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My Dutch is bad, I know

"No offense but you're Dutch quite a few flaws, and you gave a few misconseptions about my country and language."
— Andreas, from my guestbook, August 2005

Dutch people feel no pain criticizing other peoples' use of their language. That's fair, in my case; I deserve it. But I can't help expressing my opinion that the Dutch people's use of English is not great.

(And I don't mean to be vindictive or petty. Dutch custom, as others may confirm, can be supremely exasperating — Holland is a deeply inscrutible Western culture. I wouldn't like to take a poke at them out of spite — but I admit that their facile criticism of my Dutch irritates me.)

The Dutch speak English. But it's not great English. It's just good. It's okay — it's better than my Dutch.

It bloody ought to be better than my Dutch. Dutch is hard to learn for the English speaker. English is impossible to not learn if you grow up in Holland. A student would have four to six years of English in school; and it's the language of entertainment media. Unlike most of Europe, film and television is subtitled and never dubbed except in cartoons.

English is the international language throughout Europe — and the Netherlands is a nation that grew its riches on international trade. The English language is prevalent in The Netherlands — near-omnipresent.

I've read an estimation that 85% of Dutch people speak English.

"Speak English," of course, is a relative term.

Every Dutch adult I've met has been able to speak it at least well enough to convey any information that was necessary.

The Dutch gravitate toward English for several reasons:

• English is the lingua franca. Of course this is true globally. But it's more true in Holland.

• The Dutch speak English better than a lot of people speak anything. It's a small merchant country, and pragmatic. English makes sense.

• The Dutch assume that the anglophone does not speak Dutch. And as a prejudice, this one is pretty safe.

The result is that in the event of any uncertainty, it's customary to speak English. The importance of perceived accent is unclear in this default behavior.

If you can achieve some small functional knowledge, the Dutch will talk to you in Nederlands. But it's tense. Listening carefully is important, but so is relaxation and apparent confidence. Every phrase is a hair-trigger; and if you show any weakness, the conversation will probably switch to English.

In most places the natives will welcome an effort. The Dutch would welcome an accomplishment.

But anyway, after all, these are the Dutch, and if they don't offer criticism you may generally consider it a compliment.

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