About English for Dutch people

This blog focuses on efficient and unconventional ways in which Dutch people can improve their English. Most Dutch people already speak excellent English, I’m only here for those last few tweaks. I’ll be adding lots of tips and tricks as I develop this blog, but here’s a taster.

Educational technology is moving at breakneck speeds, and there are lots of tools out there that teachers could have only dreamed of a few years ago. Here is an article about platforms that allow you to “move around” during an online gathering and talk to varying small groups of people; much better than Zoom or Teams for immersive language practice.

I will also be writing about some of the ways in which Dutch and English collide, because I’m in language nerd and that’s just fun. How do English actors put on a Dutch accent? Which Dutch words are still recognisable in English? Which factoids about the Dutch language will make you fun at parties, and which will not?

I also use this blog for the results of research that I’ve done for my Dutch website, www.hoezegjeinhetEngels.nl. Those are the posts where I go complete language nerd and write articles that are far too long about subjects that are far too trivial. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

This website is new, and I have a lot more articles in my head than I have managed to post online yet. Watch this space!

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.

Why you shouldn’t buy books to help you with your pronunciation

There are lots of books out there that say they can help you learn good pronunciation. But can you actually learn pronunciation from reading about it? On the one hand, it seems intuitive that to learn good pronunciation you need a teacher who can hear how you are speaking now and who can tell you exactly what you need to change and how to change it. Adding to this, a book can’t let you hear the correct pronunciation or let you see how your mouth should be moving. On the other hand, if you don’t have a teacher, then a book is better than nothing, right?

So can written instructions help people to improve their pronunciation? I haven’t been able to find any studies that looked at this, so I decided to do one myself. I needed a specific pronunciation issue to tackle, and as I am an English teacher for Dutch people, I knew immediately which issue I wanted to address!

Dutch people do this thing…

Dutch people do this thing where words which end in voiced consonants like /d/, /g/, and /z/ will sound like their unvoiced counterparts /t/, /k/, and /s/. In practice, this means “bed” sounds like “bet”, “dog” sounds like “dock”, and “eyes” sounds like “ice”. It’s commonly known as final devoicing, though this suggest it is all about the sound of that last consonant. You’d think that, but it’s actually the vowel length that’s much more important.

I have been fascinated by final devoicing ever since a Dutch talent-show contestant called Dewi released a single in 2003 featuring the lyric “being here with you is paradise, I can see forever in your eyes”. For me, as an English native speaker, “paradise” and “eyes” do not rhyme.

Final devoicing also happens to Dutch people with otherwise impeccable English. One of the Dutch presenters of the Eurovision Song Contest gave me a perfect example to prove my point just a few weeks ago; Chantal Janzen speaks excellent English with an accent modelled on RP (“queen’s English”). But at 2:55 in the final she nonetheless asked permission to “move to the first face of the results”.

It’s not only Dutch people, by the way, Germans do it too, as do most speakers of Slavic languages such as Russian and Polish. Wikipedia has a good list.

I made Dutch people say “eyes” and asked English speakers if they heard “ice”

Glass, Eye, Drink, Weird, Creepy

In May 2021 I asked 73 Dutch people to record five words: “book, eyes, mango, bed, label”. I then presented them with some written pronunciation tips, and asked them to record the same five words again.

24 people were in a control group, and the only tip they read was that it was a good idea to articulate properly, and that they shouldn’t be ashamed of their accent (most Dutch people hate the way they speak English, they think the Dutch English accent is ugly and unrefined, an idea perpetuated by the media. But actually, research has shown that English speakers think the Dutch English accent is fine.)

The experimental groups got a specific tip on how to pronounce words like “eyes” and “bed”, which many Dutch speakers will pronounce like “ice” and “bet”. These instructions can be found here (in Dutch). The main point made is that the trick is not to concentrate on making the /d/ in “bed” more voiced (in other words more like a /d/ and less like a /t/), but instead to make the vowel longer: “beeed”. This helps much more to make it sound more like “bed” and less like “bet”. The instructions were almost exactly the same for the two groups, except the first group got the instructions with audio examples, and the second group got the instructions in writing only.

Judging the experiment: playing the recordings to English speakers

I then put all 146 recordings (two per speaker) of those Dutch people saying “book, eyes, mango, bed, label” into a questionnaire which was filled in by 411 English speakers (not English native speakers per se; people from any country who spoke English). The software randomly selected six of the recordings per participant, and asked them to select what they heard, and how sure they were. The question looked like this:

One remark I got from some of my respondents, was that by giving multiple choice options between “ice” and “eyes” and “bet” and “bed”, I was leading the question.

And the answer is that indeed I was! The thing is, I wasn’t looking to answer the question “how well did this Dutch person succeed in saying eyes“, I was looking to answer the question “how much better did this Dutch person succeed in saying eyes after the intervention.” Because I wanted to be able to compare, I purposely allowed my judges to think that the person might have been saying ice. Firstly by making the answer options multiple choice, secondly by starting the answer options with ice. This way, if the word the Dutch person was saying was even a little bit close to ice, I’d be able to see it in my results.

Another remark I got was that the sequence of five words was too unnatural.

I agree with this. The ideal way of running this experiment would have been to get my Dutch English speakers to say a sentence like “She has green eyes,” then cut only the word “eyes” from the sentence and present that to my judges. And then do the same with “bed”. But this would have meant cutting up 292 audio files, and while I was designing my study I felt this was not a feasible workload considering I had a deadline. In hindsight, I have to say that the part of the study where I was fiddling with audio files was actually less work than I had thought, so perhaps I should have done this after all.

The sequence of words (“book, eyes, mango, bed, label”) might seem really random, but it was actually chosen very carefully. “Book”, “mango” and “label” are words that present no real pronunciation problems for Dutch people; I didn’t want them thinking too much about words that didn’t matter (the speakers did not know that it was only “eyes” and “bed” that I was interested in). All five words are nouns, short, well-known even for Dutch people with a low level of English, and none of them have confusing spelling such as, to name an example that haunted my teenage years, “draught” (for the non-native speakers reading this; it’s pronounced “draft” and, yes, English spelling is spectacularly awful).

The first sounds of “mango” and “label” (sonorants, for the phonetically inclined) interfere the least with the “s” of eyes and the “d” of bed; if the words had been “eyes, cat” then the voicelessness of the /k/ sound would have bled over into the last sound of “eyes”, making it potentially sound more like “ice”, and if the words had been “eyes, bottle” the inverse would have happened.

Then there were also the judges to keep in mind; had I chosen five words such as “water, eyes, sleep, bed, label” then the “water” might have made people more prone to choose “ice” over “eyes” and the “sleep” might have made people more prone to choose “bed” over “bet”. So I made sure to choose words that had nothing to do with eyes, ice, beds or bets.

