I understand that English has a whole lot of Romance and Latin influence whereas Dutch has less and German has very little. This is the main reason why English is so different compared to its mainland Germanic sister languages.

However, the vocabulary of Basic English is overwhelmingly Germanic. Out of the top 100 most common English words, something like 98 or 99 are of Germanic origin.

Since we don't expect our preschoolers to understand words like "cognizant", "recapitulation", or "commensurate" which are obviously non-Germanic in origin and we stick to the most basic words until high school or so, why then are Dutch and German TV shows aimed at preschoolers so unintelligible?

For Dutch preschool TV shows, I'd say only about 20% is intelligible. For German, it's close to 10%.

Example of a Dutch show aimed at preschoolers:


Thomas the Tank Engine in German:


  • 6
    Just because words are cognate doesn't mean that they sound similar. It means that they can be related by a set of regular sound changes. In fact, even most of the obviously non-Germanic words you describe are (more distantly) related to English words: the root of cognizant is related to the word know, and the root of recapitulation is related to the word head. Despite the common origin, they have evolved differently enough that it is hard to see the similarity at first glance. Nov 24, 2015 at 9:56
  • 1
    The common ancestor of English and German is more recent than the common ancestor of English and Latin, but there's still been enough time for pronunciations to diverge in a very noticeable way. Nov 24, 2015 at 10:02
  • "This is the main reason why English". No, people need to stop thinking the way that gives rise to the idea that English is a Latin language, it is not and it'll never be; likewise England isn't connected to Rome. Albanian is full of Latin and Greek words just fine and it doesn't have a wave of nationalistic hypocrites claiming a non-existent Latin heritage. 80% of English's core vocab is Germanic. English simplified the language much further than the other Germanic ones (egDutch/Afrikaans), lost its inflection, great vowel shift, semantic instability, 1.5ky natural language drift, etc.
    – user31030
    Nov 13, 2020 at 10:55

1 Answer 1


It's even worse: Even though Dutch and German separated only a few centuries ago, as a southern German I wouldn't have understood much of your Dutch example before I started to learn Dutch recently. The same problem exists with Yiddish, the other language that is similarly close to German.

And as if that were not enough, the same problem exists with dialects of one's native language. I mostly know this from German, but it's true for English as well. Most native English speakers will have quite a bit of trouble understanding even standard Scots, which is somewhere on the boundary between a dialect of English and a separate language. But thick dialects of English proper such as Yorkshire English can be even harder to understand. (Shakespeare's original pronunciation is relatively easy in comparison, but it's still relevant because it demonstrates how pronunciation changes over time. Compare Richard III's pronunciation just a little further back, or even Chaucer. As you can see, pronunciation has changed much more than spelling, which is one reason why modern English spelling is so chaotic.)

As the examples show, the problem is in the different pronunciation. But once you get immersed into the culture surrounding a dialect of your native language, or a foreign language close to your own, there are two things that make it very easy to pick it up:

  • There are regular transformations connecting the pronunciations. Once you have realised that bee-uck is Yorkshire accent for book, you will form a theory that look, hook, cook will be pronounced lee-uck, hee-uck, kee-uck. (I don't know whether any of the last three examples is correct, and I wouldn't know where to check. In general these theories are correct in more cases than they are wrong, and that's enough.)
  • Even where words differ, such as ken for know in Scots and Scottish English, dialect words are often either related to words in the standard language or even exist there with roughly the same meaning, though in the obscurer parts of an educated speaker's vocabulary.

My personal experience has been that as a native German speaker, through very little effort and in just a few months, I passed from understanding hardly any Dutch at all (written or spoken) to understanding it pretty well though still basically unable to speak or write it. The key to this was:

  • learning a very small number of important differences of grammar;
  • learning a very small number of important words that are totally different or false friends;
  • internalising the different orthography and the mostly regular pronuncation shifts (this happened automatically along with the previous two points).

With that I was able to read Dutch books quickly with very little trouble and no dictionary.

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