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.

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.

About “I wish you strength”

“Hey, strength!”

In the Netherlands, we have one go-to phrase that we use if another person is in, or will soon be in, a difficult situation: if someone close to you is ill, dying or dead, if you are ill or dying, if you are depressed about being single, depressed about not being single, if you have a new job, if you have a presentation or if you dropped your mother’s favourite vase and are going to have to tell her about it, if you are sick of your boss but have to go in to work again on Monday, if you have to spend a whole day with your boring in-laws, if you have to eat your best friends terrible cooking…

If there is anything happening in your life that you have to deal with, and it’s not happy, then the Dutch wish each other sterkte: strength. They don’t say “I wish you strength” they just say “strength!”*

That one little word does a whole lot of heavy lifting, and it is no wonder that my article on how to translate “sterkte” into English is my most popular article by far.

*If they are feeling especially generous, they might say Hee, sterkte ermee, he? “Hey, strength with that thing, yeah?”

So is it just “I wish you strength”?

I am half British and half Dutch, and I don’t know if it is my British English or if it is the fact that it just sounded too Dutch to me, but saying “I wish you strength” in English always sounded off to me. I even worried that perhaps people would feel the well-wisher was implying that they are not a strong person.

On the other hand, I wasn’t sure, so I decided to crowdsource some language knowledge. I wanted to know if the phrase would sound “foreign” to a native English speaker, if it is a phrase that a native speaker would use. So I put up a questionnaire on Reddit, and asked the following question:

If you were going through a difficult period in your life, for example a death or serious illness in the family, and I sent you a card on which I wrote “I wish you strength”, how would you feel about that?

With the answer options:

That’s nice, and it’s good English

That’s nice, but it’s not good English

Are you saying I’m not a strong person?

Other:

I expected my survey to be filled in by 20, maybe 30 people, so I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to making it perfect. In the event, though, it was filled in by almost 2000 (!) people. The age skewed young (because Reddit!); a breakdown of the participants can be found in this article.

Results

Here are the results:

Clearly, I was completely off the mark thinking that people might feel that the strength wisher is insinuating they are not a strong person, with only 2% agreeing with me.

There was a reasonable 22% that agreed with me that it sounded “off” (“it’s not good English”), but lots of people responded that they felt the English was fine.

Next time…

I thought that by wording it “that’s good English” or “that’s not good English” I succinctly summarised the idea of “that’s what a native speaker would say”, but after seeing the results of the survey and reading some of the remarks, I realised that my wording wasn’t optimal.

I had used the same wording in a previous question about “to think along with“, a phrase that is much more clearly “odd English”, the “think” and the “along” not really matching. But “to wish someone strength” is grammatically correct, so perhaps I should have phrased the question differently.

Then again, this might just be me making excuses for the fact that my hypothesis is being disproved… The only way of knowing will be to ask this question again with different wording. Which is something I do think I’ll do because my article about this phrase gets a few hundred hits a day…

I should perhaps better have asked something like “is this something you would say?” or “If someone is going through a tough time, what would you say or write to them?”

If anybody reading this article has a good idea on how I should word the question, please let me know in a comment, I’d love to hear from you!

Also, when I ask the question again, I will also make sure that I do program the question where I asked people about their language background correctly, because I would love to know if there is a difference between American and British English!

Open responses

Because I like to be thorough, and I am very grateful to everyone who filled in my survey, and because I think Dutch people reading this might find some of the remarks helpful, here are some remarks from people who answered “other”:

I appreciate it, and it’s good English; but I absolutely would not use it myself if I were sending a card, because yes, I worry that the recipient can interpret it as saying they aren’t strong.

It’s good English, but maybe a bit archaic

It’s nice and it’s dated English

The sentiment is nice, but it could be misinterpreted and isn’t something someone would often say in English.

Doesn’t feel right, but it’s good English

That’s nice, and it’s good English, but it feels foreign if someone said that to an American

it’s good English but it’s trite

I would understand but I would think you are not a native speaker of English

it’s good English grammatically but isn’t a commonly used phrase. It’s weird, not wrong.

It’s become good enough English over the past 20 or so years.

Its a nice sentiment, but I would prefer if it elaborated — like, “I wish you strength to deal with your grief”.

It’s fine English tbh even if it might not make 100% sense

The english is fine, but on it’s own the statement lacks clarity in that situation.

Givrs me the “thoughts and prayers”-vibe. But sounds like good english 🙂

It’s not a common English phrase but it isn’t necessarily bad, and I would appreciate it.

as a linguist i’m having a hard time with this survey saying “good” and “bad” English, i would say it makes sense as it’s meaning is understanable

Fine english, but overly trite and a little demeaning.

