It can be sooo frustrating. You try to have a conversation in Dutch, you gather all your courage, and then... they respond in English. 'Did I do so badly?' you ask yourself. Your self-esteem is now on the floor and instead of trying again in Dutch, you follow along in English. Does that sounds familiar?
Simultaneously, when you speak English by default to everybody, you will be met with raised eyebrows, or get the question when you will ever learn Dutch. Confusing, because if you do try, they don't let you, and if you don't try, they scold you for it!
English as the unofficial second language of De Randstad
Take these three ingredients: a large English speaking migrant population, a big tourist industry relying on English as it’s official language, and 90% of the Dutch population speaking English at minimum conversational level, and you end up with a dish that tastes rather English.
English speaking migrant workers
The biggest communities of English speaking academically trained migrant workers in the Netherlands reside in Amstelveen and Wassenaar, and most live in the megalopolis ‘de Randstad’ (the wider area of Amstelveen, Wassenaar, Delft, Rotterdam, Haarlem, Den Haag, Utrecht, etc). Also Eindhoven and Maastricht attract many higher educated migrants.
Most academically trained migrant workers come from Germany and the United Kingdom, followed by India, Poland, France, Belgium and Italy. A little less than 50% stays longer than 5 years in the Netherlands. Many of them are sponsored by their employers: technology companies, research institutes or universities, embassies, or companies in the Zuidas, Amsterdam.
While some parts of the Netherlands have not been discovered by mass tourism yet, in other parts the residents are so used to interacting with tourists, that English has become their default go-to language when faced with a stranger with a bit of an accent. Almost 40% of international tourists stay in Amsterdam, about 20% stays in another place within de Randstad. This distribution has been steady since 2015, uninfluenced by the general growth in tourism to the Netherlands, according to the Dutch Bureau of Statistics (CBS, Centraal Bureau voor Statistiek).
English as a second language
Furthermore, European research (Eurobarometer 243) indicates that 94% of Dutch residents speak at least one other language than Dutch, 75% speaks two other languages and 35% speaks three other languages. Of this 94% of people who speak at least one other language than Dutch, 90% (also) speaks English, 71% percent (also) speaks German and 29% (also) speaks French.
They don't seem to understand how learning Dutch could be useful
A fourth ingredient is the Dutch culture and its attitude towards foreign languages. Dutch people (at least in the bigger cities) are often proud of how well they speak English, and enjoy practicing and showing off their skills. Also, we consider it a nice and hospital gesture to welcome someone by speaking English or German or French to them. The idea is that it’s less of an effort for us to switch languages than it is for the other to learn this tiny language that hardly a few million people in the world speak.
After the Second World War, there was no fertile ground for any nationalist sentiment whether related to the Dutch language or other aspects of Dutch identity or culture. An aversion to nationalism and a strong awareness of its dangers, made people wary of waving flags, singing nationalist songs or expressing pride in their origins or language in the years after the war. In the last fifteen years, this has slowly been changing with the rise of more nationalists parties and the more open expression of nationalist sentiments.
Nowadays many higher educated Dutch people are okay using Dutch as a ‘social’ language for private moments with friends and family, and to accept English as the official language at work or in university. A Spanish friend of mine, Enrique, a biologist who came to the Netherlands for a few years to do research, told me that he started learning Dutch very enthusiastically, but eventually gave up after the umpteenth Dutch person asked him why on earth he was wasting his time and energy on learning Dutch.
Don't learn Dutch - just speak it!
The confusing approach many Dutch people have to new learners, is that on one hand, we can't stop wondering why on earth you would want to learn Dutch, but on the other hand, we find it unacceptable for you to live here and not learn the language. This mixed message can be rather frustrating, if you are a new learner. Bottomline is, don't listen to the Dutch speakers. You can't make everybody happy. Or find nice ones, who want to be part of your fanclub and support you in your journey towards Dutch fluency.
The only essential and interesting question is, why learning Dutch is important to you, so that even after going through discouraging interactions with Dutchies, you can maintain focus and motivation.
Speaking Dutch is essential to 'feel at home'
The thing Dutch speakers may overlook, is how extremely important it is to speak Dutch if you want to form part of society and feel connected. We overlook this fact, because we are so focused on English, that we just don’t appreciate what comes naturally. To us, English is the only way to a huge outside world full of opportunities, interesting people, knowledge, travels, jobs, fun facts, movies, entertainment, etc. For many people in de Randstad, Dutch is ‘just what we speak with friends and family’. So, for a Dutch person, it is hard to understand why you’d want to learn this tiny language spoken in only a few tiny communities in the world, when you already have the world at your feet. What we don't see, is how important Dutch is for you to be able to fully function, feel at home and create deep affective relationships in your new home country.
So next time a Dutch person asks you with an incredulous face why on this holy earth you want to learn Dutch, explain to them you don’t need Dutch like they need English to make sense of the world as a whole, but that you want to make sense of your close environment, to be able to feel a real connection with the community around you and the Dutch culture. When you experience a real connection with your environment and the people around you, and can create a deeper understanding of society and the culture, it will be easier to make space for yourself and start to feel at home!