What were the results?

I had only one statistically significant result, and it was this: If you tell people to mind their pronunciation, then their pronunciation will improve. A bit.

But, importantly, I did not find a difference between my control group and my experimental groups, meaning the specific instructions to combat final devoicing had no effect.

I won’t go into the details of my statistics, but how it worked was basically this: The choices of my judges were transformed to scores: “It’s definite ice” became 1, “I’m pretty sure it’s ice” became 2, “I think it’s ice” became 3, “I think it’s eyes” became 4, “I’m pretty sure it’s eyes” became 5 and “It’s definitely eyes” became 6. That way I could work out averages. If a certain speaker was rated on average as, say 4.6, then that speaker did a reasonably good job at pronouncing “eyes” like “eyes” and not like “ice”, but it could have been better. Then I averaged all the average scores for all the speakers in one group, so I could compare the groups. SPSS is a program that can tell you if the averages are different enough to be real, and not just a coincidence.

As you can see, there’s hardly any difference between the recordings that people got before the instructions (time 1) and the ones after (time 2) – it’s still just big enough to be statistically significant, though. The difference between conditions is not statistically significant.

Why didn’t my written instructions work?

I had a strong suspicion that I would see these results the moment I started listening to the audio recordings I had gathered, especially for “eyes”. Why? Because I had an awful lot of Dutch people whose pronunciation of “eyes” and “bed” was absolutely fine in the first recording. When I went to listen to the second recording of these near-native speakers, for quite a few of them I heard a deterioration of the pronunciation; they were now thinking about it, trying to do a good job, trying to make the vowel longer, but in trying to make the vowel longer, also making the /s/ longer, so they ended up saying “eeeeeeeyssssssss”. Which sounds more like “ice” than the way they were saying it before. And indeed when I looked at the numbers I could see that lots of people who got a good score in the first recording got a worse score in the second. Not the majority, but a good chunk.

“Bed” had less of this problem, as it is not possible to make the sound /d/ any longer than it already is. But something about concentrating on the pronunciation of the word made some people pronounce it less clearly nonetheless.

The moral of the story

The main problem with written pronunciation instructions is that they cannot work if the person trying to improve their pronunciation doesn’t know 1) if the issue that is being discussed is in fact an issue for them, and 2) if they are applying the instructions correctly.

To check this idea I looked at only those respondents who got a bad “grade” in the first recording. Doing this is statistically extremely dubious, because I was left with very, very small groups (between 9 and 14 speakers per group), not to mention this is a classic example of P-hacking. But I can look at a “trend” (a popular word among students-without-significant-results the world over). For “bed”, especially, the graph looks much more like you would expect if you only give instructions to people who actually need them.

Crucially, these people move from “I think it’s bet” (3) to “I think it’s bed” (4) which was the whole point of the pronunciation lesson.

Conclusion: it’s all up to teachers

In my study, I attempted to give a one-size-fits-all pronunciation lesson in writing. But when I listened to my audio recordings what I mostly wanted to do was crawl through the internet cable and coach the speakers personally, because they were all doing slightly different things, and had I been there in person I would have been able to say “you don’t need this tip, your pronunciation was fine!” or “Your “bed” sounds like “bad”, let’s work on that first.” etc.

I also keep thinking of the English teacher who made a great remark in my pre-study: She said that it was already a challenge to get her young high school students to speak English at all, and that correcting their pronunciation would just make them even more intimidated and unwilling to practice speaking. I think she was absolutely right; there is a time and place for pronunciation training, and it is up to the teacher to decide if the student is ready for it.

I think pronunciation tips on paper can work, but there needs to be a person to guide the learner, tell them which tips they need, which ones they don’t, and monitor their progress.

I also now think teacher training is very important. When I did my master’s in Utrecht to become an English teacher, giving pronunciation training was not addressed at all. So I see some room for improvement there.

And the conclusion of the conclusion:

Dear English teachers: your work matters.

Note: This article is a re-working of a much longer previous version that I published on this website just after I got my statistical results but before I had put my thesis together. It was way too long and very rambling.

Note 2: I got 85% for my thesis, yay! I’m not totally happy with it (is anyone ever?); it’s an interdisciplinary thesis and I found the tightrope between psychology, linguistics and educational science a difficult one to walk. But if you are curious, you can download it here.

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.

“Sir, the dock ate my homework!” – How do English teachers in the Netherlands address final devoicing?

For my master’s thesis, I am looking at one very particular issue of Dutch people’s pronunciation: final devoicing. (Why? I explain that here.) In Dutch, voiced consonants like /d/ and /v/ become voiceless when in end position. So “honden” in singular becomes “hont” (though spelled “hond”) and “dieven” becomes “dief” (here the spelling does follow the pronunciation). Because this happens in Dutch, Dutch people also do it when they speak English, and end up pronouncing “dog” like “dock”, “bed” like “bet”, “prove” like “proof” etc.

In a nutshell, I want to figure out the best way to get Dutch people to stop doing this. While doing research I found out that I could not find any information about how English teachers are dealing with this in practice. So I thought it would be a good idea to ask them.

(Something else I found out while doing my literature research, is that final devoicing is not actually final devoicing! It’s actually better referred to as “final position fortis/lenis neutralisation” If you want to know more about that, you can read my article about it here. For clarity, I have decided to just keep calling it “final devoicing” in this article, because as I think you will agree with me, it rolls off the tongue a little more easily than “final position fortis/lenis neutralisation”.)

So how are English teachers teaching Dutch people the correct pronunciation in practice?

I put out a survey in two Facebook groups and on Reddit to find out.

To keep the survey as short as possible, the only information I asked of my participants what their educational background was and when they graduated.

The survey was filled in by 137 teachers. Most participants (60%) had a bachelor’s (HBO) degree from the Netherlands, 28% had a master’s degree, 4% had a TEFL or similar and 8% filled in “other”; most of these had done a degree in another country or had moved on to a master’s degree after finishing a bachelor’s first.

Most teachers were reasonably fresh out of college, having graduated in the past decade. 18% were still studying to become a teacher.

Do teachers know about final devoicing?

I then explained about final devoicing, giving examples and giving a number of names for the phenomenon, namely “Auslautverhärtung”, “eindklankverscherping” and “final position fortis/lenis neutralisation”.

Only 6% had never heard of the phenomenon, and 38% knew what was meant but hadn’t heard any of the names mentioned.

It seems university master’s degrees give more attention to the subject than HBOs:

An even more striking effect is that degree programmes are clearly paying more attention to the subject nowadays than they used to. Though of course this might also have to do with forgetfulness; teachers who got their degree a while ago might have simply forgotten about final devoicing.

