How to remember the Dutch irregular verbs in the past tense


Just like in many languages there are irregular and defective verbs in Dutch. Although there are only six completely irregular verbs in the present tense, in the past tense there are hundreds.*

Since you are reading this post, you were probably recently confronted with a nice list of all those verbs. While looking at the list and counting the number of pages, you might have told yourself something like: 

'How on earth am I ever going to remember these?!'

Before the cold sweats break out and you feel the deep inner urge to completely give up on the Dutch language read this post! Here are some tips we, at Learn Dutch Online , give to our students when we confront them with the irregular verbs in the past tense:

1. There is secretly a little bit of structure.

Although these are not set rules, and they don't count for all the verbs, there are some verbs that do show a bit of structure. Here are a few regularities among the irregular verbs:

a. an 'ui' in the infinitive, usually becomes an 'oo' in the past tense.              For example: 

duiken ( to dive) 

ik dook (simple past) 

 ik heb gedoken (the past participle)

b. an 'ij' in the infitive usually becomes an 'ee' in the past tense.                      For example

kijken (to look) 

 ik keek( simple past) 

 ik heb gekeken ( the past participle)

c. Verb with an 'i' or 'ie' usually replace those with an 'o' or 'oo'

For example:

beginnen ( to begin) becomes ik begon in the simple past tense or, ik ben begonnen in the past participle.

bieden (to offer) becomes ik bood in the simple past tense or ik heb geboden in the past participle.

Under no circumstance you can look at the above as set grammar rules, but rather as guidelines to help you with most of the verbs in their irregular forms. To give you an idea: the verb bidden (to pray) becomes ik bad in the past simple form, ik heb gebeden past participle form, so the above guideline will not help you here, but will help you for many other verbs with 'i' or 'ie' .

It's best to go over a text with a marker and highlight the verbs that do use these guidelines.

2. First start with verbs you use often.

First of all it is important to always use or work with the verbs in a context. Learning a list by hard helps you for 2 weeks max. If you work from a context, in the long term you will remember them easier and for longer. 

Since you have your set of highlighters with you now. Start with highlighting the verbs you use frequently and you are most familiar with. If you are a gardener, construction worker or an undertaker, you will use the verb graven  (to dig), most frequently. An IT specialist will more frequently use the verb opslaan (to save) and a doctor is more familiar with the past forms of genezen (to heal).

Once identified take that marker, scan newspaper articles reading texts, social media posts, ....  and highlight the verbs you use and see most. You need to see or hear a word 5 to 7 times to remember it. Before you know it, those frequently used verbs in those texts will last forever in your brain. You can also list the verbs up, so you have a nice overview for yourself. 

3. Every day a few sentences

Once you have established your priority list of past tense verbs which you gathered from articles , texts, books, social media posts, .... , it is time to start making their use an automatic action in your speech. Results may vary and are dependent on the type of learner you are, auditory or visual, so here are a few tips for automation of the irregular verbs to aid you in your quest:

For auditory learners who retain better by hearing new content:

o Choose 10 verbs on your list, make sentences with them and record yourself while loudly and clearly reciting those sentences. Listen to the recording every day while you are commuting or when you are performing tasks that require low levels of attention, while not putting anyone's safety at risk, so that you can focus on the recording. Every week you take the next ten verbs on your list and repeat until you have worked through all of your priority verbs. This will familiarize you with those verbs enough to identify them as well as use them correctly without fear of making mistakes.

o Dutch television and radio is an often overlooked tool with which to improve your language. while watching or listening, focus on the past tenses the speakers use and see how many you can identify. This takes longer to build up a list but well worth the effort as you will hear more and more verbs to add to your vocabulary.

For Visual learner who retain information better through reading

o As above, draw up your list and write it out 3 times in clear and bold letters so that they are easy to read. Place one copy in the bathroom or toilet, another copy you place on the night stand and the last copy next to your coffee maker, or any 3 places you spend not performing mentally invested actions. Every time you see the list, you pick one verb and make a sentence with that verb. You should try to make at least 10 sentences a day. At the beginning of each week, make the same list with 10 new verbs and so on. Eventually you will not only retain them better through writing them out repeatedly but also be confronted with them regularly.

o Another option is to read Dutch newspapers, magazines or books. While reading the text highlight the verbs used in the past tense that you can identify. Reference them in your list and compare how frequently the verbs in your list are used. The once ranking the verbs on your list according to their popularity you have a good idea of which ones to start practicing first.  

4. Test your knowledge with a native

After completing the previous steps, it is time to start testing your knowledge with a native speaker. This can be your Online Dutch language trainer, patient colleague, the lady from the local bakery, the friendly neighbor, ....or anybody you feel comfortable with. While practicing, keep the conversation flowing and rather try all forms of the verb, than end the conversation. Most people will gladly and patiently help you practice and correct any mistakes if you ask them to. This is probably the most effective way to cement what you have learnt and improve your confidence when speaking Dutch. 

An example of a conversation to show you what I mean:

Native: 'What did you do yesterday?'

Wat heb je gisteren gedaan?

You: 'We swim, swam, swom, swum in the pool.'

We zwemmen, zwommen,zwammen in het zwembad.

Native: 'swam.' 


You: ' Thank you, and we also ate, oat, oot an icecream'

Dankje, en we eten,aten,oten ook een ijsje.

Native: ' ate' ooh that's nice, what flavour did you eat?

Aten, ooh wat leuk, welke smaak heb je gegeten?

You:' aah ate' I ate a vanilla ice cream.'

Aaah aten. Ik at een vanille-ijsje

Without interrupting the whole conversation or saying a word in any other language, you will practice your verbs in the past tense, until you are used to the sound of them, just like a native! 

I would like to see for yourself how we work at Learn-Dutch-Online at at the same time learn more about the Dutch and Flemish culture. Subscribe  now for our beginners Dutch course!

*For those that already struggle with the English tenses, here is a short explanation of the grammatical terms used in this blog post:

Present tense infinitive form: to speak --> Today I speak to my trainer.

Simple past: I spoke --> Yesterday I spoke to my trainer.

Past participle: I have spoken --> Yesterday I have spoken to my trainer