Here we will look at the three languages in the Dutch family – Dutch, Afrikaans and Flemish, from the point of view of how hard they are to learn for a native English speaker. The main focus will be on Dutch, but Afrikaans will also be discussed. Flemish will be discussed only peripherally.
Dutch is harder to learn than English due to the large number of rules used in both speaking and writing. The Dutch say that few foreigners learn to speak Dutch well. Part of the problem is that some words have no meaning at all in isolation (meaning is only derived via a phrase or sentence). Word order is somewhat difficult because it is quite rigid. It helps if you know German as the rule order is similar, but Dutch word order is harder than German word order. Foreigners often seem to get the relatively lax Dutch rules about word order wrong in long sentences.
Verbs can be difficult. For instance, there are no verbs get and move. Instead, get and move each have about a dozen different verbs in Dutch. A regular Dutch verb has six different forms.
Dutch spelling is difficult, and Most Dutch people cannot even spell Dutch correctly. There are only two genders – common and neuter – as opposed to three in German – feminine, neuter and masculine. In Dutch, the masculine and feminine merged in the common gender. But most Dutch speakers cannot tell you the gender of any individual word. In the Netherlands now, most Dutch speakers are simply using masculine for most nouns other than things that are obviously feminine like the words mother and sister.
However, in Belgium, where people speak Flemish, not Dutch, most people still know the genders of words. Not only that but the 3-gender system with masculine, feminine and neuter remains in place in Flemish. In addition, in Flemish, the definite article still makes an obvious distinction between masculine and feminine, so it is easy to figure out the gender of a noun:
ne man, nen boom, nen ezel, nen banaan (masculine)
een vrouw, een koe, een wolk, een peer (feminine)
In addition, most Dutch speakers cannot tell you what pronoun to use in the 3rd person singular when conjugating a verb.
This is because there are two different systems in use for conjugating the 3sing.
The basic paradigm is:
zij (ze) she
male persons hij
female persons zij
neuter words het
animals hij, unless noun = neuter
objects hij, " "
abstractions zij, " "
substances hij, " "
male persons hij
female persons zij
all animals hij
all objects hij
all abstractions zij
all substances het
For instance, melk is a common noun. Under system 1, it would be hij. But under system 2, it would be het because it is a substance.
Dutch has something called modal particles, the meanings of which are quite obscure.
Some say Dutch is irregular, but the truth is that more than Dutch has a multitude of very complex rules, rules that are so complicated that is hard to even figure them out, much less understand them. Nevertheless, Dutch has 200 irregular verbs.
Dutch pronunciation is pretty easy, but the ui, eu, ij, au, ou, eeuw and uu sounds can be hard to make. Dutch speakers say only Germans learn to pronounce it correctly.
Dutch is almost being buried in a flood of English loans. While this helps the English speaker, others worry that the Dutch nature of the language is at risk.
Dutch seems to be easier to learn than German. Dutch has fewer cases, thus fewer articles and and adjective endings. There are two main ways of pluralizing in Dutch: adding -‘s and adding -en. Unfortunately, in German, things are much more complex than that. Dutch has only two genders (and maybe just a trace of a third) but German definitely has three genders. Verb conjugation is quite similar in both languages, but it is a bit easier in Dutch. Word order is the same: complex in both languages. Both languages are equally complex in terms of pronunciation. Both have the difficult ø and y vowels.
Dutch gets a 3 rating, average difficulty.
Afrikaans is just Dutch simplified.
Where Dutch has 200 irregular verbs, Afrikaans has only 6. A Dutch verb has 6 different forms, but Afrikaans has only 2. Afrikaans has 2 fewer tense than Dutch. Dutch has two genders, and Afrikaans has only one. Surely Afrikaans ought to be easier to learn than Dutch.
Afrikaans gets a 2 rating, very easy to learn.