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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


"Mooie site, erg leuk hoe hij,anders dan anders groeit! Geen idee,wat die Andreas bedoelt maar ik vind je uitleg van de Nederlandse taal behoorlijk steek houden."

— "Friso," from the guestbook, August 2005

(Translation*)

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.

"Trouwens, je vermeldt ergens dat Nederlandse leerlingen altijd 6 jaar les in Engels krijgen. Dat is niet altijd zo, maar alleen op het hoogste niveau van het middelbaar onderwijs (VWO). Havo- en VMBO-leerlingen krijgen respectievelijk 5 en 4 jaar Engels (omdat ze ook maar zo lang op de middelbare zitten)." — Martijn, via email


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

Of course, prevalence alone could not ensure general competence — English is the second language, not the mother tongue.

The only reason that I would want to hold a Dutch person's English to a higher standard is the facility with which Dutch people have always criticized my Dutch. I had to achieve a level of competence that was minimally practical — and even then sometimes I had to refuse to speak English.

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 in all of Europe and beyond. 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.

• The Dutch assume that a native-English speaker does not speak Dutch (and as a prejudice, that one is pretty safe .)

The result is that in the event of any uncertainty, it's seemingly customary amongst the Dutch to just speak English. And if you have an English-language accent, you've no hope of continuing in het Nederlands.


Sometimes, the Dutch act as if you don't know that it's okay to speak English. That is irritating.

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.

I don't mind criticism of my Dutch. My grasp of the language is not great.

But I try. I think that in most cultures the natives will welcome an effort. The Dutch will acknowledge an effort — but it has to be some effort. The Dutch would welcome an accomplishment.

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


  • I've lived in NL for about two years: Amsterdam from May until December of 2000 and Nijmegen from August 2003 until January of 2005.


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"Fine site, very nice how it, unlike others, grows! No idea what this Andreas meant but I find your explanation of the Dutch language pretty valid."

  • Return to "wat die Andreas bedoelt"...


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