How do teachers help their students when it comes to final devoicing

I asked the teachers who had heard of final devoicing if they addressed this issue during their lessons, and if so, how. Teachers were able to tick several boxes for this question.

13% of teachers who know what final devoicing is do not address it at all, 58% make sure that their own pronunciation is correct as often as possible, 69% will correct or recast* their students pronunciation if it fits in the lesson at that moment, 27% will give an explanation about final devoicing if the subject happens to come up, 7% has developed a specific lesson about the subject and only 3% note that “final devoicing” is reviewed in a course book.

*when a teacher recasts an issue, they don’t mention the mistake explicitly (“it’s ‘went yesterday’ not ‘have gone yesterday'”) but instead they make sure the student hears the correct form within the conversation (“ah, so you went to Amsterdam yesterday, did you have fun?”)

In total, 28% of all the teachers who filled in my survey teach their students explicitly about final devoicing, either by talking about it when an opportune moment presents itself, or by having it be part of their curriculum. 18% don’t do anything with it at all, either because they have not heard of it themselves, or just because they choose not to. The other 54% pays attention to correct pronunciation, but does not address final devoicing directly.

One of the things I did not ask in my survey, because I wanted to keep it short, was in which classes teachers addressed final devoicing explicitly. A number of teachers noted that explicit teaching of this feature was only done with older students, in 6VWO for example. This means that the 28% number does not by any means mean that 28% of students will have learned about this feature explicitly, only that 28% of teachers teach it to some of their students.

For the teachers that explicitly talk about final devoicing, what do they talk about?

Of the 28% who directly address final devoicing, almost all (82%) give their students a clear example of correct pronunciation and asks them to listen and repeat. 55% talks about vibrating vocal cords, 50% gives the advice to make the vowel sound longer, and 18% gives the advice to add a tiny schwa to the end of the word to make it easier to produce a voiced consonant.

18% filled in “other”; most of these noted that they make use of a list of minimal pairs (dog/dock, eyes/ice, prove/proof, bed/bet) to practice. Some teachers noted that they attach their explanation of final devoicing to a discussion of verb tenses, as the final devoicing feature is important to make a good distinction between lend and lent, spend and spent etc.

Final devoicing in the course books

Of the 137 teachers who filled in my survey, only 4 noted that final devoicing is discussed in the official teaching material they use. One teacher notes Gateway as a course book that pays attention to this, another mentions Stepping Stones 2HV, which surprises me as Stepping Stones is a popular method so I would have expected other teachers to mention it too. Unfortunately I cannot get my hands on the book to check myself.

I had read in an article that the online teaching material of New Interface deals extensively with pronunciation, but no teachers have mentioned this. One teacher very kindly sent me her own materials for teaching final devoicing; a list of minimal pairs and a newspaper clipping from 2010 that mentions the issue. Thank you, I am very grateful! I am no longer looking for copies of the material (that ship has sailed) but I would still be very curious to hear if you think, like I do, that 3% seems very low for this pronunciation issue to be dealt with by course books.

Teacher’s extra remarks

For my last question, I asked the teachers if they had anything to add. Some teachers mentioned that they felt final devoicing was a very individual issue; some students struggle with it while others don’t, making it less suitable for a whole-class intervention. Some teachers of younger students noted that their goal was simply to minimise fear of speaking English, and that making too many remarks about pronunciation issues would just make their students more worried about making mistakes. Some teachers said they thought it was a minor issue and wasn’t worth my time, and some teachers said they were so glad I was looking into such an important issue. Go figure 😉

Do Dutch students know about final devoicing?

Just to have an extra “check” on my data, I also asked some Dutch people who weren’t English teachers to fill in some questions about final devoicing. Unfortunately, this part of my survey got quite a low response and the sample wasn’t random, as most people came via my own social circle. I have written a short article about their responses here.

What is interesting to note about this part of the survey here, is that I also asked my respondents what the most valuable advice had been for them to deal with this pronunciation issue. Of the 18 people who filled this in, 9 people answered “listening to native speakers”. Four people mentioned making the last consonant sound soft and one person mentioned making the vowel longer. No one mentioned anything about the difference between voiced and voiceless sounds.

So what happens now?

I’m going to run an online experiment to test a simple intervention to get Dutch people to do a better job when it comes to final devoicing. It may seem like testing such a small thing should be very simple, but as I am finding out, it takes a lot of time and planning! Of course I’ll share my results on this website when I’m done.

What do you think?

If you are reading this article and have any thoughts on this, please let me know in a comment. I’d be happy to get more input!

Sources

The article that mentioned New Interface as one of the only method that pays sufficient attention to pronunciation was Hattum & Rupp (2014).

Hattum, J. Van, & Rupp, L. (2014). English pronunciation teaching at Dutch secondary schools: Taught or caught. In Pronunciation Matters; Accents of English in the Netherlands and Elsewhere (pp. 69–81). Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/download/38622204/Rupp_Pronunciation_binnenwerk_DEF.69-81.pdf

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.

Do Dutch people know about final devoicing?

For my master’s thesis I asked 137 English teachers how they tackle the pronunciation issue of “final devoicing” in their classroom. You can read about the results here, and you can read about why I chose this subject here.

Just to have an extra “check” on my data, I also asked some Dutch people to fill in some questions about final devoicing. 53 students and ex-students filled in the survey. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a very random sample; almost 50% of respondents had graduated between 1991 and 2000, a clear reflection of the fact that that is my own generation and it was mostly my friends who filled in the survey. (I did try to circulate the survey outside of my own circle, on Reddit, but got hardly any response there, so most respondents came via my own Facebook page.) However, the results can still give us a little bit of insight.

Do Dutch people know what “final devoicing” is?

When I explained to my respondents what “final devoicing” was, and asked if they were familiar with it, quite a lot (19%) of them did, which again might be a reflection of my own social circle; I am a languagy person, so of course many of my acquaintances are, too. (I am also a bit of a know-it-all, and like attracts like, so I also rather suspect my friends of saying “sure I’ve heard of that thing, yep, it sounds totally familiar”)

Of the 31 people that recognised the phenomenon, most claimed they had noticed it themselves. Interestingly, only 3 people said they had learned it at school; but this again my be a case of failing memory as two of those three people were currently still in school.

The most valuable advice for avoiding final devoicing, according to regular Dutch people

I also asked my respondents what the most valuable advice had been for them to deal with this pronunciation issue. Of the 18 people who answered this question, 9 people answered “listening to native speakers”. Two mentioned being laughed at or criticized by others which motivated them to really try to change their pronunciation. Four people mentioned making the last consonant sound soft and one person mentioned making the vowel longer. None of them talked about vibrating vocal cords.

