Playing with modal verbs

26 March 2017
door Regina Coeli

Ik wil werken (I want to work). Ik kan werken (I can work). Ik mag werken (I am allowed to work). Ik zal werken (I will work). Ik moet werken (I must work). Ik hoef niet te werken (I needn’t work/I don’t have to work). Six simple sentences in Dutch with the main verb ‘work’ and yet they all mean something completely different. In Dutch as well as in other languages, the six help verbs (otherwise known as modal verbs) add something to the meaning of the main verb. For those who have grown up with the Dutch language, this is nothing new. However, it’s a different matter for people learning how to speak Dutch.

Explain rules by giving practical examples

The modal verbs are so important in Dutch that beginner course members at Regina Coeli are already confronted with them on Day 4 of their language course. “It’s a tricky area”, explains Dutch language trainer, Ilja Soons. “We don’t inundate our course members with theory, but try to explain the rules by giving them practical examples that they can use when they’re no longer at the institute.”

Structure of Dutch sentences

We explain everything step by step to our beginners. “We start with word formation and deal with any exceptions to the rule. Then we look at sentence structure. In a lot of Dutch sentences, the help verb and its main verb are not even next to each other in the sentence. That is different to other languages. The only Dutch learners who don’t have problems with this are the Germans because German sentence structure is similar to Dutch. Finally, we compare the various meanings of the modal verbs. What is the difference, for instance, between ‘moeten’ (must) and ‘hoeven’ (need/have to) or ‘kunnen’ (can) and ‘mogen’ (may, allowed to)?

The easiest way to learn the various meanings is to actually use them. “During the grammar lesson, we start making sentences and then use them in conversation. For example, I ask: ‘Wat wil je in het weekend doen?’ (What do you want to do this weekend?) or ‘Wat moet je volgende week doen?’ (What do you have to do next week?) In this way, the course member quickly gets the hang of the way in which the Dutch use their modal verbs. And they discover at the same time that learning grammar doesn’t have to be boring!”

Try the following exercises

Can you fill in the right modal verb?
1. Ik … al goed Nederlands spreken.
2. Ik … mijn uitspraak verbeteren.
3. U … tijdens uw taaltraining niet te koken.
4. In het talenpracticum … u geen koffie of thee drinken.

Answers:
1. Kan (I can already speak good Dutch)
2. Wil (I want to improve my pronunciation);  or Moet (I have to improve my pronunciation)
3. Hoeft (I don’t have to cook dinner during my language training course)
4. Mag (You may not drink coffee or tea in the language laboratory)

 

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