Almost everyone speaks English
Almost everyone speaks virtually fluent English in the Netherlands. The Dutch have enviable linguistic skill, and can switch from one language to another with the greatest of ease. When you first move here, the Dutch will consider it perfectly fine that you speak English, and will respond in English. But don’t be fooled into thinking that their own language is not important to them. If, after a year, your Dutch is still non-existent or very minimal, they will become considerably less tolerant. Thinking that you are not doing your best to accept their culture, they may hold this against you – either explicitly or implicitly.
Basically, it can be considered a sign of respect to learn the language of your host country. Furthermore, if you really want to integrate, you will have to get to know the culture and develop local friendships. For this you have little choice but to learn the language, however daunting it may seem!
Why Should You Learn Dutch?
If you are the partner or spouse of an employee who has been placed in the Netherlands, you may have time on your hands. Hence, you will probably find yourself having to navigate daily life in the Dutch language. Wherever you live, you will feel more comfortable if you can understand what’s going on around you. This comes down to small details, like what it says on packages in the supermarket or what that sign means by the bus stop. Your kids will probably pick up the language easily, as they play with other children in the streets, watch Dutch kids TV and attend school.
How Difficult Is Learning Dutch?
Dutch is not an easy language for English speakers to grasp. We simply do not have the capacity to make those throaty, guttural sounds on which Dutch children are weaned. On top of this, sentence structure is awkwardly reversed. The Dutch also love to glue words together into one seemingly endless hangman challenge. Words such as ziektekostenverzekering (health care insurance) or projectontwikkelingsmaatschappijen (meaning ‘property development companies’) leave you wondering where one syllable begins and the other ends. If you have some knowledge of German, or perhaps Danish, you might feel less challenged. This is only because you will have tackled the hurdle of learning a Germanic language before! Native speakers of these languages, of course, will be at the top of the class.
The First Steps To Learning The Dutch Language
You can follow an established course or take private lessons. Holland has a national network of language institutes that offer courses in Dutch to foreigners. These courses are generally referred to as NT2, Nederlands als tweede taal (Dutch as a second language). When you have found an institute, they will ask you a series of questions, including:
- What type of school did you go to back home?
- What diplomas do you have?
- Do you interact with a lot of Dutch people?
- Do you have time to go to a school and to do homework?
You might also be asked to take a placement exam, to determine what level of Dutch you should pursue. Depending on your specific needs, the institute may suggest an intensive course for quicker immersion.
- Let the person you’re talking to know that you speak little or no Dutch. Don’t give in to the temptation to do it all in English, as you’ll never learn Dutch that way. If you say Ik wil Nederlands leren, the Dutch will be more than happy to comply.
- Do not be afraid to make mistakes. Many expatriates want to master Dutch as well as they do their native language, and become annoyed when they cannot converse quickly. This is understandable, but patience is of the essence. Fluency takes so much time, and all that matters at the beginning is basic communication.
- Don’t make it unnecessarily hard. Try to avoid difficult subjects at first. Just keep those initial conversations nice and simple.
- Don’t pretend to understand. If the other person has explained something twice and you still don’t understand, it is tempting to nod enthusiastically. By doing this you risk appearing stupid or impolite. It is best to admit defeat and ask them to repeat it again. Who knows, you might get it eventually!
- Absorb all day. Pay attention to what others are saying, and how they say it throughout your day. If you don’t know certain words, look them up for future reference and try to use them yourself. Have a got at deciphering local or national newspapers, and be sure to watch Dutch television. It’s a great way to practice.
Not all Dutch people speak the same Dutch language. There is a standard language: Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands (ABN), which translates into the somewhat pompous-sounding ‘General Civilized Dutch’. Well-educated Dutch people who live in the Randstad (the triangular area consisting of Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht and everything in between) speak this. It is the old dialect of the District of Holland, which was once the most powerful province. Hollands thus became the most widespread dialect. It is the basis for the standard language, which is spoken by the Royal Family, the members of Parliament, teachers and preachers, and on radio and television.
The other regions in the Netherlands speak the same language, but their pronunciation can be very different and difficult to understand. Here are some dialects:
- Zeeuws (spoken in Zeeland)
- Twents (spoken in Twente – in the east)
- Gronings (spoken in Groningen)
- Drents (spoken in Drenthe)
- Brabants (spoken in Noord-Brabant)
- Limburgs (spoken in Limburg)
Even within these dialects, there can be considerable variation.
People from different cities all have their own distinct form of pronunciation as well. The Dutch can tell within a sentence whether someone is from The Hague, Amsterdam, Limburg or Groningen.
In Friesland, a province in the northwest of Holland, there is a wholly different language called ‘Fries’, or Frisian. It is spoken in addition to standard Dutch. Many of the words are actually the same, but pronounced differently and mixed with another unique vocabulary.
Here is an interesting factoid: Historically, Frisian is considered to be closer to the English language than Dutch is. You will probably have no need to learn this unique language. However, you may want to if you intend to live in that region for a lengthy period of time, or you are a die-hard linguist. However, Dutch would still suffice, since everything is signposted in both languages there.
In the end, how far you progress with Dutch will depend on the amount of time you put into it, how ambitious you are and how talented. You might attain the highest level: conversing with ease, making virtually no mistakes, understanding complicated speech and articles and writing flawlessly. Or maybe you will never get any further than ‘tourist Dutch’, which just enables you to carry on a semblance of a conversation. In a country where English is second nature, it will require some determination on your part. Nonetheless, chances are you won’t regret it.
www.netinnederland.nl: an online platform to help newcomers to the Netherlands learn Dutch and become familiar with Dutch society through watching some of the most popular television programs which have been given subtitles in English.
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