A big thank you to my respondents

If you filled in my survey, I am very grateful! Even though you were not a random sample, you still helped me a lot 🙂 And if you have any thoughts to add, please feel free to add a comment.

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.

I’m fascinated by ‘final devoicing’. Is my brain weird?

Let me tell you the story of how I chose the subject of my master’s thesis because I sometimes misunderstand my boyfriend…

I am looking at final devoicing, which in a nutshell is the tendency of Dutch people (and German people, Polish people, Russian people…) to pronounce “dog” like “dock”, “bed” like “bet”, “prove” like proof” etc. (“Final devoicing” is actually a misnomer; you can read more about that here.)

I chose this particular issue because in my own life I have noticed that it is these words that lead to misunderstandings. My partner speaks excellent English and we hardly ever have misunderstandings, but when we do, it’s usually because of final devoicing. I remember he was once telling me that during a conference he had met someone in the “lounch”.

“In the what?” I said. “In the lunch? In the launch? Like a rocket launch? That makes no sense.”

“No, in the lounch, the lounch,” he said, frustrated. “You know, like, a place with sofas for relaxing.”

“Oh, lounge!” I said.

“That’s what I said!” he said, angrily.

And just recently I was listening to a Podcast where one of the Dutch presenters talked about people skating on a “pont”. It really took me quite a while to realise he was talking about a “pond”.

In both these examples the context should have made it clear to me right away. You can’t meet people in a “lunch”, after all, and “pont” isn’t even a word in English. But for some reason my brain just shorts out when it comes to these kinds of mispronunciations. When vowels get pronounced differently, it’s fine. When “think” becomes “tink” and “that” becomes “dat”, it’s fine. But when “pond” becomes “pont”, my brain just refuses to process.

So I dove into the literature, and though I did not find any confirmation of native speakers finding this one particular issue as confusing as I do, the issue of final devoicing is certainly at the top of very many lists for pronunciation issues in Dutch English that cause intelligibility issues.

So my brain might be weird, but I found enough reason to make this a good choice for my thesis subject!

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.

Turns out final devoicing isn’t actually final devoicing

Dutch people pronounce “dog” as “dock” and “bed” as “bet” and I had always learned that this was called “final devoicing”. But when I started researching this phenomenon properly for my master’s thesis, boy did I fall into a rabbit hole.

(It’s not only Dutch people that do this, by the way, but also Germans, Poles, Russians, Catalonians, Lithuanians and more.)

First lets do a quick review of what voicing is: a voiced phoneme is when the vocal cords are vibrating while you are making the sound. Touch your throat while you say “sssssss” and then “zzzzzz”. You will feel a vibration for “zzzzz” but not for “ssssss” – that’s the vocal cords vibrating. When they vibrate, we call the sound voiced, when they don’t, it’s voiceless. Final devoicing, then, is when a sound at the end of a word that should be voiced, like “eyes” (which is pronounced as eyezzzzz) comes out voiceless, like “ice”.

So far so good. However (this is the entrance to the rabbit hole) it turns out that, like so many things in life, context is everything. Take these three sentences:

“I opened my eyes.”

“I kept my eyes closed”

“I kept my eyes open.”

In the first sentence, the /z/ sound is followed by a pause, in the second, the /z/ is followed by a voiceless sound /k/ and in the third the /z/ is followed by a voiced sound /əʊ/ (vowels are always voiced).

It turns out that native speakers usually do NOT voice the last sound in “eyes”. They only make a voiced /z/ sound at the end of “eyes” when it is followed by a voiced sound, and even then, only a third of them do! The other third does something called “partial devoicing” which in this case means the very beginning of the /z/ sound is voiced but the rest of it isn’t, and the other third doesn’t have any voicing at all.

It happens for plosives (/d/, /b/ and /g/), too, though the effect is less striking.

So if final devoicing is not final devoicing, what the heck is it?

When a native speaker says “I opened my eyes”, it is clear that the last word is “eyes” and not “ice”, even though the last sound is actually a voiceless /s/. So what’s going on?

First thing to know is that apart from voiced and voiceless, you can also divide these kinds of obstruents* into fortis and lenis. Fortis obstruents are the voiceless ones, such as the /s/ in “ice”, which are called fortis because they are made with a lot of force, i.e. a strong burst of air. Lenis sounds are ones like the /z/ in eyes, but in this case we’re not talking about the vocal cords vibrating, but we’re only talking about the fact that the airflow isn’t as forceful as it is with lenis consonants. So that explains the graphs above where the /z/ turned out to be pronounced in a voiceless way so often: the vocal cords aren’t vibrating, so it’s not voiced – but it is lenis. This means that even though the /z/ in “eyes” isn’t voiced, it still sounds different to the /s/ in “ice”. It’s pronounced more softly, with a milder burst of air.

*obstruents are plosives such as [p, t, k, b, d, ɡ], fricatives such as [f, s, v, z] (and affricates, but let’s leave those out for now). There’s also another type of consonant, namely the sonorants, like [m, n, l, r]. These are always voiced, and fortis or lenis doesn’t apply to them – you can’t make the [m] sound different by putting more force into your puff of air (if you are like me, you will now try this out, and sound very funny in the process 😉 )

The fortis/lenis thing means that we shouldn’t actually talk about final devoicing when we talk about Dutch people pronouncing “dog” as “dock” and “bed” as “bet”, because the voicing doesn’t really matter. The phenomenon is more properly described as “fortis/lenis neutralisation“, and during my literature research I saw that newer studies indeed refer to it this way.

Interestingly, the Dutch word for final devoicing is “eindklankverscherping” and the German word, which I also sometimes see used as an international word, is “Auslautverhärtung“. These two terms are correct representations of what is actually happening. I’m so used to using English terminology for everything that it hadn’t even clicked with me that these words were saying something different to the English term, and I spent all this time getting confused about something that I could have just understood in one go if I had been doing my research in Dutch. Serves me right for not putting more trust in good old Dutch!

But wait, there’s also vowel length

So is that it? Should we stop teaching Dutch people about voicing and start teaching them about forceful air flow? Well, yes, but that’s not the whole story. There’s another reason why “dog” and “dock” sound different to native speakers, which according to research is actually more important: the vowel length. The /o/ in “dock” is much shorter than the /o/ in dog for native speakers, but not for Dutch people. Dutch people make these vowels the same length, and according to the books and articles that I’ve read, that’s actually what is causing the confusion.

So what should we be telling Dutch people to get them to stop saying “dock” and start saying “dog”

It would seem then that the best advice is to make the vowel a bit longer and the last sound a bit softer. “Doooock”. Something like that. I have tried this out on exactly one test subject, my boyfriend, who was the main reason I started researching this thing in the first place, and I have to say it has really made a difference. But he’s just one person, so that’s just anecdotal evidence. For my master’s thesis, I’ll be asking more Dutch people if this is the advice that makes a difference, and I’ll be giving it a slight twist. I’ll post updates on this website, so watch this space!

