One of the natural results of living in a foreign country with a language different from your native language is that you learn the country’s language because in order to integrate and speak with others, it’s a necessity, right? Wrong! That may be the case in many places, but here in The Netherlands, we barely know any Dutch. Sure, we’ve picked up some basic words, common phrases and words for things we encounter frequently such as foods, but beyond that, we’ve got nothing. You may wonder why that would be the case and I’ll tell you.
Reason 1-The Dutch are amazing at English. First of all, a large majority of them know English, and they know if from a young age. Knowing English is great but it must be hard to understand them because of accents, you say. No! The accent is minimal and really does not affect your ability to understand their English at all. Okay, okay but conversations must be limited because they would not be used to speaking English, wouldn’t have the extensive vocabulary, would have to slow down to think about what they want to say and how it translates, right? Wrong again! It never ceases to amaze me that the Dutch know English so well-their vocabulary is quite good and the ease with which they can seamlessly switch from speaking Dutch to English is unbelievable. As soon as they realize you don’t speak Dutch, they will switch in mere seconds without even missing a beat.
Reason 2-While you do encounter some Dutch people who feel that immigrants and expats should speak Dutch, a large portion feel that it is no problem to only speak English as they can speak that easily as well and Dutch is a hard language to learn. Therefore, they are more than happy to accommodate your English speaking ways-to the point of detriment to you. Do you know how hard it is to try to learn a new language when every time you attempt to speak it, the person you are speaking to says “Oh, English” and then proceeds to only speak to you in English?
Reason 3-We chose to send our children to an international school and being such, it is conducted in English. When the children are in elementary school years, they take a daily Dutch lesson, but once they are in secondary grade levels, they can choose between Dutch and Spanish thus meaning that at school, my children are receiving no Dutch. In addition, everything for parents in communicated in English and everyone affiliated with the school (with a few exceptions) speaks English. This means that in the majority of our daily interactions and in our social circle, English is the preferred language. We just aren’t forced to use Dutch daily or in order to connect with people.
Reason 4-If you don’t speak the language, you can live in a sort of clueless bubble. When you can’t watch the news or read the paper, it is easy to stay oblivious to negative things happening around you. Sometimes, this can be a nice feeling-to not have to think about all the bad things out there. It can also be a way to ignore how far away and foreign you are in this new place. Of course, there are times when you would like to escape the bubble and that is when it can be frustrating to not know the language, but even then, more likely than not, you can find a site that has translated news, use translator apps or ask someone who can explain it to you in English.
So, there you have it-the English/Dutch language dilemma that we find ourselves in. Of course, I am in no way trying to excuse our lack of Dutch language skills. To the contrary, I am disappointed and at times embarrassed by our failure to learn the language. But, rather than focus on that, I choose to focus on how thankful I am that we moved to a country where English is so readily and willingly used, that we have met a lot of other English speakers who also struggle with this dilemma and that the Dutch are so kind about trying to help and make non-Dutch speakers’ lives a little easier.