That’s nice and it’s grammatically correct but doesn’t flow well

It seems like the classic “just be positive!” mindsets that ultimately ignore the true struggles and feelings of the person; nothing matters except to be mentally strong.

I get the jist, but it isn’t a common turn of phrase

That’s cheesy but fine enough English

That’s some empty platitudes, but fine English

It’s fine, but sounds kinda dated/archaic

It’s fine, it’s just a weird thing to say.

The english is fine, it’s an unusual thing to say unless you are very religious

That’s nice; English is malleable enough that, while it’s not PROPER English, it’s still fine.

It’s good English, but it feels awkward

Nice, but abnormal. Not necessarily bad English, but maybe from a different culture.

That’s nice, good English but uncommon.

it’s fine English, but a little rude

That’s nice, fine English, little unusual though

I dislike the sentiment, but I think it’s ok English

This might be more appropriate to say to someone going through a challenging endeavor that ultimately is their responsibility. Saying it to someone who is going through a hard time might come off as distant and unsupportive (ie. “I can’t do anything for you but I wish you strength to get through it.”) I’d avoid using this phrase in those situations.

I wouldn’t say it’s poor english, necessarily, but it’s definitely unusually worded

It’s good English but a cliché sentiment.

I would think Buddha or Asian culture

I understand the sentiment, but the wording is awkward enough that I could see it being used as backhanded in some petty instances. Awkward word choice.

That’s nice, but you’re either toxicly positive or haven’t ever dealt with a close death yourself

And here are some remarks people made at the end of the survey:

Here are some responses from English speakers about the term “I wish you strength”:

If someone wished me strength in a letter I would think it unusual and it would depend on the sender, but I might think that they’ve spent time on this letter choosing words carefully, and that in such a sense strength is a good word. It can suggest their support whilst implying that you are capable yourself of succeeding.

Wishing someone strength is idiomatic English, but not formal English. It is something you might hear someone say, but generally would not see written down.

I think it’s common for English folks to wish one another strength.

For “I wish you strength”; as a native English speaker I would consider it “good English” but would assume that the person does not speak English as a first language or heard the saying from someone who doesn’t speak it as a first language. It sounds a bit foreign in a way I just can’t describe. Normally, I think “I hope you can stay strong” or something similar would be used.

“I wish you strength” sounds perfect but is more suited for someone about to go through a hard time rather than someone who has just been through one. Probably a better translation would be “stay strong.”

I think wishing someone strength in trying times is fine if you follow it up wtih something. For example: “I wish you find strength to perservere in these trying times. I will be here to help you find that strength should you need it.” With no other context it would do nothing but confuse/insult the recipient of the sentiment and even with the context it could still come off as odd.

Wishing people strength is definitely something that happens in English.

I think saying you wish someone strength is a normal expression in hard times, at least in the US.

Wishing each other strength isn’t a common thing to do in English, but grammatically it’s perfectly fine.

“I wish you strength” makes perfect sense and is good English, but may sound somewhat religious or New Age-y. It seems to be a more popular phrase in the Wellness community in the USA for instance

“On the “wish you strength” question, I said “nice but not good English”. I couldn’t answer “good English” because you made me think about it, but if I got such a card I would not notice the slightly improper English.

In the suburban / semi-rural midwest US, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to hear “wishing you strength and comfort in this difficult time”. I didn’t find that phrasing of at all.

The strength phrase may vary in understanding based on how religious or mystical the listener is. But the phrase “give me strength” is known and used widely.

“I wish you strength” sounds very much like something I would hear at my (very non-traditional) synagogue — they often translate Hebrew in ways that feel like this, both unusual sounding due to the directness of the translation and also surprisingly poetic and powerful.

Generally phrases like “I wish you strength” are followed up with some context, like “I wish you strength in this trying time”.

I think “I wish you strength” makes total Sense in English, it’s just not super common to hear but I have heard it.

I’m super interested in the topic as I’m learning Dutch as a second language and funnily enough, immediately recognized it was relating to Dutch when you mentioned “strength”.

I thought “I wish you strength” was unusual but sweet.

I don’t wish “strength” for others, but I do tell some people to “stay strong”.

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 “meedenken” and “to think along with”

What is “meedenken”?

The Netherlands is famously a culture of teamwork and compromise, and as such the word “meedenken” is one that is often used. When one person asks another “kun je even met me meedenken?” (literally: Can you ‘think with me’ for a moment?), what they want to do is explain a problem they are having to the other person, and then brainstorm possible solutions together.

Translating “meedenken”

In recent years, I have noticed that translators (both human and AI) are choosing to translate the word “meedenken” as “to think along with”. So the question above would be translated as “Can you think along with me for a moment?”.

