Improve Your Dutch, One Day at a Time

Learning vocabulary in a foreign language can often seem like an insurmountable challenge and a time-consuming one at that. Memorising long lists of words in isolation might seem like a fast, effective way to boost one’s vocabulary but most language learners and educators would agree that the best way to learn new words or expressions is to learn them in context and in manageable chunks.

And Dutch is no exception. Knowledge of English, German, and/or French may give you a slight head-start when it comes to mastering Dutch vocabulary but you will still need to put in some considerable time and effort if you want to communicate effectively in het Nederlands. So take things stapje voor stapje (“one step at a time”) and check out these free “word a day” resources!


Het Woord van Vandaag

Created by Arno Verweij in 2009, Het Woord van Vandaag (“Today’s Word”) is a website and mailing list that provides daily bite-size vocabulary lessons to English speakers who wish to improve their Dutch.

Het woord van vandaag

Pros: Each entry includes an audio file and syllable breakdown to aid pronunciation, English translations, lexical information, and two or three sample sentences (often drawn from national magazines and newspapers) showing the new word or expression in context. Vocabulary can be sorted alphabetically or chronologically or even by year, month, topic, or lexical category.

Cons: There are no translations for the sample sentences, which means this resource will be of limited use to those who don’t already have a decent command of the language.


Dutch Word of the Day

Run by self-styled “Dutch guru” Sander Oudkerk, the Dutch Word of the Day blog focuses on teaching language and cultural oddities that aren’t typically covered in most formal language courses.

Dutch Word of the Day

Pros: The articles don’t just cover matters of vocabulary and grammar; they are also packed with information about Dutch culture, history, and social customs.

Cons: There are very few audio clips available to aid pronunciation and the site hasn’t been updated since July 2016. That said, the site’s archives stretch back to 2006, so there is years’ worth of material for language learners to peruse and work with.


DutchPod101’s Dutch Word of the Day

Innovative Language Learning, LLC, has fifteen years’ experience of creating authentic language learning content and although much of it is locked behind paywalls, their free content is nothing to be sniffed at. Take, for example, their “word of the day” tool, which is ideal for beginners and post-beginners alike.

Dutchpod101's Word of the Day

Pros: The layout is simple, effective, and easy to navigate and each entry makes ample use of imagery, audio files and sample sentences to aid retention.

Cons: The words and sentences used are fairly basic so this resource may not be extremely useful for those who are well past the post-beginner’s stage.


Of course, if you’d like to speed up the process, you could always browse through the sites’ archives and study several words per day. Just try to limit yourself to learning no more than new ten words a day to improve retention and avoid burnout. And if you’re looking for an educational, yet entertaining podcast to boost your Dutch listening comprehension, check out my review of Say It in Dutch (Zeg het in het Nederlands).


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The Superlinguists: A Four-Part Radio Documentary About Polyglots and Language Learning

What motivates people to learn multiple languages for the sheer fun of it? Can the average person become a polyglot? How does one go about learning a new language? What are the benefits and challenges of living in a multilingual environment? And what sort of impact can state-enforced language policies have on immigrants and other language communities? These are just some of the topics explored in the BBC World Service’s acclaimed radio documentary series, The Superlinguists.

This four-part series is presented by travel journalist and broadcaster Simon Calder and was created in conjunction with the Open University’s School of Languages. Originally broadcast on the BBC World Service back in July 2019, all four episodes can be found on the BBC Sounds website and are essential listening for those who are even remotely interested in learning a new language.


Episode 1 – The Polyglots

Synopsis: Simon Calder meets people who keep learning new languages not because they have to, but because they want to. What motivates them? Situations like this – an immigrant hotel cleaner who is moved to tears because you speak to her in her native Albanian; A Nepalese Sherpa family that rolls about laughing in disbelief at hearing their foreign guest speak Sherpa. But do polyglots have a different brain from the rest of us? Simon travels to a specialised lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and undergoes a brain-scan himself, to find out.

Episode 2 – How to Learn a Language

Synopsis: Simon Calder asks how to go about acquiring a new tongue. He gets tips from those who know – innovative teachers and polyglots. The answers are surprising. At school, it is repetitive drills, shouted out loud by the whole class, that seem to lodge the grammar and pronunciation in the pupils’ brains. But if you are an adult learning by yourself, then, on the contrary, don’t stress about grammar and pronunciation, there are better, and more fun things to focus on. Simon has a go at learning Slovenian, can he order coffee and cake after just one lesson?

Episode 3 – Multilingual Societies

Synopsis: What is it like to live in a place where you have to speak several languages to get by? Simon Calder travels to India, where a top university only teaches in English, the one language that the students from all over the country have in common. And he meets people who use four different languages with their friends and family, depending on whom they are talking to. In Luxembourg, it is not so much family, but other situations that require four languages, such as going shopping, watching TV, or school lessons. Simon hears that in secondary school, maths is taught in French, history in German, casual chat in Luxembourgish, and English is compulsory too, so that no one leaves school without being multilingual.

