The double edged sword of speaking English in the Netherlands

The Academy Building of the University of Groningen, a major pole of attraction for international students in the Netherlands | Photo: Antonio Di Noto.

Dutch are among the best non-native speakers of English in the world, and the Netherlands are known for their vast offer of secondary education in English. A great opportunity for many students and expats, but a double edged sword as well, since many residents in the country never learn Dutch. University students and teachers of Dutch have theories on the phenomenon. 

Arturo Simone has lived in The Hague for almost three years, where he studies International Studies. He knows “absolutely no Dutch” on top of “how to order a Kebab” and ask hoe gaat het? (“how are you?”). “I saw that here you can easily get by just with English, so I adopted the mindset and never started learning Dutch”, he says.

“It’s not nice towards the locals, since they’re losing their culture in favor of those of the expats, but from the outside I can only see it as a positive thing: I feel welcome”, and in a world that is increasingly transcending the concept of nation and patriotism, “it’s good for the Netherlands to become more and more globalized”.

There were times when Arturo felt discriminated against because of his bad Dutch: for two years he and his flatmates had been asking the landlord to set a fence on the balcony of the house they were renting. Not only did he never do it, but “he would only answer when we had Dutch friends text him in Dutch”.

“It really is on both sides”, says Guido Zomer, who used to be an amateur teacher of English and Dutch. He thinks “Dutch people are known for being open and honest, but they don’t make much effort into helping foreigners learn Dutch”, since, many times, as soon as a foreigner is attempting to converse with them in the language of the Low Countries, they immediately switch to English. 

This point of view is corroborated in a written interview by Carla da Silva, teacher of Dutch among other languages: “Dutch people like to show (off) that they speak ‘across the border’”, although it appears like they consider their private life as mostly English-free. Indeed, whoever has at least once adventured on Kamernet — a room finding website commonly used in the Netherlands — will confirm that “no internationals” is a motto for many Dutch student houses.

Finally, time plays an important role. Many BA students just do not bother learning Dutch, because they do not plan on living in the Netherlands after graduation. This is why Carla’s clients are mostly here for “master, PhD or post-doc, or are married to a Dutch person”. Indeed learning Dutch “is a big investment of time, energy and money; and if you’re here temporarily you don’t do it, or give up easily”, says Carla.

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