Difficult Dutch pronunciation – the G sound (with 6 tips)
It’s one of those things that seems like the biggest barrier (drempel) when starting to learn Dutch: pronunciation.
Hearing Dutch people speak for the first time might scare you. And making the connection between these letters, unknown combinations and sounds seems impossible at first.
And that’s a point when some learners might feel desperate. But don’t be!
Yes, it seems difficult at first. But it’s not as bad as it seems.
In this blog I talk about difficult aspects of Dutch pronunciation and I give tips to improve it.
Two types of G
One of the sounds that is notorious is the G-sound. It’s good to know that in Dutch, there are two ways of pronouncing the [g/ch]-sound.
The first is the one that is known to be difficult: the guttural sound, made at back of throat, also called the ‘harde g’.
The second is called ‘zachte g’ (soft G) and this sound is voiceless.
The ‘harde g’ is known to be especially difficult. This is not really strange because this G sound occurs in only 7 of the 317 languages that are in the UCLA Phonological Segment Inventory.
The second ‘g’, which is softer and causes less pain to your throat, causes fewer problems for foreigners from all over the world. The ‘soft g’ was originally found more in the south of the Netherlands. But it’s definitely not a strange sound in the rest of the Netherlands.
So these are maybe sounds that you’re not used to. And what makes it even more difficult is that these sounds come close to one other difficult Dutch sound.
The R may sound like the G
The letter ‘r’ in Dutch can be pronounced in different ways. And some come close to the ‘harde g’ or the ‘zachte g’.
In general you could say that there are three types of ‘r’ in Dutch, and I name them Spanish, English, and French.
- Some pronounce it like a rolling: rrrrrrr sound, like in Spanish (although other languages also have this, such as Italian and Russian).
- Some people pronounce it the English way. There is no rolling sound anymore.
- And some pronounce it more like the French do – when it is quite close to the ‘harde g’ sound.
What determines how the ‘r’ is pronounced and where? Mainly it is the region.
Different and difficult r/g sounds – good and bad news
The bad news is that these are difficult to distinguish.
The good news is that often it the pronunciation really doesn’t matter! This is true!
Officially there is no instruction that in standard Dutch one type of pronunciation of the ‘r’ sound should be used.
So your ‘r’ is probably good, and don’t be shy to use it!
Studying the Dutch sounds is a great step. But let me give you more bad news. Dutch is an open language for other languages, and they bring their own pronunciation.
You should know this, otherwise you will pronounce these foreign word as too Dutch! These loanwords are mainly English and French.
Here are some examples:
Now it’s time for more tips to help yourself. Here are my tips to improve your pronunciation.
- Listen to people who speak Dutch to improve your pronunciation.
This may sound a bit strange, but it’s really good to start by listening. A good way to do this is by watching Dutch movies or television with Dutch subtitles. This way you can connect the sounds with the letters. This is also a good way to start because people in the movies don’t usually have a very strong accent.
If you live in the Netherlands, Dutch is pretty much everywhere. This makes it a lot easier, of course. But don’t get carried away and secretly listen to everyone. The Dutch are open to other people and cultures, but don’t get too creepy!
- Learn about other difficult sounds
The diphthongs, like [eu], [ij]or [ui] are also known for being quite tricky to master. In this course you can learn all about the Dutch alphabet. You can find a videos about these diphthongs here.
The [uu] sound is notorious for being difficult for foreigners. It’s not a common sound in other languages. So students tend to pronounce the [uu] more as a [oe] sound.
- Practise, practise, practise
And now comes the most interesting part. You’ve got to put the theory into practice. Pronunciation is one of those things you have to practise to improve. It’s one of the essential things we do at the Summer School. If you do not live in the Netherlands, you can try to contact people online.
- Break down words
It’s not only sounds and letters that can be quite difficult. Long words, too, for example: verantwoordelijk (responsible). First, split this into parts: ver – ant – woor- de – lijk.
Then start from the back:
In Dutch you can create words by joining nouns together; these words are called compound words. For example, studentenuitwisselingsprogramma (student exchange programme). Just the same here.
A way to learn how to pronounce this is to break the word into parts and start from the back. This word takes a while, but, in the end, you are probably capable of pronouncing it in fluent Dutch!
- Listen to yourself
For people who don’t have an opportunity to speak with others, I have even heard about students who have recorded themselves and listened back! With your smartphone this is really simple.
This might sound like a strange thing to do, but it can be really helpful!
- Tongue twisters
Another way is practising tongue twisters. Tongue twisters are a great way to practise and improve your pronunciation of difficult sounds and fluency.
Scheveningse scheve schoenen
Another one with the ch / g sound. This sentence was used during WW II to detect German spies. Germans would pronounce Scheveningen (a town close to Den Haag) as ‘Sh’.
Wij smachten naar achtentachtig prachtige nachten bij achtentachtig prachtige grachten.
We yearn for eighty-eight beautiful nights at eighty-eight beautiful canals.
One more thing.
Yes, people from the Netherlands might hear that you’re not from the Netherlands.
But isn’t that always the case?
Everyone who speaks Dutch has a certain accent. If you are born in the north of the Netherlands, people will hear this. If you are born in Den Haag, people will hear this. If you are born in Paris. People will hear this.
My advice is, don’t worry too much about it.
Bart de Pau
online Dutch teacher & founder of the Dutch Summer School & Dutch Winter School