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Refusing to speak English in The Netherlands


Nijmegen, 18 December 2004 —

"Wat leuk dat jij weigerde om Engels tegen Nederlanders te spreken! Ik ben het helemaal met je eens. Als zij geen Nederlands tegen jou wilt spreken, waarom moet jij Engels tegen hen spreken?" — Unnamed reader

I refused to speak English today at the grocer. It's the first time I've done that, and it just came naturally.

That's really a bit rude in Holland. It's deceptive, is what it is; but the reason it's rude, specific to Holland, is that it imposes my Dutch upon a person who speaks good English.

It's still much easier for the Dutch person to speak English with me than it is to speak Dutch. I'm not alone in this, and in fact it's a rule: English-speaking people don't speak Dutch. There are few exceptions. And the Dutch speak English.

That's the logic behind the reflexive English-speaking. And it is the basis of the reason that I get fed up with it. It just never stops.

It is in fact somewhat rude to ask me "do you speak English?" It's a kind of rudeness that I put down to cultural difference: don't be offended, it's normal. But it is rude, as a social custom. The question implies two things about me:
  1.) That I'm a tourist, and
  2.) That I don't know that it's okay to speak English [which means that I'm an ignorant tourist.]

Alternatively, the question implies what it really means and doesn't say: "I don't want to speak Dutch with you." This is not a conscious decision, but a reflex, based upon a very solid principle of effective communication. The most complete common language is the natural option.

But, then, that's where the fight comes back to me. Nobody else is going to help me to delay my ability to communicate so that I can improve it for the future. It's my project.

This roughly breaks down to the fact that there are two areas where I can take initiative. I can:
  1.) Study the language on my own [which I do.]
  2.) Be more persistent that we speak Dutch. Translation: I need to be a little bit more of a pain in the ass.

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