I grew up speaking both Dutch and English, and sometimes that leads to problems as a translator, because English phrases and Dutch phrases get mixed up in my brain. When it comes to “think along with” I was unsure of two things: is it actually a phrase that people would understand, or would it just confuse them? And if yes, does it actually mean the same thing as “meedenken”?

There are two schools of thought when it comes to questions like this. One school of thought (prescriptive, for the linguists among us) says that you should look it up in a dictionary or ask a specialist. The other one (descriptive) says you should find out how real people speak and understand this phrase. I am firmly in the second camp. So I put out a Survey on Reddit.

Choosing which responses to include

I got a whopping 1990 (!!) responses. (This is the power of Reddit. I highly recommend it to any university student trying to get responses for their thesis.)

To my regret, I had to take away 830 responses for this particular question, because I had made an important omission in my answer options, and the responses via Reddit were so fast that by the time I had noticed and rectified it, all those people had already started filling in the survey. (Lesson learned: always do a pilot survey with just a few participants, so you can pick up on omissions!)

Of those left, I had to remove 126 people who had not filled in the whole survey. I also took away everybody under the age of 21 (a whopping 375 people; see here the downside of doing research via Reddit), because I wanted the answers to reflect the kinds of people that might potentially do business with Dutch people. Then I took away everybody who spoke Dutch, German or Afrikaans (71 people), because I wanted to know what people thought who had never heard the term “meedenken” (or the very similar German “mitdenken”).

For all of the people that filled in my survey but weren’t included: I will be using your other answers, so your time wasn’t completely wasted!

Results

I was left with 584 responses to work with.

First, I asked:

Here are the responses:

So there is quite a big group (62.4%) who are of the opinion that the phrase “is not good English”.

Then I asked:

Here are the responses to that one:

When a Dutch person uses the phrase “please think along with me”, they are asking their conversation partner to brainstorm on a problem with them. These results suggest that that is not how they would be understood.

The 5 people who replied “other” all said that they thought it was a combination of the two most popular answers.

Some extra remarks people made

In my survey I gave people a chance to add remarks at the end if they had any. Here are some remarks people had about “to think along with”:

When I hear “think along with me”, it sounds like something an elementary school teacher (of ages 5-7) might say to their students, not something that adults would use with each other.

I would use “put our heads together,” a common phrase for that. Doing anything “along with” someone implies that they’re the expert and you’re keeping up, like “cooking along with” might mean watching a video while you try to make the same dish.

The “along with me” construction in English implies that the speaker is leading and the other person is being invited to follow; I would not expect a collaboration.

Conclusion

The term “meedenken” is used very often in Dutch to mean brainstorming a solution to a problem together. Many people translate this with “to think along with”, but when a Dutch person asks “Could you think along with me?” they are very likely to be misunderstood, as the majority of non-Dutch people over the age of 21 feel that this would mean that the Dutch person wants them to follow their train of thought, to listen to them while they explain their reasoning.

Is this a huge breakdown in communication? Probably not, the meanings are very similar, and when two people are talking together and one of them uses this phrase, it will probably sort itself out.

When a Dutch person is speaking, they would do well to say something like “Do you have a minute to brainstorm solutions for this problem I am having?” or “Can I pick your brain for a second?”

More importantly, when a translator (such as myself) is translating a Dutch text into English, “meedenken” should NOT be translated as “to think along with”.

Stuff I should have done better

As noted above, I should have done a pilot study. The problem with Reddit is that there is no option to get e.g. only 20 people to answer, but there are ways to work around that and I’m definitely going to, next time!

A number of people disapproved of the fact that I asked people if something was “good English” or not. They felt I should have written something like “it is not natural-sounding English”. The reason I asked the question the way I did was because 1) I wanted to keep things simple and 2) I am interested in how Dutch people would be perceived if they were interacting with English speakers and then the perception of “is it good English” is more important than “is it natural English”. But I am happy to debate about that 😉

There were 4 people who replied “other” and noted that their problem was that I had written down the answer options incorrectly, and their answer would have been “I want you to follow my train of thought, to listen to me while I explain my reasoning”. They were, of course, completely correct – my answer options did not fit my question properly. Luckily it appears most people weren’t phased by my bad English, and for those 4 people I took the liberty of assuming they would have answered the “train of thought” answer if I had written it down correctly, so they have now been included in that category.

Is this important?

You might wonder: all this trouble for just one word? And then the conclusion is that very often it doesn’t really matter? Well, in the grand scheme of things, I guess this was not one of the biggest problems in the world. But on my site www.hoezegjeinhetEngels.nl, the entry for “meedenken” is quite popular, getting a dozen or so hits every day. I wanted to give those people a proper answer 🙂

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.