I have already asked 137 English teachers what they do to help their students. It turns out that most just make sure their own pronunciation is correct and that they address it when they hear their students make this kind of pronunciation error, but they don’t do much else. Of the 28% of teachers that tell their students explicitly about final devoicing (which we now know is not in fact final devoicing), 55% talk about vibrating vocal cords – which, as we also now know, is not actually very good advice. 50% give the advice to make the vowel longer, and I don’t know how many teachers advise to make the last consonant softer because unfortunately when I made the questionnaire I hadn’t figured that bit out yet so I didn’t ask. I did ask some Dutch people about tips they had had in their life to combat this pronunciation issue and a fair few of them did answer “make the last consonant softer” so it does seem to be advice that exists in the world.

I’d love your input!

If you are reading this and thinking “what is this woman talking about, the best piece of advice to give someone is clearly …” then by all means, let me know in the comments!

Sources

The graphs are from Gonet (2012), and a great explanation of the fortis/ lenis and vowel thing can be found in the excellent master’s thesis by Anne van Leeuwen (2011).

Gonet, W. (2012). Voicing of word-final obstruent in English connected speech. Speech and Language Technology, 14/15, 181–190. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/download/47195689/Gonet_-_From_Jassem_Volume_-_Voicing_of_WF_Obstruent.pdf

van Leeuwen, A. (2011). Mastering the temporal pattern of English. Retrieved from https://dspace.library.uu.nl/bitstream/handle/1874/210344/thesis_annevanleeuwen.pdf

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.

Dear Dutch people: “clothes” rhymes with “nose”. It really does.

I’m not sure why it is and I am worried that Dutch secondary school English teachers are to blame, but lots of Dutch people completely mispronounce the word “clothes”.

They say something like “clothe-ees”. Though one of the main principles of this blog is that having a Dutch accent is okay, in this case this pronunciation doesn’t work because it will lead to misunderstandings.

Also, the solution is so easy: “clothes” rhymes with “nose”. Don’t believe me? Listen to Avril Lavigne

(For those people who don’t fancy listening to 90s skater pop right now, the lyrics are: “All of her friends, they stuck up their nose, they had a problem with his baggy clothes.”)

Or look at these pages from one of my sons books:

that dog is NOT Marshal from Paw Patrol. I feel a lawsuit coming on...

But I asked a native speaker and they said it was “clothe-zzzz”

If you ask a native speaker about their language, they are going to want to be helpful and tell you what they feel is the “correct” pronunciation. So they’ll think about the spelling and pronounce it slowly for you and then they will indeed end up pronouncing the “th” in the middle (as a hard th, by the way, like in “them).

But when native speakers are just talking and not thinking about it, they’ll say “I bought some new close.” I promise. Unfortunately, most people don’t realise how they actually talk so if you ask them they might insist that they always pronounce the “th”. People are funny that way.

If you really don’t believe me you’ll have to get a native speaker talking about clothes without knowing why, record them, and then listen to your recording. It’s the only way to find out the truth, I’m afraid! Or you can just go ahead and believe me 😉

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.

The best free online platforms for your virtual birthday party, social mixer or other group event

Videochat with a twist

I’m going to be honest: I hate group videochat. I love being in contact with my friends, but I find group conversations with more than four people incredibly draining. So that is why my brain went “yay!” when I read this piece by my favourite linguist Gretchen McCulloch.

“Walk around” virtually and chat in small groups

Her article was about proximity chat. I had never heard of it, but it turns out there are video chat platforms where you do not have to talk to the same big group of people for the whole session. You can move about virtually and chat together in varying small groups, just like at a real party or gathering. As far as I am concerned, this is a game changer. After long months of lockdown, I can be social again!

But what should we call them?

As is the case with a lot of new technology, the industry has not yet agreed on an overarching name for this kind of platform. Gretchen went with the moniker “proximity chat”, though she also mentioned “spatial chat” in her article.

The problem with the term “proximity chat” is that it is already a well-known term in the world of gaming where chatting to the other players that are near you in the game has been a thing for a while now. But in my research for the list below there was not one single platform that referred to itself as “proximity chat”. That means it isn’t very googlable.

The other term, “spatial chat”, has a similar problem: when you google that you get lots of stuff about Virtual Reality. Virtual Reality platforms are definitely a category of spatial/ proximity chat, but they are less accessible for “normal people” like me; you need special VR goggles and you need to download the software and stuff.

Honestly, I think we need a new name for spatial videochat that is not related to gaming or VR technology. “Mixer videochat”? “Mingle videochat”? Any ideas out there, please feel free to comment!

Gotta find them all

In her article Gretchen linked to an online list of platforms and said that her favourite was Gather Town. So I eagerly tried Gather Town on a small group of friends, but though I liked it myself, my friends weren’t as enthusiastic.

So I set out on a mission: finding the best platform for informal gatherings out there. I clicked my way through Gretchen’s list (which is only a few months old but already somewhat out of date), applied my best Google-fu to find any platforms not on the list, and set out on a spatial chat platform odyssey which has not even neared its end.

I need you!

I have compiled a list of proximity chat platforms below and have managed to try out a few of them, but there are a lot that I haven’t managed to test yet and that is not something I can do alone!

That’s why I would love your help. Perhaps you are reading this article and thinking: “I would also like to test these platforms and find out which one I like best!” Well perfect, because you and I both need a group of people to test them properly, so let’s test together!

Also, wouldn’t it be nice to meet some new people again?

I was thinking of doing a session once or twice a week and trying two or three platforms per session. If you are interested, please fill in this short form and I’ll get back to you! (As of 15 February 2021 I do not yet have enough people, so please feel welcome!)

Categories of proximity chat

While researching this article, I soon discovered that my list was getting too long and I needed to limit it somehow. There seems to be no end to the categories you could put these platforms in. Here are a few. For each category where I made a choice of which platforms to include in my list, I have bolded that choice.

I have chosen to focus on platforms that can be used on my rickety old laptop computer, that do not require a download, that have been designed for social gatherings and that are free to use (at least for now).

modeaudio only / video & audio
graphics2D / 3D
devicemainly for use with virtual reality headset/ gaming console/ desktop or laptop computer
accessibilitydownload required / login required / click-and-join
purposemainly for team meetings / mainly for conferences / mainly for social gatherings
agencyparticipant chooses which group to chat with / participants are put into groups by the host or the system
avataryour webcam image moves around / you have an avatar that moves around and the webcam image is at the top of the screen / there is only an avatar / there is no avatar
priceopen-source & free forever / for-profit but free for small groups / for-profit but free for now / for-profit and give us your money
privacyGDPR-compliant / not GDPR-compliant
party realismyou have an idea what’s going on in other groups / you have no idea what’s going on in other groups

What does this list have to do with Dutch people?