Episode 4 – Monolingual Societies

Synopsis: Presenter Simon Calder is from Britain, where, on the surface, everyone speaks English. In Brazil everyone appears to speak Portuguese, in Russia, Russian. But scratch the surface, and other languages appear, and not just those of immigrants. Simon meets speakers of indigenous languages (like Welsh in Britain), of dialects (like Moselfrankish in Germany) and vernaculars (like African-American Vernacular English, in the US). These speakers all use the mainstream language every day, but code-switch to their variants, questioning whether their societies are monolingual. Is there even something sinister and oppressive to the idea of monolingualism? A tool to control, used by emperors on conquered peoples, and by governments on immigrants?


The Superlinguists was produced by Arlene Gregorius for the BBC World Service in partnership with the Open University. All of the synopses shown above were taken from the BBC website. 


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Say it in Dutch – Podcast in Slow Dutch

Say it in Dutch banner

One of my long-term goals is to get my Dutch up to the C2 CEFR level, so I’m always seeking out podcasts and other affordable resources to help me improve my listening comprehension skills. That’s how I stumbled upon the Say it in Dutch podcast, a Dutch-language podcast series run by a language school based in Groningen.

Each episode runs for an average of 20-25 minutes and covers a wide range of topics, including the Eurovision Song Contest, sports, seasonal traditions, national politics, Dutch art, and the anti-vax movement. What sets this podcast apart is its use of clips from other Dutch-language media (including news reports and TV dramas), its focus on current affairs and culture, and the fact that each episode is entirely in Dutch, albeit delivered at a clearer, slower pace.

All new words, idioms, expressions, and cultural titbits are explained in Dutch, so this podcast is not ideal for beginners but rather is aimed at those who have mastered the language to at least the B1 CEFR level. Episode transcripts exist but these must be purchased from their store, starting from € 3.75 per transcript.

Take your Nederlands to the next level by checking out the Say it in Dutch SoundCloud account, visiting the Say it in Dutch Idioms blog, or following them on Twitter.


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Designing A Lost Language For ‘Heaven’s Vault’ (EGX 2019)

Heaven's Vault artwork

Narrative Designer Jon Ingold recently attended EGX 2019 to promote Inkle’s upcoming archaeological narrative adventure game Heaven’s Vault and talk about the game’s fictional lost language.

Over the course of the forty-minute Rezzed Sessions presentation, Ingold talked about the lengthy process of designing the game’s unique gameplay mechanic and the various challenges of creating a whole new hieroglyphic language for gamers to decipher.


If you’re interested to learn more about the development process, I recommend watching the entire video. But if you’re short on time or just want to know the gist of it, here’s a brief summary:

  • Inkle began brainstorming their then-untitled “space archaeology” game in late 2014 and drew on other archaeo-adventure franchises, such as Stargate and the Indiana Jones films, for inspiration.
  • The developers decided to make language decipherment a gameplay feature in their new game. Ingold briefly touched upon the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs and the as-yet undeciphered Rongorongo script of Rapa Nui (Easter Island).
  • Inkle wanted to make a game that felt like learning how to read a new language. The first prototype translation system from early 2015 used the Roman alphabet, while the second prototype made use of symbols instead.
  • Ingold’s was initially gutted when he saw that Lara Croft would be able to decipher ancient texts in the then-upcoming Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015). He felt that there was no way Inkle’s game could compete against a Triple-A title. But he soon realised that Tomb Raider’s approach was entirely different to Inkle’s and went back to redesigning his game’s language mechanic.
  • The next prototype used a combination of words and symbols and introduced a “fatigue” meter to stop gamers from solving the language puzzles by brute force.
  • He and the team then started thinking about grammar and building an “interesting and complicated” grammar for their language. They started adding bits of dialogue to tell gamers about the objects they are looking at, adding context that could aid them with their translations. Ingold mentioned that this stage of development wasn’t much fun and that he had even started looking for other jobs within the gaming industry.
  • Determined to make some progress, Ingold went back to researching ancient languages. His next prototype included a set dictionary of words and introduced a new piece of gameplay: working out where the words were in a compound string and building up a dictionary through trial and error.
  • The next stage was to design the language. By this stage in the game’s development, the language was designed in a way that would allow gamers to create compound words from existing words and apply newly-discovered words in other future contexts.
  • By December 2015, the team finally had a prototype they were pleased with, one which used runes instead of letters and allowed them to build up a dictionary over time. The final version, which was the one used in the game, worked the same way, albeit with glyph symbols.
  • From there, the remainder of the project was focused on building up the fictional language’s dictionary and making it “look pretty”. By the end, the team had over 3,000 words in their dictionary, which was enough to translate anything in Heaven’s Vault.
  • The game’s language has a well-defined grammar, which includes a specific verb order, an abstract number system, and rules about prepositions. Ingold mentions that these “are not English rules but the English structure is roughly the spine of the thing”. The script itself was partly inspired by Chinese and designed by Inkle co-founder Joe Humphrey. Sadly, there are no plans at present to localise the game for other regions.


Heaven’s Vault is now available for PC and PS4. For more information about this fascinating game, visit the Inkle site or follow the official Heaven’s Vault Twitter account.


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