Dutch: The lost culture

Learning another language also enables one to dispel any stereotypes previously held. The French do not wear stripy tops, wear berets and carry baguettes around all day long. Equally, the Germans are not all blonde, tubby, moustached Bratwurst-munchers. The Dutch, however, do all speak English. And it’s annoying.

Interestingly, English films and television programmes (40-60% of Dutch TV) are not dubbed, just subtitled, which allows the Dutch to hear, understand and match the English to Dutch. English is taught from primary school, bilingually in some secondary schools and as the exclusive language on many university degree programmes. Contemporary Dutch scientists hardly write in Dutch since there is no incentive to do so. English is beloved by the Dutch so much that they have adopted the often widely-used, albeit incorrect term “Holland” to refer to their country, which by all logic should actually infuriate them.

So it comes as no surprise to learn that 86% of Dutch people speak English according to an EU study. But why? To say that no-one speaks Dutch as a second language is a bit of an overstatement, but it could well be due to the Netherlands’ relatively small size and high trade with the neighbouring UK. It could also be the influence from the incessant stag parties making the pilgrimage to Amsterdam.

Of course, I’m not going to argue that the Dutch shouldn’t learn English. Nor am I going to deny that English is the international lingua franca, which is something I’m not happy about as I don’t believe there should be one lingua franca. Indeed, English is the new Latin in the scientific world and the new Italian in the literature world. It has seeped into the most remote pockets of the world triggered by the British colonialism of the nineteenth century. But this has planted English seeds in different countries, allowing non-native English versions to germinate. One of them is Dutch English – similar to Euro English (with phrases such as “let’s give a party” and “let’s take drinks at the pub”). English now serves as a vocabulary database for the Dutch to pick from as they please.

Conversely, English did the same thing with its neighbouring languages (principally French, German and Dutch) as it developed into its modern form. In fact, the “Netherlands” comes from the Dutch word for their country which literally means “low country”. Nevertheless, as words and structures from English mix with those from Dutch, they create a sort of hybrid language, which is then passed on through mutual discourse. It gives rise to phrases and structures that we would consider incorrect in English, thus giving a false impression of our language that is stubbornly believed to be correct by English learners.

What occur as a result are clumsy hybrid phrases such as ‘How do you underbuild that?’ or ‘Which answer is not good?’ What’s more, it is this variety of English that can be heard at institutions across the Netherlands, and the Dutch aren’t doing anything about it. But who needs native speakers from just across the North Sea to teach in English when the Dutch are fluent enough anyway?

I had the misfortune to visit Amsterdam in January. I was actually looking forward to it until I arrived and was not permitted by the locals to speak Dutch. No wonder that the rest of the Netherlands say Amsterdam isn’t really Dutch if I get replies in English to questions I asked in Dutch.

The English aren’t entirely blameless here. It’s the stag parties in Amsterdam that are forcing their language, their customs and their manners upon the locals, whilst simultaneously providing a false impression of the British, and to be able to cash in on the tourism, is there really much choice for the Dutch other than to sit back reluctantly and watch it happen? Well, yes. Stag parties can easily go to Newcastle. I’m sure there’s something else other than the slightly more relaxed laws or tolerant policemen that make Amsterdam so attractive. There is still some element of real Dutch culture that is so appealing.

The point is that the Dutch are allowing English to threaten their culture that has been built up over hundreds of years. Their clever language, their traditional music, their rich cuisine are all at risk of fading away, when such things should be embraced and encouraged instead. By all means, learn a foreign language, and open yourself to more opportunities in this increasingly smaller world, but don’t forget who you are.