If you found this article via Google then you may have also noticed the name of my blog: English for Dutch people. My blog focuses on efficient and unconventional ways in which Dutch people can improve their already excellent English. Online chatting and networking in English is definitely one of those ways. Ten years ago you had to go to an English-speaking country to get immersive practice with the language. But since videochat has become ubiquitous, that kind of immersion is possible from your own home, and proximity chat makes it even easier and more natural.

A list of proximity chat platforms

So here is my list. As noted above, I plan to test these platforms with a group of people, and I will add more information to this list as I do so.

SpatialChat

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-8.png

url: https://spatial.chat/

Tested? Yes, in January 2021

Look: very sleek and modern. None of the retro stuff that many other platforms have.

Number of free participants: 25 (There’s also a time limit: the free plan has 3000 participant minutes per day. That’s two hours for 25 people, 5 hours for 10, etc.)

Click-and-join? yes. You just send your participants a link and they can head straight to the room.

Notes: Not to be confused with Spatial, which is a 3D virtual reality platform that you use with VR glasses like the Oculus.

Extras: You can play videos for each other within the app that only the people nearby can hear.

My opinion: Spatial.chat is very popular on producthunt.com and for good reason, it really stands out as the sleekest option out there. I tested spatial.chat in January 2021 and liked it very much. The host had done a good job setting it up – apparently he had quite a lot of options to choose from but I wasn’t there for that bit.

mibo (borrel.app)

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-5.png

url: https://getmibo.com/

Tested? No, not yet

Look: second life, but your body is a television set

Number of free participants: 12

Click-and-join? yes

Notes: Dutch, so GDPR compliant. Started in the Netherlands as “borrel.app” and is already quite popular there. You can play games on the platform and there are all kinds of extras.

My opinion: I haven’t tried it myself yet, but I’ve heard good things, so it’s high on my list.

High Fidelity

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-33.png

url: https://www.highfidelity.com/online-audio-spaces-for-crowds

Tested? No, not yet

Look: sleek, visuals are focused on the audio

Number of free participants: 20 (unlimited use)

Click-and-join? Yes, only the host needs to log in with email

Notes: audio only! (The faces in the screenshot above are just pictures). I have not tried this platform yet but from what I hear they do a very good job emulating the direction someone is speaking from.

My opinion: haven’t tried this yet, but the website and what I’ve heard make me place High Fidelity high on my list.

Kumospace

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-36.png

url: https://www.kumospace.com/

Tested? No, not yet

Look: a little bit clunky still but getting there

Number of free participants: currently unlimited but I imagine they’ll be adding pricing soon

Click-and-join? I think all participants have to set up an account, but I’m not sure…

Notes: Kumospace is not quite unfinished enough to go in my list of unfinished platforms below, but they are not yet at the fully-fledged commercial business stage yet.

My opinion: haven’t tried it out yet, looks like a clunkier version of spatial.chat. The demo video features the programmers themselves (I assume) doing some enthusiastic amateur acting and is super cute.

Wonder

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-38.png

url: https://www.wonder.me/

Tested? No, not yet

Look: slick

Number of free participants: currently still unlimited, usage-based pricing will be added at some point

Click-and-join? I think so but I’m not sure

Notes: Used to be called Yotribe. GDPR compliant (they make a big thing out of it on the website)

My opinion: Curious to try it. The only platform I’ve seen that uses your picture as an avatar while the webcam image is above. I can think of pros and cons for that, so curious to see how it will work in practice.

Topia

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-28.png

url: https://topia.io/

Tested? No, not yet

Look: cartoony and modern – very original!

Number of free participants: 25

Click-and-join? Yes. The host has to sign up but the participants just get a link that they can click.

Notes: When you click “create your world” you are first sent to a welcome lobby demo world. Then the site will try to get you to invite people to the welcome lobby, but if you click on the billboard you can in fact create a world for yourself. (I suspect they have done this to prevent people from clogging up server space by creating rooms only to test the system.)

My opinion: I have not tried this one yet but it looks very, very similar to Gather Town except the visuals are a lot more pleasing. They have also done a good job with the website, it’s very welcoming and clear.

gather.town

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-7.png

url: https://gather.town/

Tested? Yes, in January 2021, but only with a small group

Look: retro

Number of free participants: 25 (no time limit mentioned on the site)

Click-and-join? yes. You just send your participants a link and they can head straight to the room.

Notes: they call themselves “Gather” on the website but “Gather Town” on many other platforms

My opinion: I tested gather.town with a small group in January 2021. The retro avatars are fun but unnecessary – I prefer a platform like spatial.chat where your webcam image is your avatar, because it saves the trouble of having to keep track of who has which avatar.

Gather does not have an in-built limit on group sizes and you can still hear each other even if your avatars are relatively far away. If you are with a group of 25 people then I’m sure the group would break up naturally, but the group I was with had 8 people which was just too small too break up naturally and just too big to have a good conversation. I’d love to try it again with a bigger group!

InSpace

url: https://inspace.chat/

Tested? No, not yet

Number of free participants: unknown, I signed up for a free trial account and it lasts for 23 days, all plans are custom made, no pricing information on the site

Click-and-join: probably

Notes: these guys do not give a lot of information on their website about what the platform actually looks like or how it works. They seem to have come from it with an educational background, with schools in mind.

Rally

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-32.png

url: https://www.rally.video/

Tested? Kind of. I was shown around by one of the cofounders in January 2021 (who was absolutely lovely, by the way, Hi Amy!) but it was only the two of us.

Number of free participants: 35 per room, with multiple rooms, but only once

Click-and-join? Yes. The host needs to register, but participants only need to click a link to join

Notes: Rally has been specifically created for social mixers so where many other platforms offer tons of functionality and try to be all things to all people, Rally just focuses on creating a pleasant pub-like atmosphere for people to chat. It is not a spatial app but it does play with sound ambience – there’s music in the background and you can hear people at other tables speaking softly in the background (though you can also switch all of that off if you don’t like it!) It also has a functionality where one speaker can take the stage and address everyone in the room, and the host can change the tables around to get people to mix.

My opinion: I was all pro spatial chat platforms and against these kinds of grid platforms, but I’d like to give Rally a try with a group.

Icebreaker

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-21.png

url: https://icebreaker.video/

Tested? Not yet

Look: slick

Number of free participants: 40

Click-and-join? Not sure. The host needs to sign up with a google account.

