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October 2017
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To Learn Dutch, or not to Learn Dutch, that is the Question

Windmills, stroopwaffles, and tulips are not their only trademarks, the Dutch are also widely known for their high levels of English competency. With around 90% of the Dutch population being able to hold a conversation in English with ease, the demand for learning the national language may be questioned. With this in mind, some may wonder, whether this development prevents foreigners from learning Dutch. Is there even a point? The truth is, many foreigners still enrol in Dutch language classes and try their best to apply their skills whenever they can. So, why do foreigners still insist on learning Dutch, despite the wide spread of English?

If you’re not familiar with the Dutch culture and are worried about not speaking the native language, think again. English is widely spread in the Netherlands, and could, in a sense, be considered as their “second mother tongue”. So where do the Dutch acquire such proficiency? There are many reasons: Learning English as a subject is compulsory on all levels of the Dutch secondary system. Furthermore, English-speaking films and series are not dubbed, but rather subtitled. It is also becoming more and more popular for companies to switch to English as medium of communication. These developments have even led many English words to be integrated into the Dutch vocabulary, which are now used in everyday language. Overall, speaking English is most definitely far from unfamiliar territory in this small, but extremely culturally diverse country. So, how does this affect foreigners living in the Netherlands, and their motivation to learn Dutch?

Let’s be honest, The Dutch don’t make it Easy

“It’s impossible!” exclaims Pierre, a Masters student from France studying at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Pierre, explains that he signed up for a Dutch course offered by one of the University’s study associations when he first moved to Rotterdam, and that he was very determined to pick it up. However, he soon realised that he would have to be fluent before ever being able to speak it with the locals. “Every time I tried to apply what I had learned in class in everyday situations like at the supermarket, the cashiers would immediately recognise my accent and respond in English“ Pierre says of his experience. “Losing the accent would probably help”, he adds.

Pierre isn’t the only one who has encountered such difficulties. Tao from Vietnam recently came to the Netherlands for work and has been lucky enough to have her bi-weekly Dutch lessons covered by her company. Unfortunately, she has also struggled with actually speaking the language. Even though many of her co-workers are Dutch, they still insist on speaking English with her, rather than allowing her to practice her new skills. “Even when I try to make small-talk with my colleagues, they switch straight to English” Tao says of her experience. Essentially, she believes that the Dutch prefer speaking English with foreigners because they consider it a favour, making things easier for non-Dutch-speakers. “But really, I just want to try to pick up the language by talking to them in casual situations” she explains.

With this in mind, it may seem difficult to come up with a reason to put so much effort into learning a language spoken by a population of just below 17 million, especially when the vast majority is fluent in the global language of English. However, a large group of Dutch enthusiasts does seem to exist.

So, why learn Dutch anyway?

Ana from Serbia came to the Netherlands a little over a year ago to live with her Dutch partner. She claims to have had very positive experiences throughout her time living abroad. “Even though it’s a tough language and most of the locals have above-average English skills, I tried my best to learn Dutch as quickly as possible”. Ana says she would simply insist on continuing her interaction in Dutch, even if the cashier at Albert Heijn would try to switch to English. “As long as you’re persistent and show that you’re just trying to make an effort, people usually understand and have often even been happy to correct my mistakes. This really helped me a lot to improve my speaking skills”. Today, Ana can follow the local news and even enjoys reading the newspaper

When discussing this topic with Adriana de Zwart, 62, who has been teaching Dutch to foreigners for 25 years, she points out how she has also noticed the change in scenery that has developed over the past few decades. “Since the (Second World) war ended, the level of education has improved a lot, so the whole population is learning English already from a young age” Adriana says of the the enforcement of English in the school system. “My parents, for example, struggle much more than I do when they speak English, but with every new generation English skills are improving, so everyone in the Netherlands speaks really good English nowadays” she continues. When asked about the types of foreigners that do enrol in Dutch courses she explains that many do it for work, as employers often cover the expenses. Furthermore, a lot of Dutch language students enrol simply out of interest and in order to integrate into the culture.

Overall, it is safe to say that the Dutch have impressive English skills and could easily fool others into believing they were brought up speaking the language – funny accent aside. However, the interest in learning Dutch amongst foreigners living in the Netherlands is more than prevalent. Although English may help to get by in everyday situations with ease, many seem to maintain an interest in learning the language and have even succeeded in picking it up over time. Learning Dutch should thus, not be seen as a challenge quest for integration, but rather as a fun goal that can easily be achieved with the right amount of motivation and enthusiasm. All in all, the answer is “to learn Dutch”!

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