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Languages for Expats in The Netherlands

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: June 2016

The official language of the Netherlands is Dutch, which is spoken by about 96% of the population. Dutch is also spoken in Flanders in northern Belgium, where it is known as Flemish. Like English, Dutch is a Germanic language, though it is rather different as it has far fewer words borrowed from Latin and French. Frisian, which is co-official in the northern province of Friesland, is another Germanic language, somewhere between Dutch and English. Afrikaans, spoken in South Africa and Namibia, is essentially a simplified, creole version of Dutch.

Other languages spoken as a mother tongue in the Netherlands include Turkish, Arabic, Indonesian (Malay) and Sranan (Surinamese creole). In addition, nearly 90% of the Dutch speak English as a second language, and many also speak French or German. In fact, Holland ranks second only to Sweden in the EF English Proficiency Index. If you are fluent in English, you would be forgiven for thinking you can get by with that and not learn Dutch at all.

However, as good as the Dutch are at speaking English, they almost never do so among themselves. Not learning Dutch will hamper you in several ways: you will miss most conversations and be unable read notices, newspapers and signs. Moreover, as you may have already discovered, many popular websites are in Dutch only.

The same is true of some government phone lines, such as the Dutch Tax Office. Speaking Dutch is almost guaranteed to give you a warmer welcome from the locals. Hence, if you are thinking of staying in the Netherlands for some time, it’s going to be worth taking the plunge with the language.

Rumours abound that Dutch is terribly abstruse and difficult to learn for English speakers. These must originate from people who have never tried to learn a really tricky language such as Arabic, Thai or Chinese – compared to which, Dutch is a piece of cake! After all, Dutch is the second closest language to English, so it really can’t be that hard. Speakers of German and the Scandinavian languages (and, of course, Afrikaans) will find Dutch even easier to learn.

Dutch and English share hundreds of similar basic words. This means that, with a little ingenuity and patience, you can make rapid progress learning these building blocks of the language. More advanced words are less likely to be related to English ones, so learning vocabulary will get tougher after a while.

The sounds of Dutch will also take a little getting used to, as will the long words. The spelling will at first seem odd just because it is unfamiliar, but bear in mind that the pronunciation is almost entirely regular. The grammar is reminiscent of German, though much less complicated. For example, whereas German has six words for ‘the’, Dutch only has two (de and het.)

Strangely enough, the ubiquity of English in Holland can make it harder for English-speakers to learn Dutch. As it is easier for the Dutch to use English, they will often switch to English once they realise you are not a native Dutch speaker (which will be almost immediately.) You can, of course, ask them not to!

Dutch courses are widely available on the internet as distance learning projects. Open Culture lists some websites that offer Dutch language tuition.

Once you have gained a basic ability in Dutch, you can improve on this by practicing whenever you get the opportunity. You can augment this by participating in language exchange sessions, in face-to-face meetings or on the internet. Sessions usually involve two to four people speaking in their mother tongue for half the session and Dutch for the other half. Some expat websites offer opportunities for language exchange, as does Language Exchange. This site offers free membership and provides opportunities for exchanges in Dutch and 114 other languages.

Additionally, as a multilingual country, the Netherlands also offers the opportunity to learn several other languages, particularly those mentioned in the second paragraph. Whether you will need to do so depends on who you are in regular contact with.




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