Notes: again, not a spatial videochat platform, Icebreaker offers its hosts rooms where they can split their participants up into pairs or small groups and give them questions to answer and little games to play so that they can get to know each other and/or get the conversation flowing

My opinion: I have not tried this platform yet, but I do wonder if the functionality that they are offering is too narrow. I actually quite like icebreaker games (I know a lot of people don’t!), but once they are done, what then? Move on to a different platform? It seems like the functionality they are offering should be part of something more.

Glimpse

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-35.png

url: https://www.joinglimpse.com/

Tested? No, not yet

number of free participants: 100, but with limited functionality

Click-and-join? Yes, participants enter the name of their room and can join. The host needs to sign up.

Notes: Once again, not a spatial platform. This platform shuffles its participants into one-to-one chats for a certain amount of time and can offer games and icebreaker questions if specified. Apparently there is also a “waiting room” where more than just two people can gather.

My opinion: I like icebreaker games and one-on-one chats, so this looks quite fun to me. Better suited to groups of people that don’t know each other yet than to groups of friends (though it might be funny to do it with a group of friends and see which person it matches you with next – might lead to some unexpected conversations!)

Mixaba

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-22.png

url: https://mixaba.com/pricing

Look: like a standard videochat platform

Number of free participants: 20

Click-and-join? Yes. The host needs an account, but the particpants just click on the url they are sent.

Notes: like Rally, IceBreaker and Glimpse, this is not a spatial platform, but a videochat platform where people are shuffled into different small groups every so often. There is a timer in your screen to let you know when the next shuffle will happen. The host has some control over this.

My opinion: I haven’t tried this yet, but I think the timer would really hamper my natural conversation flow. I’d be looking at it thinking “Should I start a new conversation topic? Is it worth it?” And if others feel the same way, I totally see us all staring at each other like lemons for the last minute or so until we are re-shuffled. Good name for a platform, though!

Happy Hour

url: https://happyhour.ianwdavis.com/

Tested? I went into the room on my own. Don’t think that counts 😉

Number of free participants: unlimited, but there is only one “room” (with multiple “tables”)

Click-and-join? yes, it’s just one link

Notes: Not a spatial platform. This is just one guy who has created a “room” in Jitsy (a grid videochat platform like Zoom or Teams) and has built in the functionality to “hop from table to table”. You can agree to meet your friends at a certain time but there might be some random people joining you (which, hey, might be fun…) I’m not sure how it would work exactly, though, because I was the only participant!

My opinion: I’m hoping to give this a go with more people in the near future.


Platforms that aren’t finished yet, but can be used already


calla.chat

url: https://calla.chat/

Tested? No, not yet

Look: really basic, retro, with emojis as avatars

Number of free participants: unknown, but open source so probably unlimited

Click-and-join? the demo is, at least

Notes: open source. Website isn’t quite finished yet and there is no way to set up your own room (I think). Your avatar is either an emoji or your camera image.

My opinion: I mean, for a super basic free open-source platform it doesn’t look too bad. There’s a few groups that they have set up as demos that look to me as if they are actual functioning group chats, meaning that if other people joined at the same time, you could chat to them. Might be fun to try!

cozyroom.xyz

url: https://cozyroom.xyz/

Tested? No, not yet

Look: Super basic but not retro. It’s still a work in progress and you can tell.

Number of free participants: unlimited

click-and-join? just about. Your participants need to head to the website and then type out (or copy-paste) the name of your room.

Notes: Not finished yet but usable. The website gives absolutely no information but a quick google got me this page which gives more information. It’s free and peer-to-peer which means the audio is streamed directly between browsers without passing through their servers. It is currently still audio only, so no webcams!

My opinion: I’d really like to give this a try. The maker seems like a nice guy and I quite like the idea of being an avatar with a moving mouth rather than seeing my own tired head all the time.

CubeChat


url: https://cubechat.io/

Tested? No, not yet

look: very basic 3d images with participants as cubes

number of free participants? there is no pricing plan (yet) but at the moment the maximum people in one room is 16

click-and-join? it looks to me like both organiser and participants all need to sign up with email addresses

notes: still very much in its early stages, online reviews all mention how much fun it is. Apparently the cubes can bounce and fly around and stuff.

My opinion: I look forward to see where this goes, right now it looks very much like Mibo but much more basic.

Rambly

url: https://rambly.app/

Tested? Nope, not yet

Look: retro

Number of free participants: unclear

Click-and-join? Yes, but there’s only a demo

Notes: Though the website doesn’t say so directly, it looks as if this project is not finished yet. There’s only a demo (with background music, which was a first for me) and not much information. According to the description it is definitely a spatial platform, though I think it is with only sound and no video.

A party in a Google Doc

url: any Google doc url

Notes: Okay, this one isn’t really serious. But it has been done, and it looks hilarious!

Do you want to help me test these platforms?

Just in case you scrolled through the beginning of this article and went straight to the list (I mean, we all do it…), I thought I would ask for people’s help again here.

So, once again: perhaps you are reading this article and thinking: “I would also like to test these platforms and find out which one I like best!” Well perfect, because you and I both need a group of people to test them properly, so let’s test together!

I was thinking of doing a session once or twice a week and trying two or three platforms per session. If you are interested, please fill in this very short form and I’ll get back to you! (As of 15 February 2021 I do not yet have enough people, so please feel welcome!)

Did I forget a platform?

I did my best to make a complete list of platforms that can be used for social meetups, say a birthday party or a social mixer. I made a conscious decision to leave out platforms that 1) require a download, 2) are made primarily for a VR headset like the Oculus or 3) are made for business uses like team meetings, brainstorming sessions or big conferences.

That said, if I forgot a platform (or if a new one has come online since I published this article; they do seem to spring up like mushrooms) please let me know!

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.

The headache that is question tags

Remember question tags?

They are one of the trickiest features of the English language to get right: question tags. If you don’t know what those are, allow me to give you a list, and you will probably remember your English teacher at school trying to drum them into you:

It’s raining outside, isn’t it?

They want to come in, don’t they?

She won’t tell them our secret, will she?

We’d better get going, hadn’t we?

They have to get going, don’t they?

I promise those last two are correct. I added them to make the point of how horrible the bloody things are.

Remember now? It was all about finding the auxiliary verb (= hulpwerkwoord), or using “do” if there wasn’t one, and changing positive to negative and negative to positive.

Question tags are hard

Even if you are a language nerd who enjoys the kind of logical puzzle that this grammar presents, you will only be good at doing them on paper. Spoken English is fast, your brain is engaged with what you are saying and how you are saying it at the same time, and there is no time to go back into the sentence you just said to figure out what the auxiliary verb was and if your question tag should be positive or negative. Consequently this little detail of the English language is one of those features that remains difficult even for people who are otherwise excellent at English.

