From being understandable to speaking Dutch powerfully

door Regina Coeli

Many people who learn foreign languages would like to sound like native speakers. But even when you exclusively speak the new language for years, you can still end up with a noticeable accent. How can you work on proper pronunciation from the start? We spoke about this with Yvonne Tupker, a speech therapist and Dutch language trainer at Regina Coeli.

“Your pronunciation in a language determines to a large extent whether other people can understand you. If you mispronounce sounds, stress the wrong syllable or use illogical intonation, it can be quite a puzzle for your conversation partner to figure out what you mean—even when you use the right words,” Yvonne explains.

“Sometimes people who learn a foreign tongue literally need to develop an ear for a sound. If a sound doesn’t exist in your mother tongue but does in the foreign language, you have to learn to hear it before you can pronounce it.”

Dutch has a number of sounds that are generally new to non-Dutch speakers:

1. G / sch
Many languages do not have the “g” and “sch” sounds of Dutch. As a result, these sounds are often tongue twisters for non-native speakers. For Arabic speakers, though, they are are no problem at all, since Arabic also has many guttural sounds.

2. Consonant combinations
In Dutch, consonants are mercilessly pasted together. The word schrift (writing, notebook, script), for example, consists of seven letters, of which only one is a vowel. Pronouncing this word properly can seem impossible to some. In some languages, vowels and consonants alternate continuously, such as in Italian and Japanese, so some people create ‘ghost vowels’ between the all those consonants. Schrift then becomes “suchurifut”.

3. Diphthongs
Dutch has five vowels that can be pronounced both short and long, and doing so changes the meaning of words. For example: “The apple is rood/ rot" (red/ rotten). Or: “The man/ maan is big” (man/ moon). It is a minor difference in pronunciation, but a big difference in meaning. There are also vowel combinations with their own unique sounds, such as ui, ooi, nieuw (onion, ewe, new). Many people who learn Dutch as a foreign language wrestle for years with the pronunciation of vowels.

This all means that Dutch can pose quite a few challenges for people who want to learn to speak it. Yvonne has a good tip for learning correct pronunciation right off the bat: “It’s an advantage that it’s clear to see how you should shape your mouth to create Dutch sounds. If you learn the language from a native speaker, use your ears and eyes when he or she speaks, imitate them and have them correct your pronunciation.

Extra challenge for Asians and Germans

For Asians, Dutch poses an extra challenge, as Asian languages are often tonal. Tonal languages can have different pitch variations for one word, but intonation patterns within sentences do not exist. As a result, Asians speak more monotonously than we are accustomed to in the West. “If they already speak English well, then they’ve got the hang of intonation and that makes it easier to learn it in Dutch, since the two languages are comparable in terms of intonation,” Yvonne explains.

Another special group are the Germans. German and Dutch are quite similar, but some things are pronounced slightly differently. “Take, for example, the Dutch word mens (human/ man/ mankind) and the German word mensch. The words look similar and mean the same thing, but are pronounced differently. The pronunciation of a language similar to your mother tongue is sometimes more difficult than that of a completely new language. At first, the similar pronunciation is “good enough” and you’ll be understood, but if you don’t work on your pronunciation, you’ll still sound un-Dutch, even when you’re an advanced speaker. It can end up being a distraction to the listener, particularly when a non-native speaker’s language skills are otherwise very good.”

At Regina Coeli, learning pronunciation is an integral part of every Dutch course for both beginners and advanced learners. Students practice pronunciation with their trainers in private lessons. After all, they have a role model sitting right there with them who is also trained in helping others improve their pronunciation. In addition, students practice pronunciation in the language laboratory. They listen to native speakers, record themselves, then check and compare their own pronunciation with that of the native speakers.

Speaking Dutch powerfully

Initially, the aim of good pronunciation is to be understood. A beginner does not have to speak without an accent right from the start. Still, at a certain point, an accent can get in your way. Many people find their way to Regina Coeli if they want to be more powerful when speaking Dutch.

“For these people, we often combine refining pronunciation with a specific skill, such as presenting. Coming across powerfully not only has to do with good pronunciation—it also has to do with intonation, word choice, language and the way the voice is used. It’s easy to blend those things in a training programme,” says Yvonne.

If you want to improve your pronunciation in particular, or learn to speak Dutch correctly right from the start, simply contact Regina Coeli to learn about your options.

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