This topic came under discussion on a language forum a while back. How easy is it to communicate in Dutch when you know Afrikaans, or vice versa?
Answers varied greatly: some reckoned the mutual intelligibility was very high and communication didn't present a problem at all. Others said that they couldn't understand a word of Dutch / Afrikaans the first time they heard it.
I think that the answer should be more nuanced and that it depends on several factors:
- Understanding is easier than speaking
- Understanding the written word is easier than understanding the spoken word
- Understanding one-on-one conversations about the weather or other social niceties is much easier than understanding the news, which in turn is much easier than following the social chatter of a group of locals.
- Speaking and being understood in everyday situations (ordering in a restaurant, exchanging social niceties) is relatively easy as long as you speak slowly and adjust your accent (especially vowels) somewhat.
- Speaking and being understood on abstract topics is possible but takes some effort; unless there is willingness on both ends to keep at an Afrikaans-Dutch conversation, switching to English will probably happen.
- Speaking and sounding like a native speaker is not trivial at all. The accent, of course, is different. But it's more than just accent - in both languages the direct translation isn't always what sounds natural in the other language. It will take some serious study to speak like a native.
That being said, let's get down to it: how mutually intelligible are these two languages, and how long will it take for you to learn the other?
- Reading: With vocabulary estimated to overlap 90-95%, the written word is greatly mutually intelligible. Might take a page or two to adjust to the change from 's' to 'z', 'y' to 'ij', and from 'is' to 'zijn' - but all and all you would be able to read a novel in the other language with very little effort. Afrikaans is more difficult for Dutch speakers than vice versa.
- Understanding media: After a week of being exposed to Dutch TV, I could follow around 80% of what was being said in the TV news (for me, talk shows where people talk faster and sometimes with a heavy accent is more difficult than the news). After a month I could follow 95%.
- Understanding people: Accent plays a big role when it comes to understanding. Some Flemish accents can be difficult to follow, although in general, the Flemish accent is closer to Afrikaans than the Dutch accent. In the Netherlands, I understand people from the Den Haag region very easily, from Amsterdam less so, and from Friesland the hardest of all. Having said this, you should be able to understand someone easily as long as the subject is clear. I.e. it's easy to understand the baker if you know that he is either asking you which bread you want, whether he should cut it, or telling you the price. However don't expect to follow a conversation between family members where they are not talking to you directly (not speaking loud and clear) - this is VERY difficult. Give it 3 months at least!
- Speaking: Once again, this depends on your expectations. If all you want to do is order a coffee in Dutch, sure, it's easy, go ahead! But communicating Afrikaans/Dutch beyond topics such as the kids and the weather remains tricky. Humour just doesn't always translate, so English generally allows for more lively conversation than sticking to Dutch. Luckily for us, the teachers at the school and the neighbours kept at making smalltalk with us in Dutch no matter how much we stumbled and fumbled - for which I am now really grateful because this is what motivated me to keep at learning the language. I would estimate that it took me around 6 months to get to a point where I could talk about more than just the weather and be understood most of the time.
Still, it is nice to be able to speak your own language and communicate with someone speaking another language - even if it is only smalltalk about the weather and social niceties! When it comes to learning Dutch - a little bit of work can take you a long way!