But you can’t avoid questions tags, can you?

(See what I did there?)

Here’s the great news: you can. Check it out:

It’s raining outside, right?

They want to come in, right?

She won’t tell them our secret, right?

We’d better get going, right?

They have to get going, right?

There you go. Just like that, the whole question-tag headache cured.

If you don’t like “right”, or if it doesn’t fit for your particular sentence (which I will admit can happen) you could also try “don’t you think?”.

I would advise against copying local variants, like the London “innit?” or the African-American “word?”, or the Canadian “eh?” (pronounced “ey”), because even though as a linguist I will fight anyone who suggests that these variants aren’t “proper English”, as a person who lives in the real world I have to admit that if you use them you might have trouble getting hired or married or whatever else it is you are trying to achieve by speaking English.

You should also avoid the Dutch “hè”, which just sounds very very odd to non-Dutch ears. With practice, you could try to adopt an American “huh“, but keep in mind that the tone goes down at the end, where the Dutch “hè” goes up.

Also, the above is especially good for when you are speaking, or writing informally. If you are writing formal English, you might have to use some actual question tags. But in that case you’ll have time to think about them.

Difficult grammar can be exploited

When I started out as an English teacher for adults (a long, long time ago), teaching lawyers and doctors and bankers, I would use question tags to my advantage. I got paid by the hour, and question tags were a wonderful way to fill those hours in a way that didn’t require a lot of preparation or mental effort from me. I only needed to copy some handouts and I was done.

They were also excellent for convincing the students that they weren’t as good at English as they thought they were, and perhaps they needed to pay for more lessons…

I see this tactic being used by a lot of language teachers, proofreaders and improve-your-English writers; focus on the little nitty details of English that are hard to get right and profit from the resulting insecurity. On this website I want to get away from this tactic.

I hope to welcome you back for more tips and tricks soon!

Did I miss anything?

Do you have questions after reading this article, or would you like to tell me how wrong I am. (Listen, I’m human, I might be!) Please leave a comment below.

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.

About “convivial” and “gezellig”

Gezellig – quintessentially Dutch

If you ask a Dutch person which word in their language is unique and cannot be translated, they will invariably tell you about “gezellig”.

Similar to the Danish hyggelig (the adjective to go with the currently trendy verb/noun hygge), gezellig refers to the happy and cosy feeling of togetherness that you get when you are with other people. It can also refer to the ambiance of a place where that kind of cosy togetherness is likely to happen; often with food and drink. Or to the personality of a person who is friendly and sociable.

There are other Dutch words that I find more untranslatable myself, but gezellig is the word that has entered the Dutch collective conscience as the untranslatable Dutch word, probably because it’s meaning has cultural significance; the Dutch are proud of the word gezellig because they see themselves as gezellig. If you google it you’ll get a million different articles singing its praises and doing a better job at explaining what it means than I did above.

But what about convivial?

Untranslatable you say? What about convivial? Convivial is defined as “(of an atmosphere or event) friendly, lively, and enjoyable;”a convivial cocktail party”, or (of a person) cheerful and friendly; jovial.

…. which may not be the exact same as “gezellig” but it comes darned close.

One of the problems with convivial is that in many cases it cannot be placed in a sentence in the way gezellig can. I might invite someone to join me by saying “kom er gezellig bijzitten!” but in English I would never say “come join me convivially!” However, “een gezellige sfeer” can be translated as “a convivial atmosphere” and nobody would complain that it sounds funny.

But the second problem with convivial is, I think, its prevalence. Gezellig is used A LOT in Dutch. Conversely, convivial is not particularly popular. It’s a bit old-fashioned, a bit Jane Austen, and people don’t use it much. In fact, I had a suspicion that quite a lot of people don’t even know what it means. As a translator, that’s important information; you shouldn’t translate a term that every reader will instantly understand with a word that people need to look up.

How well-known is the word convivial?

So I decided to put a short questionnaire up on Reddit, expecting to get a few dozen responses so I could verify my hunch. Boy was I surprised when a day later almost 2000 people had filled in their answers! For one thing, I wish I had made a better questionnaire; for example, I had thought to ask people where they were from (because it would be interesting to know if the answers were different for Americans, Brits, non-native speakers etc..) but it turned out I had made a mistake when programming that question and none of my respondents got to see it 🙁

But I still got to verify my hunch, though.

First I asked “Without looking it up, do you know what the word “convivial” means?”

Without looking it up, do you know what the word “convivial” means?

Out of 1990 respondents, 55% answered “no idea”, 35% answered “I can’t give a definition on the spot but I have an idea of what it means and could probably pick the right definition from a list” and 10% answered “I know exactly what it means”

(Interestingly, of the 10% who chose “I know exactly what it means”, 8% chose the wrong definition…)

Unsurprisingly, the older people got, the more they knew what it meant. But even of the 31 to 60-year-olds, only 40% felt they knew exactly what the word meant.

Pick the correct definition of convivial

On the next page of the questionnaire, I asked respondents to pick out the definition of “convivial” from a list. 52% chose the correct definition (“friendly, lively, and enjoyable”).

I made up three other definitions for people to choose from, which I based on five minutes of intuitive nonsense etymology.

36% chose “(concerning the act of) living together”, (I thought I could catch people out with “viv” from the French “vivre” and “con” from “confer” which has togetherness in it – and I was right), 12% chose “filled with remorse, sorry” (the correct word would be the similar contrite) and half a percent chose “a marine animal” (I thought perhaps a watery marsupial… but clearly only very few people were caught out by that one, probably also because “convivial” has such an adjectivy feel to it.)

Who filled in the survey?

Some notes on the type of people who filled in the survey:

They skewed VERY young (it’s reddit, after all). Note in the below graph that my age ranges weren’t equal; I chose to do it that way firstly because I knew lots of people would be young, and secondly because people learn a lot of new vocabulary in their college years, but later not so much.

Most were native speakers:

Those darned French speakers…

As mentioned, I goofed up and did not manage to ask people about their language background. Something I may have missed because of this is speakers of Romance languages, like Italian, Portuguese and French; these languages have a word that is very similar to “convivial” and which means the same, so they are easily going to be able to define it.

In this case, however, I don’t think it matters for my point. There won’t have been very many French speakers in the sample, and even if there were, it kind of emphasises my point: even with a few French speakers in the mix, still only 10% of people were certain they knew what the word meant!

Conclusion

In conclusion, I think I can safely say that my hunch was correct. “Convivial” is too unknown of a word to safely use as a translation for “gezellig”, unless you are dealing with a well-read readership or the meaning is clear from the context.

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.