch pronunciation pitfall in language learning, this UI sound doesn’t really exist in Standard English (except, again, for some varieties of Scottish English). In some ways, it’s similar to the OU and AU sound, but not entirely. You might be tempted to think that “out” and uit sound the same when you first hear it, but this is a dangerous trap to fall into. Listen to recordings of words like bruin (meaning “brown”) and repeat what you hear.
EI / IJ
Lucky for you, this other confusing Dutch sound comes in a pair — if you learn one, you’ll learn them both. EI and IJ basically sound the same in Dutch, and Dutch children learn to call them the korte EI (short EI) and lange IJ (long IJ) in school. This sound is actually a diphthong (or a sound comprised of two vowels that are merged together) and sounds somewhere between the Y in “by” and the AY in “May.” EI and IJ make up a large portion of Dutch phonology, so this sound is very important to conquer!
A Germanic Base
There’s no doubt that Dutch pronunciation shares similarities with other languages in the larger Germanic language family tree. If you’re already familiar with German (or Danish, Swedish or Norwegian), then the same pronunciation rule of J’s sounding like English Y’s still stands. This handy tip will help you correctly pronounce words like koekjes and jouw.
The same is also generally true of the W sound in Dutch. If you’ve been exposed to any German before, then you’ll know that a W in German makes a V sound in English (so that the dance Waltz sounds like “valtz” in its original pronunciation). This easy swap isn’t 100% the case for Dutch, but W’s generally sound like one of our V sounds. You can practice with words like wit (white) to properly master the pronunciation of stroopwafel.
In the end, English and Dutch pronunciation have a lot in common! There are hundreds of cognates that make learning easy, and most of the sounds you know from English carry over without much difficulty. All you need is a little practice to master it fully.